Bias, rhetoric, and cognitive dissonance

Posted by Rob Walker on September 27, 2008
Posted Under: Consumer Behavior,Politics

What’s the difference between rhetoric and cognitive dissonance?

Both can result in points of view that are so biased that they have no connection to reality. But one involves communicative sleight of hand to mislead the reader/listener, while the other involves a deeper form of dishonesty: Dishonesty with the self. has no interest whatsoever in influencing your vote. But I think this assessment of last night’s presidential debate offers examples of both rhetoric and congnitive dissonance.

It comes from the Web site of the Weekly Standard, a site I read regularly. It begins with an excellent example of rhetoric:

Far be it from me to differ with the punditocracy’s mainstream, but I happen to feel that last night’s debate was a pretty big win for John McCain.

The giveaway that this is an intentionally misleading headfake comes in the next sentence:

I’m aware that most observers have called it a draw, agreeing that both men performed rather ably. I’m also aware that the polls show a majority of watchers thought Obama “won.”

In other words, what follows has nothing to do with defying “the punditocracy.” It has to do with disagreeing with the “majority of watchers” of the debate.

A reliable tactic for any pundit who wants to seem like a maverick truth-teller is to claim to be in disagreement with “the punditocracy.” The tactic always works, because practically everybody hates vague elites. And if you start out by saying, “Far be it from me to disagree with masses of potential American voters,” then what does that make you? It makes  you an elite. No can do.

So far, so standard. The more interesting thing here is that the rest of the piece cannot be explained as rhetoric. The writer has acknowledged that he is familiar with insta-polling showing that most viewers though Obama “won” the debate. (If you’re curious, follow this link, via The Plank blog at The New Republic, which I also read regularly) for details and links to polls conducted by CNN and CBS.

The Weekly Standard writer argues that it doesn’t matter who “won” the debate — what matters is who won or lost potential votes. It is this framework that allegedly gives McCain the “big” win, because the Arizona senator “looked presidential” and because his “running attack on Obama did serious damage, especially given the way Obama’s behavior played right into the attack’s theme.”

As for Obama: “America is still getting to know Barack Obama. Last night, the candidate did himself no favors.”

With these assertions fresh in your mind, consider a few points from the overnight polling that this writer has acknowledged familiarity with. From the CNN poll, answers to which candidate:

Was more intelligent: Obama 55%, McCain 30%
Expressed his views more clearly: Obama 53%, McCain 36%
Was more sincere and authentic: Obama 46%, McCain 38%
Seemed to be the stronger leader: Obama 49%, McCain 43%
Was more likeable: Obama 61%, McCain 26%
Was more in touch with the needs and problems of people like you: Obama 62%, McCain 32%

And from a CBS poll of uncommitted voters:

46% said they had a “better” opinion of Obama after the debate; 8% had a worse opinion. (McCain’s numbers: 32% better, 21% worse)

Pre-debate, 44% said Obama was qualified to president. Post-debate: 60%. (McCain’s numbers: 79% pre-debate, 78 percent post-debate)

Again, the Weekly Standard writer has asserted that Obama “did himself no favors” with a public that is still getting to know him. Of the data that’s available, there is nothing to support this assertion. There is much to support the opposite, in fact.

Is the writer trying to mislead us?

Actually, I don’t think so. I think he has already misled … himself.

Clearly, he’s a McCain supporter. So, when he watched the debate, what he saw were the things that he liked about McCain … and that he did not like about Barack Obama. Not surprisingly, this mindset meant that he saw much to support the views he already held: That McCain is  more presidential, that Obama is annoying, etc.

Then he read the overnight polling which suggested that most people, evidently, did not see it that way at all. What did he do? He doubled down on his original opinion. (And, again, used the rhetorical cover that he wasn’t dealing with the majority, he was disagreeing with the “punditocracy.”) That’s the nature of congitive dissonance.

Now, overnight polling is hardly definitive, and opinions may change in the days ahead due to any number of factors, from political advertising to media coverage to actions or statements by the candidates themselves. And perhaps none of this will matter as the various forces at play in the election continue to swirl in the weeks ahead.

Or, perhaps, this writer has an unusual ability to detect what the electorate really thinks, even when it is telling pollsters something different. Indeed, if he had argued that despite what the polls say, eventually it will sink in that Obama was unlikeable and naive and arrogant for X, Y, and Z reasons, and thus in the long run will have done himself no favors, then I wouldn’t be writing this post.

But that isn’t what he said. And my point has nothing to do with who will, or should, win the election. My point is that this is a striking example of how we tend to bend what we see to fit our existing perceptions and biases — no matter how much dissonance there is between new facts and previously held convictions.

Political persuasion aside, it is hard to change a mind that is already made up.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

Great post Rob, and very relevant to marketing. I often work with clients who think a new tagline is going to change the public’s perception of the brand. Your last line, “…it is hard to change a mind that is already made up,” is so true.

Written By Rick Liebling on September 28th, 2008 @ 9:30 pm

You hit this one out of the park. I put it right up in my delicious feed as soon as I read it and have kept coming back to it again and again.

Written By Tree Frog on September 30th, 2008 @ 12:19 am

Thanks, y’all.

Written By Rob Walker on September 30th, 2008 @ 11:56 am


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