Romer: Cognitive dissonance and uncertainty

Cognitive dissonance is the motivational mechanism that underlies the reluctance to admit mistakes or accept scientific findings even when those findings can save our lives. The cognitive dissonance theory, developed by social psychologist Leon Festinger, states that human beings are deeply unwilling to change their minds.

This dynamic is playing out during the pandemic among the many people who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing. Cognitive dissonance causes feelings of unease and tension, and people attempt to relieve this discomfort in different ways. Examples include “explaining things away” or rejecting new information that conflicts with their existing beliefs.

When the facts clash with preexisting convictions, some people would sooner jeopardize their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong. This manifests itself in the echo chamber of social media and the comment sections of local news sites — I’m right, you’re wrong, it is someone else’s fault, vaccines are a government hoax, etc.

Coping with the nuances of contradictory ideas or experiences is mentally stressful. It requires energy and effort to sit with those seemingly opposite things that all seem true. Festinger argued that some people would inevitably resolve dissonance by blindly believing whatever they wanted to believe.

Although it’s difficult, changing our minds is not impossible and nor should it be. We need to accept that science and data is fluid, and as we learn more, the baseline assumptions and foundations might need to change. This uncertainty causes confusion and adds stress to an already stressful time.

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The end result is dissonance, but the actual problem is uncertainty and the stress it causes; we crave certainty because it feels safe. Rarely have we as a society been in a time of such uncertainty, and in times of uncertainty our survival instinct drives us to achieve certainty and in doing so we can overreact. 

Regardless of inherent beliefs, it is important to recognize dissonance and recognize that we need to continue to reinvest and improve. In short, we need to cultivate curiosity and accept that something we thought to be true might have been right at the time, but wrong now. Don’t try to explain away problems or reject new information; rather, accept that uncertainty exists and understand that we are in uncharted territory.

As we head toward the fall and into the winter season, I am consistently hearing from businesses that uncertainty is their biggest challenge. This manifests itself with individuals as well, and data from behavioral health providers shows an increase in both substance abuse and suicidal ideation, specifically in the 20-25 age group. Behavioral health providers are at capacity with a 30-40% increase from last year and with approximate wait times 2-3 weeks to get an appointment.

It takes great courage to recognize that it is not COVID-19, it is not mask ordinances or future vaccines, and it is not government conspiracies that are our greatest challenge; rather, it is the inherent stress that uncertainty causes — leading to an increase in behavioral health needs in our community.

If there is one thing I am certain about it’s that the future is uncertain — and we need to learn to deal with uncertainty in order to move forward. The challenge is to make the most informed decisions we can for ourselves, our businesses, and our community, and to modify our decisions when the scientific evidence dictates — as our leading researchers and public officials are already doing.

Admitting we are wrong requires some self-reflection — which involves living with the dissonance for a while rather than jumping immediately to self-justification.

Chris Romer is president & CEO of Vail Valley Partnership, the regional chamber of commerce. Learn more at

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