Cognitive dissonance occurs when someone is presented with evidence that a pre-existing belief is wrong. Holding two contradictory thoughts in your head at the same time is upsetting, even painful. People naturally seek to resolve cognitive dissonance as quickly as possible. One way is to accept the new evidence and amend their pre-existing belief. The other way is to reject the new evidence by rationalising it away, which gives people the comfort of retaining their pre-existing belief - even though the evidence shows it is wrong.
People’s approach to cognitive dissonance depends on how important the pre-existing belief is to them. For example, a UKIP supporter is likely to rationalise away any evidence presented to them which undermines their beliefs about the EU. Such rationalisation might be: - “I don’t believe that is true. You are just saying that because you are a Remainer.” It is easy to think of examples concerning climate change, politics, economics, nationalism and many other fields.
The American novelist Upton Sinclair pointed out an additional factor which might prevent someone following an argument where it leads: - "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
For two years, I have argued that the fabric of our society is being gravely damaged by the Tories and that Jeremy Corbyn deserved support as the person best placed to beat them. This has been a very unpopular argument among my peer group - the leftish-leaning, middle-aged, solid-middle-class. I have constantly been told that Corbyn “is unelectable”.
The journalist Gary Younge has clearly been having the same experience as me. In an article published a few days before the election he wrote this:-
For the past two years, it has been received wisdom that, when put before the national electorate, the Labour party under Corbyn was unelectable. Not simply that it would lose, but that there was no plausible way it could compete. These were not presented as opinions but as facts. Those who questioned them were treated like climate change deniers. Those who held the wisdom were the scientists. To take Labour’s prospects seriously under Corbyn was to abandon being taken seriously yourself.
In the event, Corbyn did very well in the election. After a highly impressive campaign, he won 40% of the vote - 10% above Ed Miliband two years ago. He also mobilised millions of voters who had previously not engaged with the political system at all. He has put the party in a good position to win the next election.
If Corbyn had been trounced I hope I would have had the intellectual honesty to admit I was wrong. I know that would have been painful - even somewhat humiliating. It would certainly have been tempting to rationalise away what had happened. Perhaps I would have chosen that tempting option. I really hope not.
What matters is not who was right and who was wrong. What matters is that Labour people who have opposed Corbyn on the grounds that he was unelectable, now accept the clear evidence that he is certainly electable. There may well be another election within 12 months. Corbyn can win that but he needs all possible support - very much including the influential leftish-leaning, middle-aged, solid-middle-class.
In particular, the Labour big beasts - like Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Chuka Umunna, Owen Smith, Angela Eagle, Ed Miliband and Sadiq Khan - need to accept the evidence of this election. They need to now commit and work wholeheartedly behind Corbyn’s leadership and they need to serve if asked.
It won’t be easy for them. They will need to swallow their pride. It will be painful.
But the country needs them to do this and to do it urgently.