Are Australians struggling with cognitive dissonance over #asylumseekers? ASRC’s @jj_juliajacob comments

Cognitive Dissonance is a phrase introduced by psychologist Festinger in the late 1950s to describe the mental conflict or psychological discomfort a person feels when their beliefs and assumptions are contradicted by new information.

Human nature is such that when dealing with mental discomfort, it chooses to do one or more of the following 3 things to reduce this internal tension or dissonance;

  1. Change the belief, attitude or behaviour completely
  2. Justify the belief or behaviour
  3. Actively ignore, deny or avoid information that contradicts the existing beliefs

Here are some every day instances most of us can relate to.

You go out with friends and end up having one too many glasses of red wine. Cognitive dissonance or that internal voice starts piping up. Internal voice – “You know better than to have too much to drink. You know your limit”. You deal with this by trying to rationalise your decision and making the internal voice go away. “Stop bothering me! I’ve had a hard day so I deserve this” or “I’ll run an extra mile tomorrow to compensate” or “All that extra resveratrol and antioxidants are surely good for me”.

Another example is a smoker who has trouble quitting, justifying his actions by saying “It’s just too hard” or “My dad smoked a pack a day and lived to be 95”.

These are just a few of the everyday illustrations of how people, when faced with internal tensions, choose to reduce them by justifying their behaviour (“I’ve had a stressful day so I need a drink to take the edge off”) or ignoring information that questions their core beliefs (Smokers die at least 10 years younger than non-smokers) rather than changing their belief or behaviour.

Most Australians would probably think of themselves as compassionate, fair and progressive. They believe this and I want to believe this. Except – that is not the case for the majority when it comes to asylum seekers and refugees.

I was staggered when I read the results of a nationwide opinion poll conducted by UMR Research last December that showed that 59% of people think most boat arrivals are not genuine refugees. 60% actually want the Abbott government to “increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers.” In other words, 3 out of 5 Australians want more punitive measures taken against asylum seekers.

It simply does not make sense. Why would a country that has a history steeped in boat people mete out brutal punishment to those that share a similar resilience to their ancestors in seeking a better, safer life for themselves and their families? Why would a smart person continue not just to believe, but in fact contribute to spreading, misinformation about asylum seekers when there is a boat load of (no pun intended) compelling evidence to prove otherwise.

This is akin to someone steadfastly believing that the earth is flat, the moon is made of cheese or Santa is real!

cognitive dissonance and attitudes to refugees

Illustration published with permission of the artist, Les Taha –

My reasoning is that many Australians appear to be struggling with cognitive dissonance when it comes to the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. They are resisting the evidence and information that could throw their belief system into disarray and cause them mental grief. I think that many are probably thinking “For goodness sakes, I have enough to deal with as it is. I don’t want to deal with the issue of asylum seekers. Do what you need to but just make it go away”.

People seem to be opting for the simplistic and devious narrative of Scott Morrison and his minions rather than the more involved, challenging option of seeking the truth that tears at their deeply rooted (pun intended!) belief system. That’s taking the easy way out and relinquishing their decision making to someone else. I see no other reason to explain the citizenry’s extreme response to a most vulnerable group of people fleeing conflict and persecution. A large section probably feels “stopping the boats means lives have been saved.”

Even when there is plenty of evidence to dispel the most common myths about asylum seekers and refugees, people either choose to justify indefinite detention or ignore information that highlights that the Coalition is employing measures that violate the most basic human rights of asylum seekers and is operating in contravention of the Refugee Convention.

Some of the common myths and the evidence in contrast are:

  • Asylum seekers are “illegal” – This is untrue. Especially the use of the word “illegal”. Article 31 of the Refugee Convention clearly states that refugees should not be penalised for arriving without valid travel documents. This means irrespective of the mode of arrival i.e. plane or boat, they can enter Australia without a visa for the purpose of seeking asylum.
  • Asylum seekers are “queue jumpers” – Wrong again. There is no queue to join and very few are resettled through the UNHCR resettlement process. In short, it is like winning the lottery. More importantly, many of the world’s refugees are unable to access UNHCR’s resettlement process.
  • Asylum seekers are “country shopping” – Another falsehood. Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and many Middle Eastern countries to name a few are not signatories to the Refugee Convention.
  • Asylum seekers are “economic migrants” – The primary reasons for people fleeing their home countries are due to war, internal conflict, human rights violations, ethnic cleansing, mistreatment of minorities and sectarian violence to name a few.

And so on the list goes. See where I am going with this?

Think about this – how can locking up people, including children, many unaccompanied, be a good thing? How can spending billions of dollars in jailing people in squalid detention camps be a reasonable response? How can locking innocent people up instead of humanely processing their claims be a wise decision? How can separating mothers from their babies be a rational step?

You are kidding yourself if you believe that this government is saving people’s lives by “stopping the boats”. No lives are saved by sending people back to the very hands of those who are guilty of torturing them. In other words, you are living in, as I like to call it – La La Land.

I believe that both Liberal and Labor governments are equally guilty of political propaganda and subterfuge to create an “us and them” between “regular Australians and refugees”.

Adam Zyglis Cartoon

Cartoon published with permission of artist, Adam Zyglis –

There is an invisible wall created when you choose not to read the truth. Doing that is bound to cause a great deal of discomfort. Cognitive dissonance at play? The easiest option is blindly to believe what the weasel politicians and shock jocks tell you coupled with regurgitation by mainstream media.

You choose to justify your choice because that reduces the internal tension and disharmony you feel. “I work hard and I just want to be able to go out and have a good time without thinking about asylum seekers or refugees”. “I am just one person and there is not much I can do to change things”.

But that is where you are wrong. You are powerful! You vote. You can write to your MPs. You can speak out. You can debate. You can question. You have the power and you can change things. Today.

Instead of giving up, don’t tolerate the Coalition’s (or Labor’s) Machiavellian tactics to lock people away indefinitely, or dump them on nations with appalling human rights themselves or handing them back to the very people who are persecuting them. The last action we have seen in recent days is a new low I don’t think any of us could have ever imagined possible. It is like the bizarre actions of certain countries that force a woman who has been raped to be married off to her rapist!

Let us be brave and grapple with the cognitive dissonance we feel. Have the unwavering resolve to seek information from a wide variety of sources, to learn more about the Hazaras, Sri Lankan Tamils, Syrians, Rohingyas and be determined not to be pushed into a belief by the people who shout the loudest or deflect your questions or divert your attention with distractions. This decision is one you alone can reach.

Let us call on those very same Australian values we hold close to our hearts in our treatment of asylum seekers;

  • respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual
  • equality of men and women
  • a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play, compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good
  • equality of opportunity for individuals, regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background.

Australians are a kind, caring people. I keep telling myself that I believe this. But Australia has voted in the Coalition government led by Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison who are poster boys for elitism, lies and inhumanity.

Maybe I am the one struggling with cognitive dissonance. By telling myself that Australians do actually care.  And it is the politicians and mainstream media that are feeding them with false information causing them to treat asylum seekers with so much hatred and apathy. The alternative is too painful to even consider and my endless faith in the goodness of people simply does not allow me to do so.

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” – Abraham Lincoln

Disclosure – JJ is not a psychologist. Just someone who cares deeply.


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  1. Freewoman says

    With each successive wave of migration and progress in human rights we can look to the transformative effect of certain leaders Australia has had. People of courage and vision who led Australia through change and adaptation. This came to a sudden and decisive end with the election of John Howard. Howard’s rhetoric was already extremely white jingoistic before 9/11 but ramped up significantly in the aftermath. His strategy was to win the 10% of voters following the extremist Pauline Hanson. That was 25 years ago.

    Australia’s engagement with Asia during the Hawke era and even more so during Keating’s Prime Ministership seem so improbable now. It is as if Australia has imploded on itself. Abbott is milking the white jingoism for all it is worth and Brandis’ amendment is designed to appeal to this group.

    The backlash and delay regarding this legislation has been heartening but it is just to stall it until after the Victorian State election as there was such a hotbed of outrage from some significant Liberal party donors in this state.

  2. I I find the attitude of Australians today extremely understandable. Since Howard and his I find the attitude of most Australians today entirely understandable – since the Howard years where refugees were demonised – even while we were involved in two wars against Afghanistan and Iraq! Neither of those countries had done anything to Australia and if people had been given the facts – WHY IS THAT SO HARD FOR THE MEDIA TO DO? They must be complicit – and in particular the Murdoch press – nothing like a war to up the circulation and bring all the pretty pictures of bombs to TV! It was Saudis who flew into the Twin Towers and Osama bin Laden was a Saudi. I have found the ensuing years full of outright lies and deception. I loved the cartoon with the woman saying she didn’t like what Hitler was doing, but supported the soldiers. Oh yes, we were told if we criticised America or Australia that meant we were disloyal to our brave men and that we would be guilty of treason, and disappeared indefinitely with none of our family being told where we were! WHAAAAT? AND WE ARE TAKING DEMOCRACY TO IRAQ? Look what we have achieved now! Australians have been so dumbed-down that all Abbott had to do was repeat ad nauseum “Illegal boat people” and “stop the boats”.

  3. I think the answer is even more simple than that. Australians are extremely racist when it comes to Muslims. I have been surprised and disappointed by people who I thought I knew well and who I believed would be sympathetic to asylum seekers. Unfortunately they weren’t. When I suggested to them that if it were a boatload of Irish or Canadians they would feel differently of course they denied it. I think the propaganda that increased significantly after 9/11 has played an important role and makes the cognisant dissonance so easy for people to employ. In general people are afraid of a culture they have been brainwashed into believing is frightening and threatening. It is ignorance and fear pure and simple and something our governments both Labor and Liberal have tried to pander to. Labor because they thought they would lose votes and lacked moral fortitude and Liberal because they want Australian to remain as “white” as possible.

    • ignorance is a problem as well , it is logical that the very people fleeing are moderate type muslims ,also a some of them are not muslim at all (all thought a lot of people seem to think they are )

  4. What I find astonishing is our media. There are 14 years of documents from our courts, there are protocols and treaties we have ratified and other evidence that shows bringing people here by sea is not people smuggling and never has been. I have spoken to dozens of journos, sent them the proof and still day in and day out they babble about people smugglers and simply refuse to allow their brainwashed minds to understand that Ruddock simply made it up as he has everything else.

    But the reason for the cruelty now is very simple – they are trying to restrict the number of visas.

  5. Moar Politics says

    This is arguably the worst article I have ever read here. Fails to tackle fundamental issues around the fact that the vast, vast, majority or “asylum seekers” are simply economic refugees, the disgraceful asylum seeker industry that encourages illegal migration and disturbing activities such as self-harm and the basic lack of the vast majority of Australians that believe we should be in charge of our own borders. Trotting out the same rubbish that people who don’t agree with an open border policy are somehow mentally deficient shows contempt for this country and the will of the people. The advocacy industry are scum and destroy any credibility REAL asylum seekers should have in this country. The sooner the bleeding heart left realize that any person who can pay a people smuggler is not automatically an “asylum seeker” the better off the nation will be – that includes accepting a reasonable number of REAL asylum seekers. Unless that happens expect the Article 44 movement seeking to withdraw from the increasingly pointless Refugee Convention to gain real momentum.

    • Errol Brandt says

      According to figures compiled by the Australian Parliamentary Library, between 70 and 97 per cent of those arriving by boat have been found to be refugees. In 2012-13 it was 88 per cent. Saying that the vast majority of boat arrivals are economic refugees is simply wrong.

      • Moar Politics says

        You know that’s simply a result of the “clearing house” approach employed to get them out of the system once the latest deterrent has worked.

        Good luck with relying on history as a guide to what’s happening now, it’s why you fail to see the reality. Please tell me, what percentage of the world’s population would you not consider asylum seekers in this age of jet travel?

        I would look at the insane rates of “asylum seekers” on welfare and long term unemployed and come to the conclusion that the definition of asylum seeker must be deeply flawed.

        I’m happy to accept asylum seekers to Australia. A person who is able to pay their way here and come illegally does not meet that criteria.

    • Your comment proves JJ’s point.

  6. Fabia Claridge says

    I really like your point Marilyn. Having a conveniently ‘bad’ bogey man/people smuggler character expiates guilt some people may feel about say a small child asylum seeker, who is obviously an innocent. I agree with Julia. Yes cognitive dissonance does explain a lot of this. But we must not underestimate the relentless and effective propaganda campaign that has been waged since the Howard era by both main parties and the mainstream media who have been missing in action on this issue. I feel that all the commentators so far have made very good points. Yes, Australians are racist. I’m not sure that this country is inherently ‘good’. It was founded on Aboriginal massacre and Federation was linked to the White Australia Policy and that wasn’t long ago. Yes, most people prefer to stay in their comfort zone. It has been my experience/people tell me that they donate to an orphanage in Cambodia or Kenya. (As long as they are ‘over there’) Sometimes they tell me that my friend, whose brothers were both killed by the Taliban is Ok but the others. . .. It ‘s like “Some of my best friends are Jews but . . .”. Or they tell me that we don’t have the ‘carrying capacity’ for the ‘hordes’ that are coming. When I tell them that we settle between 150,000 to 200,000 ‘normal’ migrants per year and no one notices but only 50,000 boat arrivals happened under the whole time of Labor, their eyes glaze over and they change the subject or move away. When I tell them that more than 90% of boat arrivals are found to be genuine refugees they yawn and change the subject. Asylum seekers have become ‘boring’. This scurrilous campaign, this 20 year long policy of deterrence, this failure of leadership has meant that it has gotten into ‘the public mind’ that we are being swamped and when presented with facts to the contrary people can’t absorb the new information. Studies apparently show that when a lie is told but is subsequently corrected people continue to believe the first thing they were told. Also people have to hear a new piece of information at least 6 times in different ways before they can absorb it.
    Where DO we go from here with this problem that says so much more about us than it does about asylum seekers? One of the best points that is quick and easy to state is, first, agree. “Yes, perhaps we do have a right to say how many refugees we should take. ” Pause. “but we have NO right to treat anyone with cruelty and abuse.”
    On the slightly hopeful side I have recently attended several weddings in Villawood and I know several very culturally “blonde” families where the daughter has an asylum seeker boyfriend. In the1970s my mixed race sons were mistakenly put into the ESL class because they had a foreign surname. By the time my daughter went to high school it was hard to spot the blonde. Perhaps the society is ahead of the politicians but meanwhile asylum seekers suffer needlessly.

  7. Good work Julia !

  8. Brahminy says

    ‘I think that many are probably thinking “For goodness sakes, I have enough to deal with as it is. I don’t want to deal with the issue of asylum seekers. Do what you need to but just make it go away”.’

    Spot on. The present regime is preventing positive stories about asylum seekers reaching MSM. We need to balance out the negative framing of the debate by the Coalition government. Human beings respond to stories – where are our storytellers, how can they be heard?

  9. ro.watson says

    Thanks Julia for providing another context to view this weird and rather long phase~ cognitive dissonance~ I think I may have this condition in relation to how bloody minded many Australians have been about asylum seekers.