Cognitive Dissonance for Millenials in Covid Times

The politics of Covid-19 affect on our youth

2 cells phones kissing
Not quite the same as in person! (Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

For various reasons, it is next to impossible to scientifically determine the efficacy of a nation-wide policy of mask wearing. And even less so, to categorically determine any possible negative psychological consequences to wearing a mask. However, here are some observations about the psychology of this and other common Covid policies.

Many people are concerned about the number of deaths that could possibly be caused by the Covid-19 virus. That is a concern, particularly for the elderly with a pre-existing condition, to be sure.

For the rest of us, I am concerned about the deaths caused this past year by the preventive responses of governments to the Covid crisis. And depression, and various other illnesses left untreated that will become major.

And for the younger generation, I am mostly concerned about how this is going to affect their future. The Millenials have been the least affected by the virus and arguably the most affected by the government protocols to counter the virus. I want to keep this in context. We are the most blessed in history to have the highest standard of living ever. Most previous generations have had to deal with famines, droughts, economic depression and wars. So, this generation has had it better than most throughout history. Still …What could be the future consequences of this isolation?

We are constantly being told in government advertising to social distance, wear a mask, wash your hands (and depending on the week and the jurisdiction) stay home after dark, in attempts at fear-based behavioral modification. What is the message that people are getting? When they meet socially on the street, in a store, etc., people will inevitably be physically as well as emotionally distant with each other now.

Young adults are most likely to be in entry level jobs, particularly in retail, which was the hardest hit sector. This means they were not only faced with having less money, but the insecurity when their company had to lay off their employees or even went out of business. On top of this stress, being unable to socialize has contributed to an increased incidence of suicidal thoughts, loneliness, and depression.

Teens were already interacting way less in person and much more through screen devices. Many experts point to the rise of smartphones and social media as a factor in the significant rise of clinical-level depression among teenagers in the past decade. Covid changes have only exacerbated this situation. The need has to be filled with something — weed and booze are still readily available and advertized. After a year of TV and weed, that learned coping behaviour will be difficult to break — maybe impossible for some.

By covering our faces, these new adults can no longer practice visual cues in an adult setting in forming their networks. Daycare workers are noticing an issue with being masked for language acquisition; for young adults, it is the acquisition of interpersonal social skills.

As I said in a previous blog, it is a foundational support to have your friends around you at your wedding. We are now largely having to forego these sorts of basic needs in a wide array of social contexts. I went to a wedding a few weeks ago — online. No drinking, no dancing, no fun! I had been invited to the wedding but then my friend discovered that new regulations didn’t allow as many people into the venue as he had thought, so had to un-invite me. So, then, he invited me to watch online. It’s not a common time of year to have a wedding, but he got fed up waiting for a good time all through 2020. He couldn’t be certain that the logistics and regulations would be any more favourable any other day in 2021, so just decided to get on with his life. Because all churches and reception halls were closed down, he held a small gathering in a park as a reception. A few hardy souls went out and social distanced in the park to show their support for him and his bride. Outdoors — in Canada — in February!! How to tell who your friends really are, eh?

In encounters with neighbours these days, people are not sure what to expect: possibly harsh words, shaming, physical threats, sending their body into a fight or flight response. This breaks down their developing self confidence.

None of the tools that Mom and Dad taught us for how to behave in public work now: how to ask for a date, do groceries, get a job. Around the world, social norms have abruptly changed: no one is quite sure anymore whether it is OK to shake hands or some alternative, give someone a smile while wearing a mask, hold a door open and risk getting too close, stop on the sidewalk when approaching someone or move further away.

We’ve all experienced that discomfort. Now imagine, being a youth who is just making these behaviours his own as an adult and maybe even wanting to ask her out! This creates unresolved hard feelings. When she doesn’t respond to you the way you hoped, it’s because she’s just following government guidelines. So, you can’t be mad at her, yet she is doing something that your brain recognizes as hurtful.

It’s the small things that make life worthwhile. Reaching out to a fellow human always requires some emotional energy expenditure and the possibility of rejection. It is certainly fulfilling though, when followed by a positive interaction. But now many of those interactions are gone.

All the things that would have brightened your day are now small negative experiences, which all add up by the end of the day. A dozen minor annoyances add up to an energy drain of things that would have otherwise brightened your day. Those emotions need to be dealt with. How? Go to the gym? Closed! Go to bar? Closed! Hang out with friends? No gatherings allowed! Go for a peaceful walk before bed? Curfew!

All human beings are social creatures who need to know that someone is there if we need them. We are programmed for human connection. Feeling disconnected from others (even by choice) removes the chance of feeling valuable, recognized, and meaningful. These are states that all humans desire, and need to be able to keep going forward. In the past year, relationships have been severely tested. Friends have drifted apart, opportunities to support one another have been lost. This is particularly true amongst men, who tend to build their friendships around activities, which have all been cancelled.

Anyone who says a Zoom meeting online is just as good, doesn’t understand the human psyche and how the brain is wired. A mutual gaze can release dopamine, which makes you feel good. Seeing the person’s whole body allows you to mirror the other person. A smile also triggers connection. Physical touch reinforces the thought in your brain that this person can be trusted. Of course, the extent to which some of these things affect you will depend on your personality type: some are tactile learners, or touchy-feely types, extroverts need social interactions with more people than introverts do. But, human connections are essential for us all.

Adolescents and young adults in particular are primed to be very sensitive to social influence and social norms. This age is a time in life when they are making relationships that will become future business networks and support networks, and looking for a mate. This is a legitimate basic need in human development. They are being told that this is now illegal and being shamed as a public threat.

Even some of the most ardent pandemic rule-followers have made decisions contrary to the Covid rules in group settings. It’s not because they’re irrational. It is because the brain is getting mixed messages. Stress and anxiety drive us to seek comfort among close friends and loved ones. New information we are getting suggests these actions might be risky — if not to myself, then possibly to others. When what our eyes, gut, etc. tell us goes against other messaging we receive, we experience what is known as cognitive dissonance.

Covid protocols are telling us to not do exactly what our brains are telling us we need. When stressed, we need physical comforting, and socializing together with friends — we are communal animals after all. Concepts like ‘safety in numbers’ are deeply embedded in our psyche. In these situations, the need to belong speaks to us loudest. We are going to be much more comfortable with our conscience if we follow our senses, rather than what somebody tells us should be our common sense. So when we do occasionally get to see our friends, the last thing we want to do is stand six feet away from them wearing masks.

The thing is, our biology may be right and what we hear in media wrong. We can’t tell, in any given moment, whether we’re truly at risk or not. That ambiguity makes it much harder for us to make informed decisions. If everyone you’re hanging out with actually is healthy, then there really is no reason to mask up or remain distanced. If they look healthy, we tend to assume they are, because their appearance doesn’t trigger that disease avoidance behaviour that humans have developed. On top of that, we are socialized to feel safe when we are near people we care about. So, no signals go off in our brain that this could be a threat. Therefore, we let our defenses down and don’t stress about wearing a mask in front of them.

But what if someone is asymptomatic and contagious? The problem is, it’s impossible for our senses to tell the difference, and even difficult for science to tell us the chances of this. Accentuating this ambiguity is the fact that information and guidance regarding Covid-19 has been changing week to week. The habits that our brain forms can not keep up with that pace of change.

To complicate the issue, when you’re drinking, you’re not engaging in as much conscious deliberation and thought, so you’re relying more on habits and roles and norms to guide your behavior: the ones set before the pandemic.

But even without alcohol, adolescents and young adults take more risks than older adults do. All of us tend to think we’ll be fine. It’s always the other guy who’s going to get cancer, crash his car etc, not me. I guess if our brain didn’t have that tendency, we would never get out of bed in the morning. However, as the days go by, I suppose we hear more stories and accumulate more negative experiences and so, tend to become more conservative and risk averse as we age.

This virus will require us all to change our minds as scientists learn more, and we may have to give up some practices and beliefs about it that we now feel sure of. And, what may have been the best thing to do last year, may not be the best this year. Of course, it is difficult to change your mind. It needs to be; it means you have convictions. It is also a necessary part of growth.

By understanding how cognitive dissonance operates, we can learn to recognize it in ourselves and avoid the easy knee-jerk reactions. First, examine the two dissonant cognitions and keep them separate.

When a friend makes a mistake, rather than either throwing away the friendship or minimizing the seriousness of the friend’s action, we can say, “the friend remains a friend, and the mistake remains a mistake.” Then, we can ask ourselves, “Why am I believing this? Why am I behaving this way? Have I thought it through or am I simply taking a short cut, following the party line, or justifying my actions?” If politicians and media challenge our brain, we need to re-analyze the information until our brain can process and resolve the cognitive dissonance — and not just defend our action.

You and I need our brains to be working at 100%. The brain likes to keep doing what it has always done. Just like smoking, the more you do it, the more likely you are to continue. We can’t just use our left brain, which implements the familiar. Without going into paranoid flights of fancy or living in a dream world, we need the right brain’s creative thinking too. This series of blogs is meant to help facilitate that process.

Online, it is easy to bitch and whine about how bad things are — things like the 30% increase in domestic violence incidents last year in Canada. Stress is most certainly a catalyst for that. But the internet can also be used to celebrate what good things people are doing as well. So, let’s do that. For instance, Alan Doyle (of Great Big Sea) has been singing some songs he’s recorded over the last 30 years in Suppertime Singalong Sessions (on FaceBook) to benefit mental health and addictions facilities across the country. If you can spare a buck, you can be a positive influence in this country. It’s too easy to be a negative ones. So let’s encourage each other to positive actions.

Try as we might to find the right solutions, we must also recognize that we don’t know everything — we might be wrong. Admitting we were wrong requires some self-reflection and humility. Sometimes, scientists have to write an article showing that their original conclusions were wrong, so that they, or someone else, can come up with newer, better ones. Ancient Biblical wisdom says,”Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (James 4:10). Humility is needed by scientists, and also by God, so whichever reason has more weight for you personally, we can all use that reason to work on our humility.

With an education in neuroscience, psychology and theology and a career as a tech writer, I am now exploring how social issues and politics are affecting us.