Despite Hamas’ starting a war with Israel on October 7, despite mountains of evidence of Hamas atrocities, despite Israel taking steps to minimize Palestinian casualties, despite other nations having been involved in far deadlier conflicts, Israel continues to be treated as a pariah nation amongst Muslim populations and in certain western circles. This is at least in part due to Israel being viewed through the lens of ideology.
The human brain employs a variety of tactics to deal with difficult and contradictory information that allows an individual to avoid changing his or her beliefs. These tactics can be an insurmountable hurdle for practitioners of hasbara.
Ideas instilled in childhood become ingrained in the brain’s neurological pathways, shaping the individual’s own identity and the ways he or she perceives the world. Even into adulthood, these early ideas and experiences create emotional attachments and deep-rooted beliefs, reinforcing their permanence in the individual’s cognitive landscape.
The challenge for an individual is when they are confronted with beliefs, ideas or facts that run counter to those that have been established in the person’s mind. This experience can cause cognitive dissonance, a state of mental discomfort caused by simultaneously holding conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors.
To deal with cognitive dissonance, humans apply a variety of coping mechanisms to relieve their discomfort. These methods can include rationalization, motivated reasoning, wishful thinking, confirmation bias, seeking moral support and projection.
In rationalization, the individual attempts to justify behaviors that are inconsistent with their own beliefs. Motivated reasoning involves using reasoning not to find the truth, but rather to support pre-existing beliefs. Wishful thinking allows individuals to invent scenarios that align with their beliefs. In confirmation bias, a person actively seeks out information that confirms their existing beliefs while disregarding or downplaying information that contradicts them. An individual may seek moral support by being in the company of those who share similar beliefs, creating a bubble in which conflicting thoughts are rejected. People can also engage in projection, projecting their own characteristics onto others.
These coping mechanisms have all been on display since October 7. The early expressions of support for Hamas’ atrocities, even prior to an Israeli response, were rationalized as supporting legitimate acts of resistance. People have engaged in motivated reasoning to deduce that there was no way Israeli intelligence could have not known about the attack and therefore it must have been a false flag attack to be used as a pretense for destroying Gaza. There is the wishful thinking that Hamas did not kill civilians or commit rapes, that those killings were the result of Israeli tanks or helicopter attacks. Most everyone engages in confirmation bias, watching only news outlets that agree with their own thought processes, a phenomenon further fed by social media algorithms. Protesters can seek moral support by attending rallies with like minded individuals. They can also project and commit acts of violence to protest what they claim are acts of Israeli violence.
These defense mechanisms all demonstrate the limits of hasbara. Israel can state its case to the world, report honestly, and target those who are open to new ideas. But the basic makeup of the human brain and its defense mechanisms in the face of unsettling ideas limits what hasbara can actually accomplish.
Fourth and last in a series