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The Psychology of Cognitive Dissonance and Racism

What happened in Charlottesville this past weekend brought up a lot of feelings for me: anger, sadness, worry, shock, disgust, and feelings I am still trying to identify. There are so many things I have been discussing with family, friends, and co-workers: why the president of our nation took two days to condemn these human hate groups, but only two minutes to condemn a man who quit his counsel over “personal conscious”, why articles include headlines that say “1 dead in protest”, rather than draw attention to why a human being lost their life, and even the fact that these hate groups exist nationwide. I could write papers on all of these aspects of the event and aftermath, and even more; instead, I want to focus on this for today: racism exists, and we need to talk about it.

Does this statement make you feel uncomfortable? Do you feel like you need to defend yourself? Do you want to ask for clarity? Do you scoff and say it’s not true?

This is called cognitive dissonance.

This is the concept of mental discomfort; when our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, etc., don't match our actions (or reactions), we justify them, often in silly ways. A simple example of cognitive dissonance (taken from my father when I was explaining this concept): I don’t like bad drivers, I think they pose a danger to others, yet I was speeding down the freeway to work today. Cognitive dissonance says I have a few choices:

  1. I can stop speeding

  2. I can stop worrying about other bad drivers, or

  3. I can be defensive of my actions.

I can do one of these to make myself feel better because I acted in a way that does not match my beliefs. We all experience cognitive dissonance from time to time because we are human beings, but this does excuse it.

Maybe you look at statements like the one Thomas made and feel defensive, or see Virginia’s Senator, Tim Kaine say, “This is not who we are,” when referring to the Charlottesville events, and feel better. When in reality, this is who we are. Perhaps you know racism is wrong, but you say dismissive things like this to make yourself feel better for not doing more.

Back to this concept and current events:

Inaction perpetuates racism. Ignorance perpetuates racism. Cognitive dissonance and lack of awareness perpetuates racism.

We see this every day. We need to start recognizing it and confronting it. Think of this example:

Seeing a Black Lives Matter poster in front of a home and thinking “white lives matter too”.

You see a sign that challenges your belief system, and you feel the need to defend yourself to reduce this tension.

Be aware: That you are discrediting racism and racist acts. You are justifying racism.

Confront: Yourself. Why are you having this reaction? Why do you feel this is important? Again, is it to make you feel better? Then it’s probably cognitive dissonance.

Take a moment to pause and think about your own cognitive dissonance.

Confronting ourselves is how we grow. Personal growth leads to societal growth.

Let’s grow together by taking action and having conversation.

Here are the facts*:

  • The number of hate groups in the United States has risen 17% since 2014

  • The numbers of hate groups with agenda faced towards Muslims have tripled in the last year

  • Racially motivated hate crimes against black Americans have increased in the last year by 8%

Real Life Takeaway

Words matter. Be aware of your words and your motivation behind them. Are you saying something to add to the conversation, or are you defending yourself to make yourself feel better (decreasing your cognitive dissonance)? Are you commenting on Facebook posts to show your support, or to ruffle feathers? Will what you are about to say or post add to personal or societal growth? If you are feeling uncomfortable, confront yourself.


*Struyk, R. (2017, August 15). By the numbers: 7 charts that explain hate groups in the United States. Retrieved from

Thomas, C. (2017, August 13). If Virginia Surprises You, You Haven’t Been Paying Attention. Here’s How You Can Help. Retrieved from

Wan, W., & Kaplan, S. (2017, August 14). Why are people still racist? What science says about America’s race problem. Retrieved from

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