How Cognitive Dissonance Keeps People From Admitting They’re Wrong

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
How Cognitive Dissonance Keeps People From Admitting They’re Wrong: riding tandem bicycle in opposit...
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In September of 2016, Jordan Klepper of the Daily Show interviewed Trump supporters at a Trump rally. In the widely shared video, Klepper interviews a woman who supports Trump and asks her if there is anything Barack Obama could do to prove he was born in the U.S. Here’s how the rest of that conversation went:

“If there was… maybe witnesses that were attendants at his birth.”

“Like his mother?”

“No, no, no. She has motivation to lie.”

“So you don’t trust Donald Trump’s birth certificate either.”

“Uh, yeah. Because he’s been here forever–”

“But how do you know? What’s your proof?”

“Uh… well, his parents.”

This is a classic (and hilarious and tragic and disturbing) example of cognitive dissonance — the holding of two opposing or contradictory ideas at the same time, or holding a belief but behaving in a way that contradicts that belief.

What does cognitive dissonance look like?

All humans are guilty of cognitive dissonance sometimes. It’s simply too easy to hold conflicting beliefs. Here are a couple of common instances of cognitive dissonance that most people are guilty of:

Holding the belief that all life is precious, yet hiring a pest control company or eating commercially produced meat.

Holding the belief that lying is wrong, but lying when it suits you or you’re worried that telling the truth may have adverse consequences.

Hypocrisy is a specific kind of cognitive dissonance — for example, saying you’re pro-life but then recommending the economy completely reopen during a pandemic despite knowing this would result in the loss of thousands of lives. This is blatant hypocrisy.

What about a less obvious example of cognitive dissonance? One in which two contradictory ideas are harder to detect because they’re not so explicitly in opposition to one another. Here’s one I’ve been seeing a lot lately in comment threads: “All people are the same inside and there’s only one race — the human race. But, the thing is, statistics show that a higher percentage of Black people than whites are criminals. If they want to be treated better by the police, they should simply comply with the law. That’s not racism, that’s just facts.”


Whoa there, Susannah. Set aside for a moment that those who say things like this are twisting statistics and ignoring or denying the fact of systemic racism. For our purposes, let’s extract the two contradictory ideas, a challenging task because of the way the person manipulates statistics to make an indirect, implied point. Here are the two opposing ideas stated simply:

  • All people are the same inside.
  • Black people are different — they’re more likely to engage in criminal behavior.

Well, Susannah, which is it? You’re only allowed to believe one or the other. Either Black people are the same as other racial groups and therefore no more likely to be criminals, or they are different, in a way that makes them more prone to be criminals. Which is it? You can’t have it both ways. If we’re truly all the same, then the fault doesn’t lie with the Black people. It must lie with the system.

Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist and one of the United States’ premier scholars on racism and antiracism, examines racist contradictions like this one in his lectures and award-winning books.

The above is an insidious example of cognitive dissonance that runs rampant in American culture and is the result of centuries of racist policies perpetuating racist ideas and beliefs. Part of dismantling systemic racism means developing the awareness to recognize this kind of cognitive dissonance, and then correcting it so we can then correct the system.

How does one recognize destructive cognitive dissonance within themselves?

Recognizing one’s own cognitive dissonance can be tricky, because admitting you’re acting against what you claim to believe means admitting either that your beliefs are wrong or that you are a hypocrite. Either way, it requires a letting go of control that is very difficult for most people. If you were wrong about this thing, what else might you be wrong about? And if your belief is wrong, or your behavior is wrong, that means you have to adjust either the beliefs or the behaviors that caused the dissonance. This is terribly uncomfortable because feeling confident about our beliefs is one way we convince ourselves we have control over our chaotic world.

But here’s a clue you can use to recognize when you’re having a moment of cognitive dissonance: If you’re in a situation where you feel attacked and like you need to be on the defensive, if you feel the need to seek out sources that support your point of view or defend an action or belief that others are calling out as hypocritical, this is a clue that you might be experiencing cognitive dissonance. In these situations, the best thing to do is be quiet. Just bite your tongue, keep quiet, and listen. It’s difficult but not impossible to train ourselves to react to defensive feelings with curiosity rather than digging in our heels. We can ask ourselves, Why do I feel defensive? Is it possible I’m missing something here? What actions can I take to learn more and reevaluate what I think I know?

Too often, people choose to handle cognitive dissonance by digging their heels in even further. It is too difficult to adjust your belief, change your behavior, or admit error. It feels better to rationalize the dissonance even more.

For example, in the case above, a person saying they’re pro-life but then recommending the economy reopen completely during the coronavirus pandemic — this person is perfectly aware that reopening the economy too quickly will result in the loss of thousands of lives. Rationalizations for this contradiction include assuming that elderly people would gladly sacrifice their lives for the economy, that coronavirus “only” kills those with underlying conditions, or that more people would die by suicide from an economic downturn than would die from COVID-19. All of these are demonstrably false and contradict the belief that “all life is precious,” and yet the person carries on with the same tired arguments. Rationalizing — no matter how irrational those rationalizations my be — feels better than admitting being wrong.

Here’s the thing, though: owning up to mistakes means opening yourself up to an even more solid foundation of rightness. Recognizing that your beliefs can be challenged at any time, and being prepared to adjust those beliefs, is simply a different kind of confidence. Humility is its own kind of strength, and growth toward deeper understanding can be a powerful comfort. So, next time you feel “piled on,” or like you keep getting the message that you’re misunderstanding, pause for a moment and reflect on whether your words and behaviors truly align with what you claim to believe.

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