Cognitive Dissonance and the Logic of Racism

In Berit Brogaard & Dimitria Electra Gatzia (eds.), The Philosophy and Psychology of Ambivalence: Being of Two Minds. New York: Routledge. pp. 219-243 (2021)
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Cognitive dissonance is a kind of ambivalence in which your apprehension of the fact that you performed or want to perform an action of which you disapprove gives rise to psychological distress. This, in turn, causes you to solicit unconscious processes that can help you reduce the distress. Here we look at the role that cognitive dissonance plays in explaining the inner workings of racism. We distinguish between three types of racist acts: inadvertent bigotry, habitual racism, and explicit racism. Unlike inadvertent bigots, habitual and explicit racists are racially motivated and they therefore are responsible for their racial acts. But unlike the explicit racists, habitual racists aren’t immediately aware of their racial motives. As habitual racists hold overt egalitarian attitudes, the conflict between their over attitudes and their covert racial motives are a potential source of distress. To avoid having to face their racial motives, they tend to turn to confabulation. While explicit racists aren’t bothered by a similar form of cognitive dissonance, their explicit racial attitudes and desires to cause black people to suffer are at odds with majority public opinion, which can be a source of shame. To escape this kind of negative self-realization, explicit racists seek to justify their actions as honorable or as necessary for the good of society. We conclude by briefly pondering how cognitive dissonance can be used as a strategy for transforming habitual and explicit racists.



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Author Profiles

Dimitria Gatzia
University of Akron
Berit Brogaard
University of Miami

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