Rethinking Cognitive Dissonance

We were all shaken and dismayed by the recent violence and turmoil that unfolded in Charlottesville, VA, and in other places throughout the country. It can be hard to understand why these sorts of things keep happening.

Just a few weeks ago, a bizarre extension of this tension manifested itself in the form of a seemingly absurd action taken by the sports broadcasting company ESPN. The network was scheduled to broadcast a University of Virginia football game being played in Charlottesville, where demonstrations had led to violence just a few days prior. As an act of sensitivity to this situation, ESPN removed its scheduled commentator, Robert Lee, from announcing the game. Statues of Confederate General Robert E. Lee had been a focal point of many of the demonstrations in Charlottesville and elsewhere.

ESPN’s Robert Lee, who has both a very common first name and a very common last name, is Asian. Regardless of your feelings about the complicated issues these statues raise, removing such an individual from his assigned duty seemed like a nearly laughable overcorrection. My reaction, along with most on social media, was to wonder: “When is this going to stop?”

Humans are wired cognitively to look for information that supports our viewpoints. To put it simply: we like to be right. Psychologists call this “avoiding cognitive dissonance.” Often, one of the easiest ways to avoid cognitive dissonance is to ignore or discredit information that contradicts our opinions. This is a great strategy for condemning a universal evil such as racism, but often a poor strategy for dealing with a less cut and dried issue, like deciding whether Confederate statues are historical or racially insensitive. Or, whether this kind of move by ESPN helps or just makes the situation worse.

We want things to be simple, and we often get angry when they’re not. What are some things we could all work on to feel less frustrated and more understanding? Two ideas come to mind.


Tolerate ambiguity.

Both social and traditional media sources give us numerous takes on a variety of important topics. Many of these empathically claim that other viewpoints are incorrect, so much so that complicated issues are often immediately repackaged as simple, cut and dried issues. Most sociocultural problems don’t have simple answers—if they did, they wouldn’t be sociocultural problems. It can be hard to see both sides of arguments, because such consideration often leaves us uncertain of what to believe. Learning to tolerate that uncertainty helps us to form a deeper understanding of issues as well as develop empathy for people we might not inherently agree with. Which leads me to…

Seek to understand while disagreeing.

We often recognize situations in which we are unlikely to change our minds about an opinion we’ve formed. This natural tendency often makes us unwilling to talk with or listen to people with whom we disagree, because what would be the point? Wouldn’t it just create cognitive dissonance? It’s why we only watch certain news channels, only read certain authors, and only follow certain people on social media. If we could force ourselves to listen to people we disagree with, we probably still wouldn’t change our minds very often. But, we might come to better understand why they believe the things they do, and find common ground on which to respectfully disagree. Hatred and anger are mental shortcuts that help us avoid some types of cognitive dissonance.


This seems obvious, right? But it’s something that a great many of us fail to do in practice. Christ understood this human shortcoming when He told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. But how often do we really do that?

It’s something I certainly failed to do when I judged ESPN’s decision as absurd. So I took my own advice and reprocessed what had happened. It didn’t take long to realize that there are multiple aspects to the situation. Ultimately, I expect that ESPN executives feared taking any preventable action that might have further riled an already tense community. It was a small breach in logic that, at worst, might generate some frustrated huffing and puffing online. At best, it might prevent further division and outrage. I accepted that either action could’ve been judged as right or wrong (tolerate ambiguity), and I better understood the line of thinking that led them to make the decision they did (understanding while disagreeing).

The best part? I felt better afterwards. It’s more gratifying to seek out a way to be supportive than to cling to reasons to be critical. Next time you’re feeling frustrated, you might give this a try. I guarantee you won’t feel any worse than when you started.  ​

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Dr. Trent Terrell

Dr. Trent Terrell

I've been a part of UMHB's Psychology Department since 2008. My primary area of research is eyewitness memory and eyewitness identification.
Dr. Trent Terrell

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Dr. Trent Terrell

About Dr. Trent Terrell

I've been a part of UMHB's Psychology Department since 2008. My primary area of research is eyewitness memory and eyewitness identification.