What do you do if you are a white nationalist who takes a genetic ancestry test (GAT) from 23andMe or some other service and learns that you are not 99 and 44/100th percent white? Awkward!
When your entire identity revolves around your supposed white supremacy and you learn you are not white—at least not by the DNA standards of your white nationalist brethren—you would seem to have a major problem. Immediately, you are going to suffer some cognitive dissonance, the psychological discomfort that people feel when their minds entertain two contradictory concepts at the same time. The two concepts are, in this case: (1) It is terrible to not be pure white, and (2) I am not pure white. One way to reconcile the dissonance would be to change your mind about proposition #1. However, that is difficult because of the personal and public positions you have likely taken. No one likes to admit that they are wrong. So, the self-serving bias (the tendency to gather, process, and even remember information in a way that maintains one’s self-esteem and advances one’s interests) and the confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirming one’s existing beliefs) can kick in, making it difficult for you to admit that maybe being so purely white isn’t so superior after all.
Consider quickly a situation that is factually much different, but psychologically quite the same. In 1954, Dorothy Martin headed a small cult and told her followers that aliens from the planet Clarion had informed her through “automatic writing” that the world was about to end. An apocalypse was scheduled to occur before dawn on December 21, 1954. Everyone on earth would die except for Martin’s followers who would be whisked away by aliens in space ships. Martin’s followers gave away their possessions and gathered outside her home. When the apocalypse did not happen as scheduled, naturally some cognitive dissonance occurred: (1) Our leader received a message from aliens and told me that the earth was going to end and aliens would spirit me away to planet Clarion, and (2) Nothing happened. You would think this dissonance would have forced Martin’s followers to reconsider their faith in her. However, most of them ended up believing in her (and a new prediction she had produced based on a new “message” from the aliens) more than ever.
What happened with the white nationalists was studied by social scientists from UCLA (Aaron Panofsky) and Harvard (Joan Donovan) by analyzing thousands of messages on a white nationalist website called Stormfront. In a recent article, they reported that if someone posted on Stormfront that he or she had received a GAT report indicating that the person was not purer than pure, the other white nationalists would tend to rally around the person. While some posters rejected outright those whose tests did not meet the group’s accepted definition of racial purity, most responders, likely realizing that white nationalists are a small minority of folks who need all the members they can get, looked for ways to resolve the cognitive dissonance without outright rejecting those who had flunked their DNA tests.
Like Dorothy Martin’s cult members, they found themselves unable to revisit their views on white supremacy and admit they’d been wrong. Rather, they tended to resolve the dissonance by attacking the validity of the test. They would argue that the results were not reliable, that the science of genetic testing was sketchy, that testing companies supported multiracial agendas and intentionally reported that whites had some level of mixed blood even if they didn’t, that testing companies were owned by Jews, etc., etc. These responses embodied some mixture of cognitive dissonance, the self-serving bias, and the confirmation bias.
When Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke recently learned that he and his wife both descended from slave owners, it is very likely that he suffered extreme cognitive dissonance as well. He likely did not wish to believe this information, but apparently, it was very conclusive. Being subject to public scrutiny and being rational, O’Rourke did not have much choice but to resolve the dissonance by accepting the new information, which had the benefit to him of connecting him more personally with a position he had already espoused—reparations for slavery.
When cognitive dissonance has moral implications, it is often called moral dissonance. Many people face it in a situation where their two conflicting concepts are: (1) I am a good person, and (2) I want to do a bad thing. We hope that most people will resolve this conflict by not doing the bad thing, rather than by giving themselves reasons why the bad thing isn’t really so bad after all, at least not for them in this specific instance. But too often, they come up with really shaky rationalizations and do the bad thing anyway. You can reduce your chances of doing the bad thing by watching our Concepts Unwrapped video on cognitive dissonance.
Tim Elfrink, “Beto O’Rourke, Who Backs Reparations Bill, Reveals His Ancestors Own Slaves,” Washington Post, July 15, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/07/15/beto-orourke-slaves-ancestors-reparations-amy-sanders-orourke/?utm_term=.f71dcdca4c2d.
Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957).
Leon Festinger et al., When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World (1956).
Whet Moser, W. “Apocalypse Oak Park: Dorothy Martin, The Chicagoan Who Predicted the End of the World and Inspired the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance,” Chicago Magazine, May 20, 2011, https://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/The-312/May-2011/Dorothy-Martin-the-Chicagoan-Who-Predicted-the-End-of-the-World-and-Inspired-the-Theory-of-Cognitive-Dissonance/.
Heather Murphy, “How White Nationalists Rationalize a DNA Test with Surprising Results,” New York Times, July 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/12/us/white-nationalists-dna-tests.html?searchResultPosition=1
Aaron Panolfsky & John Donovan, “Genetic Ancestry Testing among White Nationalists: From Identity Repair to Citizen Science”, Social Studies of Science 1-29 (2019).
Scott Plous, The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making (1993).