Little Plant/Pixabay, used with permission

Little Plant/Pixabay

Source: Little Plant/Pixabay, used with permission

Five people died, including one Capitol Police officer. Of the 60 officers injured, 15 required hospitalization. The mob carried weapons and human restraint devices, and they made deadly threats (like texting they would kill a woman on live television). White supremacists took prominent roles in the charge to forcefully stop government business: they flew the Confederate flag inside our nation’s headquarters, set up a noose and gallows outside, and brandished white power symbols. Some people, including former Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, compared the mob to Nazis. I’m describing events from a violent siege on the U.S. Capitol that took place on Wednesday.

Countless public figures, including elected officials within the Republican party, took a stand and expressed publicly that the riot and its instigator were wrong. This condemnation of party members behaving so clearly abhorrently contrasts starkly with those who see themselves as level-headed, equity-minded individuals yet are nonetheless justifying the insurrection.

Cognitive Dissonance

We should be impressed by the Republicans who denounced their president’s and party members’ roles in the riot, because recognizing wrongs from a side with which you align, just like recognizing wrongs you have committed yourself, does not come easily or naturally. “Most people, when directly confronted by evidence they are wrong, do not change their point of view or plan of action but justify it even more tenaciously” (Tavris & Aronson, 2015, p.. 2). This excerpt is from the excellent book Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, a title that gets at the heart of what is happening, cognitively, within those excusing behavior they would never previously view themselves capable of defending. Because of cognitive dissonance – the discomfort we feel when holding two cognitions inconsistent with one another – we are willing to bend our perception of reality to extremes just so we can justify our way of thinking and maintain our sense of self.

As we become more invested in a mindset, such as an affiliation with a political party, we become less and less likely to view related information objectively, such as evidence of wrongs or rights committed by those in that political party. This is a bipartisan issue: Democrats will give unfair bias to Democrats when viewing actions, and Republicans will give unfair bias to Republicans when viewing actions. Such bias makes us poorer decision-makers and leaders. But, as seen with public figures who previously sided with Trump and Republicans yet were able to view the riot clearly and not perform the mental acrobatics most do when confronted with cognitive dissonance, the ability to override the engine of self-justification is possible.

Helping Students Recognize Wrongs

Teaching students how to hone this skill will make for a better world, regardless of which political party students ultimately adopt. The following can help:

  • Schools are increasingly adopting social and emotional learning (SEL) teachings like Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset. Make lessons on cognitive dissonance part of this movement, imbedding it deeply and at every grade level.
  • Have students debate regularly with assigned sides. Debate champion Julia Dhar describes how this helps students detach ideas from their identity to become more open.
  • The Common Core State Standards include (in multiple subject areas) the need to teach students to evaluate evidence instead of accepting it blindly. Integrate these standards into your lessons regularly, and assess students’ mastery of them so you can offer added help to those still struggling with the evaluation of information.
  • Students often adopt their political parties and candidates from their parents without giving the matter much thought. Direct students to tools like Encyclopaedia Britannica’s 2020 Presidential Election Candidate Quiz or Pew Research Center’s Political Typology Quiz that show users where they land based on issues instead of labels.
  • Prejudice causes the most extreme forms of denial when encountering evidence that does not match one’s prejudice, so those with it are the hardest to reach. It is thus vital we reach kids when they are young, and reach them thoroughly, in teaching them to embrace the possibility of being wrong and embrace truth, however unsettling that truth might be.


Speaking of prejudice, I often get emails when I write about schools’ need to embrace equity or address racism. The emails are riddled with racist comments (as well as, not surprisingly, spelling errors and grammatical mistakes), and the physical and sexual threats in one were so severe I filed a police report. If you are someone who reads this article and your rage is so instant and severe that you will not allow even a crack of room in your mind for the notion that Wednesday’s violent events were wrong on many levels, please spend time (instead of raging) learning about the cognitive dissonance that drives you. We all, regardless of political party or age, become more enlightened when we spot how this bias impacts our thinking.

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