Cognitive Dissonance and Privilege by @psycho_claire

This is the second post in a 6 part series on feminism and disablism written by The Psychology Supercomputer for A Room of our Own. (The first post is available here)

Following on from this post (please link to 1) I want to continue picking apart the issues raised in a twitter conversation regarding the Telegraph “is feminism depressing?” web chat. I want to explore/ introduce you to the psychological concept of Cognitive Dissonance and how I see this relating to privilege denial.

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

The term Cognitive Dissonance is used within Psychology to refer to a state of discomfort that an individual experiences when they hold conflicting beliefs. I’m going to highlight this first with a simple and frivolous example:

The resulting interaction between these three thoughts creates discomfort within your mind. In order to resolve this discomfort your brain changes one of these thoughts. In this case, you can’t change that Ferraris are expensive and being poor is difficult to change too. So your brain changes your desire:

Thus the cognitive dissonance (the discomfort felt) is resolved.


The important thing to note at this point is that this is mostly an unconscious process. People are not aware of doing this; and when asked later will maintain that they NEVER wanted the Ferrari in the first place.

How does this relate to privilege denial?

Well, I’m hoping that many of you can already see the parallels. I’m going to use the example of Disablism, because that’s what prompted these posts and this discussion but this idea can be extended to all forms of privilege/oppression:

Again, in this example there is one easy aspect that the brain can alter to resolve the cognitive dissonance: “I see oppression”.

And in one, really simple, small automatic mechanism a whole movement becomes exclusionary to a particular group.

For those in the oppressed group the dissonance is resolved by their being members of that group. This is how you end up with women with disabilities/chronic illness, Women of Colour, working class women…..and on and on feeling pushed to the sidelines and shouting about stuff that mainstream feminism just can’t see.

I want to remind you that this is not a wilful process. Women are not wilfully denying the experiences of other women. This is unconscious. And I fall foul of it just as often as anyone else. Our brain is predisposed to address these conflicts before we are aware that they are there. But I’ve found, that since learning about this process I have been more conscious of it happening. I can question myself and my thinking processes and see when and where it happens. I don’t get it right all the time (far from it), but I’m better than I was before. This greater insight allows me to be more open to diverse voices. I question my opinions often, on the basis that I could somewhere have resolved dissonance without realising. I constantly interrogate the “I don’t see” aspect because that’s where the inaccuracy is likely to be.

It also allows me to be more forgiving of those who can’t always see their own privilege or the oppression of others. Most of the time this process of eliminating cognitive dissonance is underlying their denial and so they are not consciously aware of it. I don’t mean that this excuses someone from being racist, sexist, disablist etc. But it means that it might not always be a purposeful choice that someone makes. In recognising this I can be gentler in my interactions with other women. I can carefully point out that they are missing the issue and can help them to “see”. I find this approach is MUCH more effective than yelling “BIGOT” and moving on. J


The Psychology Supercomputer: I write about Psychology, Science Communication, Women in Science and feminist issues. I also tweet as@psycho_claire.