How we convince ourselves that prejudice is just

On our way to the Wansee House – origin site of the Final Solution – and with tales of discrimination and prejudice fresh in our minds from yesterday’s visit to the Jewish Museum, one question preys on the mind: How could people convince themselves that discriminatory laws were just, that genocide was the correct way to handle the “Jewish problem”?

One piece of the answer is that all it takes is a seed, someone else passing a law or stating a belief. Fail to speak up against it right away, just stand by, and you may find yourself in a state of
cognitive dissonance theory, trying to reconcile how your actions and your views of yourself could be so different.

In one classic study, a psychology researcher posed as a medical student conducting blood pressure tests, and made sure to insult the volunteer patients while he was at it. Half of these insulted volunteers were allowed to complain to a “supervisor”, who promised repercussions; the other half had not outlet for their anger at being insulted. Contrary to the idea of catharsis, the volunteers who complained actually disliked the insulting medical student even more, which played out in their reported opinions and their actual blood pressure.

The thinking goes like this: The insulted volunteers complain, and hear that the insulting medical student will get into serious trouble. But once that initial rush of anger and satisfaction wear off, the volunteers began to feel guilty: was it really that bad of an insult? is the medical student’s career going to be forever damaged because he had a bad day, and I couldn’t let go of a passing remark? This guilt creates dissonance between the belief that “I am a good person” and the fact that “I got someone into trouble for a minor insult”. We can’t stand the dissonance, so one of those facts has to change; we aren’t about to declare ourselves not-good people, so “minor insult” has to become “major insult” – we convince ourselves that the medical student deserved everything he got, and so come to dislike him even more.

It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine this playing out in Nazi Germany. Consider a German woman who started the war with no particular anti-Semitic feelings, even wishing that Hitler had never achieved power and war had never been declared. All it takes is one moment of self-preservation. Perhaps it’s just one instance when the woman is walking down the street, and sees some people with the yellow star on their coats walking the other way. And there are some Nazis, Gestapo even, who start harassing and beating the Jews. In fear of what might happen if she intervenes – beaten herself, thrown in prison, her husband losing his job and their family starving – she quickly walks by and home. But the incident won’t leave her head: I’m a good person. How could I have stood by and done nothing while those Jews were unjustly beaten? Dissonance demands some resolution, and “unjustly” gets removed from the woman’s thoughts: There must have been something they had done to deserve it, because if it were undeserved I would have done something.

Unfortunately, dissonance is not reduced by just reminding yourself that you were following orders. Perhaps you refused Jews admittance to your shop just because the law said so, or threw rotten vegetables at the Jewish children leaving school just because that older boy you’re always trying to impressed insisted you should. The dissonance will still be there, because doing something wrong at someone else’s behest still conflicts with our idea of “I’m a good person”. Students who were ordered to read a negative comment to another person (telling them “I wouldn’t go out of my way to get to know you” and “you’re a pretty shallow person”) developed a more negative attitude of the person they insulted, one just as negative as people who were given a choice about reading the negative comments.

The good news is that it cognitive dissonance doesn’t just lead us to look down on people; it also leads us to like them more. If you can be persuaded to give someone money, for example, you’ll like them more than if you never did them a kindness. Any charity you contribute to is therefore a worthy charity; after all, you’re a sensible, financially literate person who wouldn’t give away money to an unworthy cause, aren’t you? That is, of course, good news…until you convince yourself that you wouldn’t be walking around saying “Heil Hitler!” and obeying the Reich’s edicts unless Hitler were a deserving leader and the Nazi regime a just government, either.

This dissonance and resolution would have been an ongoing process, and may help explain one passage in Anne Frank’s diary, toward the end of the war on May 22, 1944:

To our great horror and regret we hear that the attitude of a great many people toward us Jews has changed. We hear there is anti-Semitism now in circles that never thought of it before. The cause of this hatred of the Jews is understandable, even human sometimes, but not good.

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