Lies My Teacher Told Me

What is cognitive dissonance? What part does it play in the US's evolving conceptions of Indians?

Lies my teacher told me: everything your american history textbook got wrong (new york: touchstone, 2008)

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People tend to seek consistency in their beliefs and perceptions. So what happens when one of our beliefs conflicts with another previously held belief? The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs. When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviors, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance.


Cognitive Dissonance;

This is the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time.

Dissonance increases with:

•The importance of the subject to us.

•How strongly the dissonant thoughts conflict.

•Our inability to rationalize and explain away the conflict.

Dissonance is often strong when we believe something about ourselves and then do something against that belief. If I believe I am good but do something bad, then the discomfort I feel as a result is cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a very powerful motivator which will often lead us to change one or other of the conflicting belief or action. The discomfort often feels like a tension between the two opposing thoughts. To release the tension we can take one of three actions:

•Change our behavior.

•Justify our behavior by changing the conflicting cognition.

•Justify our behavior by adding new cognitions.

Dissonance is most powerful when it is about our self-image. Feelings of foolishness, immorality and so on (including internal projections during decision-making) are dissonance in action.

If an action has been completed and cannot be undone, then the after-the-fact dissonance compels us to change our beliefs. If beliefs are moved, then the dissonance appears during decision-making, forcing us to take actions we would not have taken before.

Cognitive dissonance appears in virtually all evaluations and decisions and is the central mechanism by which we experience new differences in the world. When we see other people behave differently to our images of them, when we hold any conflicting thoughts, we experience dissonance.

Dissonance increases with the importance and impact of the decision, along with the difficulty of reversing it. Discomfort about making the wrong choice of car is bigger than when choosing a lamp.


Cognitive dissonance is a well-known psychological principle. It suggests that it is very difficult to behave in a way contradictory to your beliefs - eventually one or the other has to give and you stop doing whatever it is you don't believe in, or your beliefs start to change to justify your actions so they're 'okay'.

This come up in the book "Lies My Teacher Told Me" when the author is discussing textbook coverage of Columbus' voyage:

After arriving in the 'New World', Columbus discovered natives who knew where gold could be found. Columbus desperately needed a big find like that to make his voyages seem worthwhile. So he began using some of the most horrific means imaginable to extract every ounce of gold from the natives, ultimately being responsible for the death of something like 99% of the human population on one island.

Obviously, most normal people couldn't stomach such measures outright. But cognitive dissonance and inventive thinking quickly provided a solution: natives were 'primitive' and 'savage', and according to some people even 'soulless'. Wiping them out was therefore no more a crime than pulling weeds from a garden.


The perception that might surround stereotypes or even racial prejudice that Americans have still not come to terms with regarding their indigenous peoples. Consider the belief that they all live in tee-pees, wear big buffalo hats and live off the land would conflict with both natives of yesteryear and even today.