Cognitive Dissonance and Charity

A question that often plagues me is, is there true altruism, or do people do nice things to make themselves feel better? And, is doing nice things for others just another form of cognitive dissonance that helps people better realign their behaviors with their attitudes? While this might seem like a negative outlook, I think it’s important to examine the idea of charity. As I have said before, in the previous blog, I do think all humans are inherently good, so I am not trying to say that charity is anything besides people trying to be kind to others. However, thinking about what charity means, what charities we give to, and how that makes us feel is important.

Paulo Freire (1997), a revolutionary Brazilian expert in literacy, renowned thinker, and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, explains what he thinks about charity in terms of true charity and false charity. True charity, he explains, is having complete solidarity between oppressors and the oppressed. True charity shouldn’t be needed if solidarity and equality exists and if there is an egalitarian, fair, and socially just society. Yet, alas, we live in a world of capitalism and market economy. And people say that, within that system, there will always be winners and losers. That is where Freire’s idea of false charity comes in. False charity is when individuals who are part of the oppressing group donate resources with the intentions of helping the oppressed group, but those things actually don’t help the oppressed group at all. This often happens when the source of charity actually reinforces the oppression or the charity is not what the oppressed need. One might wonder how an act of kindness and charity could possibly reinforce oppression. How can an act of kindness have these unintended consequences?

An example that we discussed in class involves fundraisers that come in the form of buying a good, and having some portion of the price of that good be donated to charity. This is seen often when the owning company or corporation donates some percentage of the value price of a good to a charity. This happens in coffee shops. A high-end coffee shop will charge $5 for a specialty coffee and say that with the purchase of this drink, they will donate $1 to children, or some form of charity organization. What the common person sees is an easy way to help out, because they happened to be buying a coffee anyway. So people will donate, believing that their $1 is aiding someone somewhere. Cognitive dissonance has happened here. The kind soul that has just donated their dollar feels an emotional reaction to the thought of needy children, while they are so lucky to be buying a specialty coffee. Therefore, by donating $1, this person is able to make their emotional reaction go away, because they have helped these children. What has really happened is that the company has taken advantage of human goodness and the human reflex to help others. They have provided an easy way for people to rid themselves of their cognitive dissonance. “If I donate $1, it’s ok that I can drink my fancy frap-chino-latte-whatever while other people can’t find water.” This money, while $1 might truly go to some people, also gives $4 to sustaining that coffee corporation. This is a corporation that probably has high stakes in making a profit and sustaining the market economy, which in turn thrives in exploiting people, sustaining injustice, and keeping the status quo, which leaves some children needy. This is false charity – where a person’s actions actually work to maintain the unjust society that is the reason why people need the help of charity in the first place.

Another form of false charity is when an oppressive group gives an oppressed group what they think they need, not what they actually do need. This aligns with the idea that the oppressors know better than the oppressed about what they need. A common example of this could be seen in programs that donate gifts to families, in which people buy things for families who might not have the resources to buy presents. When a person gives to these families what they think they need, without even stopping to consider asking what they might need, this could be false charity.

There is also false charity in people completely scamming people’s goodness and selfishly taking money. The U.S. Navy Veterans Association raised $100 million in contributions from donors who believed their money was going to needy veterans. Yet, this association was false and money went to fundraisers, the creator, and Republican lawmakers (Stern, 2013). This foundation is certainly a false charity that played on people’s cognitive dissonance and took full advantage of them.

I am not saying that giving to charity is bad. Rather, I am saying that it is worth considering why and how we give back to those less fortunate. We need to make sure that donations are actually helping others and it is not simply a way to make ourselves feel better and alleviate our cognitive dissonance. People should consider using websites like that do research to ensure that charities are evidence-backed and vetted. We must always consider the unintended consequences of our actions to make sure that our intentions align with our behaviors. Our desire to decrease our cognitive dissonance and give to those less fortunate is great, as long as we address the realities of the issues and ensure that we are, in fact, doing good.



Charity Reviews and Recommendations, Retrieved from:

Freire, Paulo. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Herder and Herder: New York.

Stern, K. (2013). The Charity Swindle, The New York Times. Retrieved from: