Cognitive Dissonance in Victims of Political Violence

by Jan M.A. de Vries

In this article cognitive dissonance theory is applied to suggest a fundamental way of understanding some of the issues victims of armed conflict encounter in coming to terms with their loss or injuries. Addressing this topic in its full complexity is beyond the scope of this text. Its purpose is limited to providing food for thought, in particular to psychotherapists who work with victims of violence, are involved in restorative justice, or facilitate reconciliation efforts.

In 1998 the Glencree Centre of Reconciliation received funding to set up a programme for victims of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. The programme was conceived in response to the report of the Northern Ireland Victims Commissioner, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield (1998) which yielded the expressed need by victims for dialogue and opportunities to share their stories as part of their journey towards healing and reconciliation. I was asked to set up and manage the programme, hire a team to collaborate in the facilitation of the sessions, and get the participants together. I was reluctant to take on what seemed a difficult task – and it was – but I did. During the next two years we organised 14 weekends of dialogue and a conference involving 256 victims/survivors (term suggested by the participants) from the two communities in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Britain. Involving mainly injured and bereaved participants from ‘all’ communities involved in the conflict gave a hitherto unique inclusiveness to the programme. A non-directive approach was used in the facilitation allowing participants to determine agenda and pace of the sessions. Our emphasis was on creating a safe and pressure free environment. The programme was mostly effective in promoting healing and reconciliation and a majority of the participants benefitted from attending. As expected the sessions were often emotionally draining and fraught with inner turmoil related to the trauma and grief as well as the ensuing circumstances. In many cases the truth about the incidents in which participants were injured or lost a loved one was never established, perpetrators were not identified, not punished (or not enough in the perception of the victims) and in the progress towards reconciliation victims’ interests had taken a backseat in order to appease those actively involved in the conflict. This often translated into a deep sense of powerlessness and injustice. Although we addressed this issue in a publication on the psychological aspects of the programme (De Vries & De Paor, 2005), we stopped short of proposing a theory to frame a fundamental understanding of the inner conflicts associated with it. In this short article I would like to make up for this by analysing the victims/survivors’ plight in terms of ‘cognitive dissonance’.

According to Leon Festinger (1957), who coined the term, cognitive dissonance emerges when we hold two inconsistent cognitions at the same time. This causes us to feel discomfort. We are motivated to reduce this inconsistency and bring the cognitions back in line with one another. The theory provides a powerful predictor of what makes us adapt attitudes and perceptions and why we might avoid conflicting information or suppress thoughts that are inconsistent with our beliefs. The musical terminology is no coincidence and relates dissonance to inner ‘disharmony’ and consonance to ‘harmony’. The theory caused quite a stir when it was first introduced and empirical research quickly established a wide base of support for the mechanisms involved. Since then the theory has undergone a series of transformations of which Aronson’s (1960, 1992) conception is one of the most comprehensive and wide in scope. In his perception, any inconsistency between and within behaviour, emotions, and cognition can lead to dissonance.

Consequently the term cognitive dissonance got expanded to dissonance and today both terms are used. Aronson suggests that dissonance is felt most strongly whenever behaviours violate beliefs that relate to our self-concept. He further argues that three beliefs we universally hold about ourselves may be particularly salient and these are internal consistency, competence, and being morally good. It follows that we will be most strongly motivated to reduce dissonance when we do, experience, think, or feel something that makes us feel inconsistent, incompetent, or a morally ‘bad’ person (guilt, shame). Much of the support for the theory was generated in relatively ‘innocent’ lab experiments. Although the studies were consistently successful, it is evident that lab research is unsuitable and unethical as a means to investigate more serious forms of dissonance. Thus its role in the plight of victims of armed conflict has so far remained unaddressed. Nonetheless, the promise of  cognitive dissonance theory has been demonstrated in a variety of publications applying the theory to real life issues, for instance the Cambodian Genocide (Hinton, 1996), terrorism (Malkovich, 2005), testimony in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (Foster, 2000), and even the treatment of eating disorders (Mitchell, Mazzeao, Rausch & Cooke, 2007). As such this article is not an isolated effort.

Application of dissonance theory to victims/survivors can focus on a variety of sources. Most obviously, the inconsistency of rampant violence with beliefs of the world as safe and predictable can be seen as a source of dissonance. To reduce it, a perception of the world as dangerous tends to be adopted, which in turn will create dissonance when society attempts to move back towards peace. Slow progress made in peace processes is predicted by dissonance theory because we are motivated to avoid the dissonance resulting from considering new perspectives inconsistent with the war and conflict based beliefs we hold. Another pertinent application of the theory was evoked by observations of how the participants of the weekends in Glencree struggled with injustice (see diagram 1).


Dissonance in victims/survivors; (Dissonant elements printed in bold; Basic beliefs in italics; Justifications are underlined)


State of affairs 1: My loved one was killed / I was injured
State of affairs 2: Justice was not done and I am not retaliating
Basic belief 1: I am a competent person
Basic belief 2: I am a good person
Dissonance inducing cognition:  If I don’t get justice I should retaliate (which makes me a bad person) but I am powerless (and therefore incompetent)


I don’t believe in taking the law in my own hands;
My religion forbids me to do this;
I am a pacifist


Diagram 1

Violence leading to serious injury or loss of a loved one is generally followed by a call for justice. If justice is not forthcoming (State of affairs 1 & 2) this creates pressure to seek one’s own justice in the form of retaliation. This can be the reason why people join paramilitary organisations. Not retaliating, or not being able to, may leave the victim/survivor with dissonance discomfort (Dissonance inducing cognition) in regard to the competence of the self (Basic belief 1). At the same time the hatred that fuels the urge to retaliate may create dissonance with the belief in oneself as a good person (Basic belief 2). Good people do not consider revenge. Dissonance can be reduced by seeking justification. A variety of options present themselves. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to create a form of justification that reduces both competence related dissonance and moral dissonance simultaneously. This leaves a person with more or less permanent sources of intense internal conflict. The long-term anger or bitterness found in many victims may be the result of constant pressure to reduce dissonance inducing emotions and thoughts without an effective resolution. Overall, strong religious or pacifist beliefs may be the most stable form of justification in the long run, but it is not given to everyone to apply spirituality in this way.

In the absence of a successful resolution, the ensuing anger which accompanies prolonged dissonance may become a fixture in a person’s life. Sometimes this anger can become the driving force in long term efforts to get justice or find out the truth about particular events. Examples are organisations like ‘Justice for the Forgotten’ which campaigns for truth and justice for those killed and injured in the Dublin and bombings, and the Bloody Sunday Families with similar efforts. The anger, which is consonant with the wrong that one feels has been done, is an indispensible source of energy in this kind of effort. The effort is also consonant with the belief in oneself as competent. Giving up such a struggle means recurring dissonance related towards one’s sense of competence and is generally accompanied by bitterness and an unacceptable sense of failure. This explains why such struggles are sometimes continued indefinitely. It also explains why victims/survivors may be conflicted about their involvement in reconciliation efforts (i.e. giving up their anger) if they feel that justice has not been done.

Dissonance theory also provides a more general rationale to understand the inner turmoil experienced by many participants of dialogue with the other party in a conflict as well as effective ways of reducing it (see diagram 2).


Sources of dissonance in victims/survivors; (Dissonant elements printed in bold; Basic beliefs in italics; Justifications are underlined)


State of affairs 1: The likes of these people killed my loved one / hurt me
State of affairs 2: I am seeking dialogue or reconciliation with them
Basic belief: I am a consistent person
Dissonance inducing cognition: I am behaving in a friendly way with those I hate and therefore I am a hypocrite (inconsistency)
Justifications: The other party also consists of victims just like me
I am doing this for the greater good of peace in our society


Diagram 2

State of affairs 1 & 2 inherently carry the possibility of consistency related dissonance (Basic belief). Conflicting emotions and thoughts about the experienced hypocrisy (Dissonance inducing cognition) further emphasize the inconsistency. There are a variety of ways in which the dissonance caused by this can be reduced. Of course, one can attempt to bury the anger and hatred but strong emotions are often slow to extinguish. More effective was the solution of many victims/survivors at the weekends in Glencree, They generally justified fraternizing with ‘the enemy’ by no longer defining the other party as the enemy but also as victims of circumstances, thus emphasising a shared humanity and similarity rather than differences. This is easier when the other party is represented by those not actively involved in the conflict. A more comprehensive justification in the form of a higher order goal like ‘how good it is to work towards peace’ was also often observed. These justifications emerged and spread rapidly during the weekends or had already been activated when participants made the decision to come to Glencree. Cross community sharing of powerful arguments to reduce possible dissonance related to being in each other’s company turned out to be essential in providing the foundation for mutual support in processing the shared trauma and grief.

It is probably inappropriate to come to firm conclusions on the basis of these examples. In reality thought processes are infinitely more complex and sources of dissonance can have many more causes and solutions. A problem in its analysis is that the discomfort of dissonance may be a conscious experience, but personal awareness of the actual sources as laid out in the diagrams presented here can be limited. It should also be mentioned that it is by no means the author’s intention to propose dissonance as a wholesale explanation. It is obvious that real conflicts of interest, neurological effects of trauma, deeply imprinted mistrust, and a variety of other factors impact the processes addressed here. Furthermore although beyond the scope of this article I would like to stress that dissonance theory should not be seen as unrelated to other paradigms. Although rooted in social psychology, it is intimately connected with theories of self, defence mechanisms, and a variety of cognitive theories. Nonetheless, I hope I have succeeded in demonstrating that it may be worthwhile to consider the application of dissonance theory to victims of armed conflict and their participation in reconciliation processes. Dissonance theory helps explain why these activities are so difficult and therefore command the deepest respect. It is hoped that by adding to the understanding of the phenomena we can inform the further development of tools and strategies to facilitate effective dialogue. Finally, the problematic impact of lack of justice that haunts victims of armed conflict has a parallel in how ‘perceived’ lack of justice in society in peace time may impede the healing process in victims of crime and only make them more distressed if restorative justice is offered.

Jan M.A. de Vries, PhD, MSc ( is a psychologist from the Netherlands who teaches psychology in a number of third level courses in Dublin. He set up and coordinated the L.I.V.E programme (Let’s Involve the Victim’s Experience) at the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation in Glencree, Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow (


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