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War, Death, and Cognitive Dissonance

A Case Study for Social Psychology


Jamie G. McMinn
Psychology Department
Westminster College


This case study explores cognitive dissonance theory, a theory proposed by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1956 to explain the tension that exists when peoples’ attitudes are incongruent with their behaviors. Students read a news article describing how residents of a town in Ohio are coping with the rising death toll among Ohio soldiers fighting in Iraq. They are then asked to evaluate the theory and to propose alternative explanations for the evidence in the article. Designed for use in social psychology courses, the case would also be appropriate for introductory psychology courses.


  • Explore cognitive dissonance theory in more depth than what is covered in a social psychology textbook.
  • Learn how psychologists use theory to explain social phenomena.
  • Identify key social psychological constructs and to apply them to current social attitudes.
  • Explore feelings about the war in Iraq specifically or about war, aggression, and intergroup relations more broadly.


Cognitive dissonance; cognitive inconsistency; balance theory; investment theory; war; aggression; Iraq war; human behavior; George W. Bush

Topical Areas

Social issues

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division



Type / Methods




Subject Headings

Psychology  |   Sociology  |  

Date Posted


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Nathaniel Hagner

Embry Riddle Areonautical University World Wide
Dyess AFB TX
The residents of this small Ohio town have different beliefs about the justifications for the war in Iraq and the continuation of the war, as well. Some of the residents maintain a positive attitude while others disagree with the motives behind the war itself. Those who support Bush but have lost someone close in the war have a conflict of personal interest. Cognitive dissonance would predict that someone would have to lose faith in the legitimacy of the war in order to cope with the grief of losing a son/daughter to the war they have supported. Some residents disagree with the war but believe we should see it through. This is a conflict of ideals as well. You would have to maintain the idea that we must pull out of the war to stay consistent with the idea that you were opposed to it. Some residents made public claims to support their ideals concerning the war. One resident lost a son but claimed that we must move forward with the war. His patriotism added an element to help balance his ideals; although he lost a son he added an element to support his belief that the war is necessary/justifiable. This is an interesting theory but I do not believe it always stands true. People generally will have a conflict of interest in some form when concerning such a complex issue as the war in Iraq.