Cognitive dissonance theory may be relevant to understanding why it is so difficult for many people to recognize that the physical punishment of children is harmful, unnecessary, potentially traumatizing, and a violation of human rights. While reading an engaging book about cognitive dissonance theory and research (Tavris & Aronson, 2007), I began thinking about its implications for children’s advocates in the movement to eliminate physical punishment. To illustrate the findings of cognitive dissonance research, the authors, both social psychologists, cite striking examples from realms as diverse as politics, criminal justice, medicine, psychotherapy, marriage, and experimental research. Whereas this book did not address physical punishment, it led me to the following reflections, which I also relate to attachment theory and terror management theory.
Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon first named and described by the social psychologist Leon Festinger in the mid-twentieth century. Tavris and Aronson (2007) define cognitive dissonance in these terms:
Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it (p. 13).
One of the primary cognitions that people hold onto assiduously is the self-justifying image of themselves as good, moral, capable, and smart. As the social psychologist Bob Altemeyer ironically expressed it, “if you’re an average human being, you’ll think you’re a better-than-average human being” (Altemeyer, 2006, p. 56). This self-justifying belief in one’s own goodness or superiority, which at its worst is inflated to self-righteousness and grandiosity, can be quite intractable. Therefore, evidence of one’s own behavior that calls this belief into question causes cognitive dissonance and is often resisted and denied vigorously in order to reduce the intolerable tension.
Furthermore, positive self-esteem is one element of what psychologists working on the interface of attachment theory with terror management theory have called our “tripartite security system” (Hart, Shaver, & Goldenberg, 2005), with the other elements being attachment and worldview. In other words, we get a sense of security–which protects us from the terror of thinking our lives are insignificant and meaningless in light of our mortality–through attachment to significant others, a positive self-image, and adherence to a worldview that explains how things are and supports our sense of self-esteem.
What does all this have to do with physical punishment and with the resistance many, perhaps most, people have to recognizing it as a hurtful, unacceptable violation of human rights? Plenty.
First of all, cognitive dissonance researchers have found that when we hurt and abuse others, we defend ourselves against the painful recognition that what we have done is wrong and calls into question our image of ourselves as good. We come up with all kinds of rationalizations for ourselves as agents of justice and our victims as having deserved what they got. Thus, parents who punitively hit and thereby hurt their children justify that the children had it coming to them and that the pain was for their own good. Furthermore, the research has shown that a vicious cycle gets enacted. The more we hurt others, the more we vilify our victims in order to maintain our own self-justification, and the more we are resistant to evidence that what we have done is wrong.
The forensic psychiatrist Gilligan (1996) found that serial murderers and rapists saw themselves as agents of justice in the enactment of their horrific crimes. Orizio (2003) made the same alarming discovery in interviews with seven former dictators, all of whom viewed themselves as self-sacrificing servants of their nations, despite having presided over torture, murder, the suppression of democracy, stealing, looting, and genocide. In fact, the more harm the murderers and dictators had caused, the more grandiose their self-justifications were.
This is a troubling facet of human psychology. These examples of killers, rapists, and dictators are the abnormal, sociopathic extremes of a continuum of self-justification and the demeaning of victims that parallels how normal parents, following culturally sanctioned customs of physical punishment, may see themselves as justified and virtuous when they inflict bodily harm onto their kids. In the worst cases, they will tend to see their children, whom they have already hit and hurt, as more and more rebellious and bad and, therefore, needing to be hit even more seriously. This can lead, in the worst cases, to tragic consequences. When the corporal punishment is rationalized as motivated by love for the children, it sends such a confusing, demoralizing message to the kids.
Another finding of cognitive dissonance theory may shine light on why children acquiesce to their parents’ rationales for corporal punishment and why adults who were spanked as children inflict the same level of pain on their own kids. Research found that “if people go through a great deal of pain, discomfort, effort, or embarrassment to get something, they will be happier with that ‘something’ than if it came to them easily” (Tavris & Aronson, 2007, p. 15). Similarly, “severe initiations increase a member’s liking for the group” (p. 17). In the case of children who are spanked, the group into which they are being “initiated” is the family. The ‘something’ they are getting is familial membership and acceptance.
From an evolutionary perspective, which is fundamental to attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969), our very survival depends upon the acceptance and support of the family, particularly of a primary caregiver, usually the mother in the beginning. We start life with an inborn attachment behavioral system that leads us to seek proximity to and acceptance by a nurturing protector. If that protector, when we are weak and dependent infants, toddlers, and children, intentionally inflicts punitive pain upon us, it may lead us to justify that punishment and our punisher all the more. Otherwise, we’d be faced with the terrifying cognitive dissonance of fearing that our caregiver does not love or want us and that we may not get the protection upon which our very lives depend. Along with the fear of further punishment, this makes criticizing the punitive parent so difficult.
What are the implications of these reflections on cognitive dissonance theory, with a few references to attachment theory and terror management theory as well, for children’s rights advocates who promote the abolition of physical punishment? At the very least, we need to take into account that we are up against very powerful, primitive defenses that may be impermeable to any amount of rational evidence and argumentation. The defenders of physical punishment are warding off the pain of their own guilt and the recognition that they are not as morally superior as they imagined. They may be staunchly and unconsciously resisting the need to relinquish both their self-justification and the idealization of their own punitive parents, upon whose acceptance they once depended for their survival. It is important to recognize such forces with compassion and empathy and to see such irrational potential in ourselves. While we continue to labor for the inviolable right of children to be raised nonviolently, we need to do so wisely and humbly.
Altemeyer, B. (2006). The authoritarians. Winnipeg, Canada: Lulu.com.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Volume 1: Attachment. NY: Basic Books.
Gilligan, J. (1996). Violence: Reflections on a national epidemic. NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Hart, J., Shaver, P. R., & Goldenberg, J. L. (2005). Attachment, self-esteem, worldviews, and terror management: Evidence for a tripartite security system. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 999-1013.
Orizio, R. (2003). Talk of the devil: Encounters with seven dictators. NY: Walker & Company.
Tavris, C. & Aronson, E. (2007). Mistakes were made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts. NY: Harcourt.
PsySR member Mitch Hall works for a non-profit agency in Richmond, California as a clinical therapist for disadvantaged, ethnically diverse children and youth. He is a peace activist and advocate for children rights, and can be reached at email@example.com.