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Cognitive Dissonance, Collective Trauma, and the Middle East

Understanding the cycle of violence and our sometimes unhelpful responses to it.

Key points

  • Cognitive dissonance helps us understand how and why we often see only facts that fit with our preconceptions.
  • Remembering the intergenerational trauma and persecution experienced by both sides can increase compassion.
  • One-sided statements and marches may inadvertently fuel Islamophobia and antisemitism.
  • Examples of cooperative pathways to peace must be highlighted and nurtured.

Watching the horrors unfold in the Middle East, on and since the grotesque atrocities of October 7, can leave us wondering if we can do anything, however small, to help alleviate the suffering. Go on a march? Sign a letter with like-minded folk? Make a donation? Pressure our political leaders?

But to what end? A permanent ceasefire? A temporary ceasefire? Brief, intermittent humanitarian pauses? Condemnation of Hamas? Condemnation of the bombing and siege of Gaza? Demanding that Hamas release the hostages? Denunciation of antisemitism and Islamophobia at home? Calling for long-term answers, such as the two-state solution? All of the above?

As a clinical psychologist, I wonder if perhaps emphasising the value of a trauma-informed lens and an understanding of cognitive dissonance might help us see both sides of this truly awful situation, rather than just "taking sides" and seeing only one.

Shouting slogans that seem to side unequivocally with just one group may feel like a useful contribution, especially when in the company of many others uttering the same heartfelt but inevitably simplistic mantras. I wonder, however, what role these unidimensional analyses and righteous but sometimes contextless denunciations are playing in the increases in Islamophobia and antisemitism around the world.

So, perhaps we psychologists should be reminding the world about cognitive dissonance, that powerful, hard-wired, human tendency to see only what confirms our preconceived beliefs, including about our ingroups and outgroups.

Leon Festinger developed this theory after studying a cult whose leader received messages from outer space that the Earth would be destroyed on December 21, 1954. In preparation, many quit jobs and discarded possessions. When doomsday came, and went, some members acknowledged their mistake. The most committed, however, adhered to their beliefs even more strongly. Festinger wrote, back in 1957:

"When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance… Cognitive dissonance can be seen as an antecedent condition which leads to activity oriented toward dissonance reduction just as hunger leads to activity oriented toward hunger reduction." (p. 3)

Or as a more famous figure put it: "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest." (Simon, P. 1975).

Amid all the recent violence, it is tempting, therefore, to focus only on the violence that confirms our pre-existing conviction that one group is inherently evil or sub-human, while clinging to the belief that another group is operating purely in righteous self-defence. My psychodynamic colleagues would no doubt remind me, with good reason, that this sort of defensive distortion of reality can operate subconsciously and can take some hard work to even acknowledge, let alone change.

It also seems worth pointing out that many commentators, and protesters, have lost sight of the historical trauma of one or other of the two main groups engulfed in the seemingly endless cycle of violence and revenge. Some, including too many academics and lefties (two of my own tribes), seem unable, or unwilling to simultaneously name and protest the traumas, physical and emotional, suffered by all involved.

Dr. Ahona Guha, a wise clinical and forensic psychologist, recently wrote in a British newspaper:

"When we experience complex, intergenerational traumas, we build schemas (or templates) around how we think about ourselves and the world. Israeli, Jewish, Palestinian, Arabic and Muslim people all carry severe historical traumas, and trauma-based reactions are thus magnified. Recognition of the trauma of one does not negate recognition of the other. These traumas mirror each other and involve being hated, persecuted, isolated, abandoned and dispossessed."

It goes without saying that social media often exacerbates a one-sided, aggressive level of debate, when what is really needed is a nuanced acknowledgement of complexity, combined with whatever morsels of compassion, understanding and tolerance of difference we can muster after witnessing, yet again, the worst that we humans can do to one another.

I suggest that a trauma lens, especially a focus on collective, intergenerational persecution, and thinking about cognitive dissonance, might, together, help us understand, and perhaps even reduce, this futile, dangerous type of conversation. This by itself will not, of course, immediately bring about the sort of political solution that many feel is the only viable way to end this endless intergenerational cycle of fear, hatred and violence, such as the creation of two states. But it might help diminish some of the many barriers a little bit. In the short-term, meanwhile, it might just help stem the terrifying rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia on our streets and campuses.

It seems that in these dark days, our primary task must be to preserve our humanity rather than let it be crushed. I leave the last words to Dr. Guha:

"If we don’t find ways to listen across the divide between factions and acknowledge each other’s pain, the current conflict playing out so catastrophically will remain embedded in patterns of trauma for generations to come, almost certainly birthing even more violence. This task is more urgent than ever."


Some examples of a nuanced, integrated, and/or hopeful approach to the crisis in the Middle East:

Professor Yuval Noah Harari

Layla Moran (Palestinian) and Alex Sobel (Israeli), MPs

Lord Neuberger (former UK Supreme Court president)

Standing Together


Letter from "75 Israeli progressives and peace activists"

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