Cognitive dissonance activity: The dissonance created by violence

Cognitive dissonance activity: The dissonance created by violence

PSYC 3311 (Social Psychology)

Excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article:“Thresholds of violence: How shootings catch on” published October 19, 2015

*If you would like to read the full article go to


On the evening of April 29th last year, in the southern Minnesota town of Waseca, a woman was doing the dishes when she looked out her kitchen window and saw a young man walking through her back yard. He was wearing a backpack and carrying a fast-food bag and was headed in the direction of the Mini Max Storage facility next to her house. Something about him didn’t seem right. Why was he going through her yard instead of using the sidewalk? He walked through puddles, not around them. He fiddled with the lock of Unit 129 as if he were trying to break in. She called the police. A group of three officers arrived and rolled up the unit’s door. The young man was standing in the center. He was slight of build, with short-cropped brown hair and pale skin. Scattered around his feet was an assortment of boxes and containers: motor oil, roof cement, several Styrofoam coolers, a can of ammunition, a camouflage bag, and cardboard boxes labelled “red iron oxide,” filled with a red powder. His name was John LaDue. He was seventeen years old.

One of the officers started to pat LaDue down. According to the police report, “LaDue immediately became defensive, stating that it is his storage unit and asked what I was doing and pulling away.” The officers asked him to explain what he was up to. LaDue told them to guess. Another of the officers, Tim Schroeder, said he thought LaDue was making bombs. LaDue admitted that he was, but said that he didn’t want to talk about it in the storage locker. The four went back to the Waseca police station, and LaDue and Schroeder sat down together with a tape recorder between them. “What’s going on today, John?” Schroeder asked. LaDue replied, “It’s going to be hard for me to talk about.” The interview began at 7:49 P.M. It continued for almost three hours.

He was making Molotov cocktails, LaDue said, but a deadlier variant of the traditional kind, using motor oil and tar instead of gasoline. From there, he intended to move on to bigger and more elaborate pressure-cooker bombs, of the sort used by the Tsarnaev brothers at the Boston Marathon bombing. “There are far more things out in that unit than meet the eye,” he told Schroeder, listing various kinds of explosive powder, thousands of ball bearings, pipes for pipe bombs, fifteen pounds of potassium perchlorate, nine pounds of aluminum powder, and “magnesium ribbon and rust which I use to make thermite, which burns at five thousand degrees Celsius.”

Schroeder asked him what his intentions were.

“I have a notebook under my bed that explains it,” LaDue replied.

Schroeder: “O.K. Can you talk to me about those intentions that are in the notebook?”

LaDue: “O.K. Sometime before the end of the school year, my plan was to steal a recycling bin from the school and take one of the pressure cookers I made and put it in the hallway and blow it up during passing period time. . . . I would detonate when people were fleeing, just like the Boston bombings, and blow them up too. Then my plans were to enter and throw Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs and destroy everyone and then when the SWAT comes I would destroy myself.”

In his bedroom, he had an SKS assault rifle with sixty rounds of ammunition, a Beretta 9-mm. handgun, a gun safe with an additional firearm, and three ready-made explosive devices. On the day of the attack, he would start with a .22-calibre rifle and move on to a shotgun, in order to prove that high-capacity assault-style rifles were unnecessary for an effective school attack.

Schroeder: “Do you have brothers and sisters?”

LaDue: “Yes, I have a sister. She’s one year older than me.”

Schroeder: “O.K. She goes to school too?”

LaDue: “Yes.”

Schroeder: “She’s a senior?”

LaDue: “She is.”

Schroeder: “O.K. So you would have done this stuff while she was at school as well?”

LaDue: “I forgot to mention a detail. Before that day, I was planning to dispose of my family too.”

Schroeder: “Why would you dispose of your family? What, what have they done?”

LaDue: “They did nothing wrong. I just wanted as many victims as possible.”

…..The LaDue case does not resolve this puzzle [of school shootings]. LaDue doesn’t hear voices. He isn’t emotional or malicious or angry or vindictive. Schroeder asks him about violent games, and he says he hasn’t been playing them much recently. Then they talk about violent music, and LaDue says he’s been playing guitar for eight years and has little patience for the “retarded” music of “bands like Bullet for My Valentine or Asking Alexandria or some crap like that.” He likes Metallica: solid, normal, old-school heavy metal. “I was not bullied at all,” LaDue tells Schroeder. “I don’t think I have ever been bullied in my life. . . . I have good parents. I live in a good town.”

“There is one that you probably never heard of like back in 1927 and his name was Andrew* Kehoe,” LaDue tells Schroeder. “He killed like forty-five with, like, dynamite and stuff.” Ybarra was a student of Virginia Tech and Columbine. LaDue is a scholar of the genre, who speaks of his influences the way a budding filmmaker might talk about Fellini or Bergman. “The other one was Charles Whitman. I don’t know if you knew who that was. He was who they called the sniper at the Austin Texas University. He was an ex-marine. He got like sixteen, quite impressive.” “My number one idol is Eric Harris. . . . I think I just see myself in him. Like he would be the kind of guy I’d want to be with. Like, if I knew him, I just thought he was cool.”

When the interview is concluded, the police drive over to see LaDue’s parents. They live a few minutes away, in a tidy two-story stucco house on a corner lot. The LaDues are frantic. It is 10:30 P.M., and their son is never out past nine on a school night. His mother is trying to track him down on her laptop through his cell-phone account. They are calling all the people he has most recently texted, trying to find him. Then the police arrive with the news that their son has threatened to kill his family and blow up Waseca High School—and the LaDues are forced to account for a fact entirely outside their imagining. No, his son has never been diagnosed with mental illness or depression, David LaDue, John’s father, tells the police. He isn’t taking any medication. He’s never expressed a desire to hurt anyone. He spends a lot of time in front of his computer looking at YouTube videos. He likes to experiment with what his father calls his “interesting devices.” He wears a lot of black. Isn’t that what teen-agers do? David LaDue is desperate to come up with something—anything—to make sense of what he has just been told. “David told me that after his son had stayed with his brother for a couple of months at the beginning of last summer, he had returned proclaiming to be an atheist, stating that he no longer believed in religion,” the police report says.


David LaDue also spoke of an incident when Austin Walters and John LaDue had gone deer hunting. John had reportedly shot a deer that had not died right away and had to be “finished off.” David LaDue stated that he heard that Austin’s cell phone was used to make a video of the deer that he felt was inappropriate, although he had never seen the video. David LaDue showed me a photo on his laptop of John LaDue leering, holding a semi-automatic rifle next to a deer that had been killed. David LaDue pointed to the picture stating that “this” was the facial expression he was talking about that he thought was concerning.

It is the best he can do.

It was the best anyone could do that night. Waseca is a community of some ten thousand people amid the cornfields of southern Minnesota: one high school, a Walmart, a beautiful lake just outside town. Minneapolis is well over an hour away. There was simply no room, in anyone’s cultural understanding, for the acts John LaDue was describing. By the end, a kind of fatigue seemed to set in, and the normal codes of Midwestern civility reasserted themselves. All that the interrogation or confession or conversation—whatever it was—between Schroeder and LaDue seems to have established is that we need a new way to make sense of the school-shooting phenomenon.

John LaDue was charged with four counts of attempted murder, two counts of damage to property, and six counts of possession of explosives. It did not take long, however, for the case to run into difficulty. The first problem was that under Minnesota law telling a police officer of your plans to kill someone does not rise to the level of attempted murder, and the most serious of the charges against LaDue were dismissed.

The day’s testimony began with the forensic psychologist Katheryn Cranbrook. She had interviewed LaDue for two and a half hours. She said she had examined many juveniles implicated in serious crimes, and they often had an escalating history of aggression, theft, fighting at school, and other antisocial behaviors. LaDue did not. He had, furthermore, been given the full battery of tests for someone in his position—the Structured Assessment of Violence Risk in Youth (SAVRY), the youth version of the Psychopathy Checklists (PCL), and the Risk Sophistication Treatment Inventory (R.S.T.I.)—and the results didn’t raise any red flags. He wasn’t violent or mentally ill. His problem was something far more benign. He was simply a little off. “He has rather odd usage, somewhat overly formal language,” Cranbrook said. “He appears to lack typical relational capacity for family members. . . .He indicates that he would have completed the actions, but he doesn’t demonstrate any concern or empathy for the impact that that could have had on others.” The conclusion of all three of the psychologists who spoke at the hearing was that LaDue had a mild-to-moderate case of autism: he had an autism-spectrum disorder (A.S.D.), or what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome.

Please review the following terms before turning to the questions below.

Methods to reduce dissonance

Self concept and cognitive dissonance

Instructions: The answers to the questions below are not in the article above. Instead I’d like you to use your knowledge about this case and your knowledge of cognitive dissonance to make reasonable arguments about how the actors in the case may feel and what they may think.

  1. What combination of attitudes and/or behaviors are in potential conflict among LaDue’s parents? That is, what is the source of the cognitive dissonance that they may feel? How does the source of conflict relate to their self-concept?
  1. What combination of attitudes and/or behaviors may be in potential conflict among friends, teachers, and administrators once they learned of LaDue’s plan? That is, what is the source of the cognitive dissonance they might feel?
  1. What predictions would cognitive dissonance theory make for resolving tensions/conflict around the parents’ attitudes toward their son following his arrest (e.g., what methods or tactics could be used to reduce dissonance)?
  1. What prediction would cognitive dissonance theory make for resolving tensions/conflict around the school administrators attitude? How would you predict that people at the school would reduce the dissonance (e.g., what methods or tactics could be used to reduce dissonance)? Be specific.
  1. Are there any alternative explanations (social psychological theories) that could account for the tension or emotions felt by those around John LaDue?
  1. That is, is there an alternative to cognitive dissonance theory that could you help understand the present case?

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