Cognitive Dissonance

­­­­­Jake had been a police officer for two years when he responded to a call regarding a child not breathing. When he arrived at the address he saw a crowd of onlookers. It was obvious to this crowd of neighbors and in-laws that the young babysitter standing over the dead child was responsible for the toddler’s death.  The woman was rambling incoherently about bugs, snakes, spiders and smoking a cigarette. Her thin face was covered in scabs and pockmarks; some were bleeding.  The porch was littered with empty beer bottles and the front window had been smashed, leaving broken glass to cover the pack-n-play.

From his squad car Jake could see a muscular man in a white tee shirt approaching the house with a baseball bat. His stride was purposeful, his shoulders hunched.

“Oh here we go,” thought Jake as he exited the vehicle, “Let’s not make this any worse.”

The man glared at the babysitter and skipped two stairs up the front porch toward her. From behind the man Jake grabbed the baseball bat just before it struck the bewildered babysitter. The small crowd of onlookers seemed to have the same idea as the man with the baseball bat. Jake was outnumbered. He grabbed the babysitter and whisked her away through the shouting, crying crowd to his squad car. He saw his back up arrive, followed by an irrelevant ambulance.

For days following the call, Jake had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach; the kind of guilty sickness he hadn’t felt since he broke curfew as a kid the night his younger brother was badly beaten by some older boys. Jake reviewed his report over and over trying to remember any other detail he could add to it.

Officer Pedro the Peer Supporter noticed that Jake had not been joking around in the locker room as usual and was now quietly doodling during briefing. Pedro walked out of briefing behind Jake and asked him to meet up for lunch. “Yeah sure,” Jake replied as if he had not heard Pedro at all.

At the end of the shift, Pedro sought out Jake in the locker room. “Up for a quick pick up game?” Pedro asked tapping his basketball.

“It’s been a long day,” replied Jake.

“Come on man, I can tell you are off your game today, and I don’t mean basketball. What’s up?” Pedro sat down next to Jake who was changing his shoes.

“I’ve been thinking maybe I’m not right for this job.” Jake sighed.

“Oh, one of those days. We all have them.” Pedro bounced the basketball twice.

Jake looked surprised but then told Pedro about the dead toddler and having to protect the suspect from a “mob of righteously angry family and friends.”

“I get it Jake.” Pedro nodded. “In this job we are the sheep dogs. We feel good about protecting the sheep from the wolves. But we can’t always do that.”

“No you don’t get it Pedro. It isn’t like that. Never mind.”

“Give me another shot at it then.” Pedro tossed Jake the basketball.

Jake spun the ball in his hands. “If I was a good sheep dog, I would have protected the sheep not the wolf. I protected the suspect, not the victim, Pedro. I got it all wrong.”

“So you think you are a bad cop because you put the suspect in the car instead of letting her be slaughtered out there?” Pedro asked.

Jake tossed the ball back to Pedro and his shoulders slumped. “I was useless on that call. Didn’t even interview the R.P. I can’t shake this feeling in my stomach.”

“And that means you aren’t right for this job?” Pedro asked.


“Want my opinion?” Pedro asked, rolling the basketball toward Jake.

“Sure coach.” Jake stopped the ball with his foot.

“You are a good cop Jake. You are a good person. A good sheep dog usually protects the sheep from the wolves. But in this case you had to protect the wolf. Sometimes you have to do that and when the tables get turned it can feel pretty messed up. But it doesn’t mean you aren’t right for this job. It was the call that was messed up, not you.”

Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of uneasiness, which results from holding two conflicting beliefs. Leon Festinger proposed this theory in 1957. Everyone holds ideas about the world and themselves. When a belief and concept collide with reality, it is unpleasant so we want to make it consistent again, sometimes by adapting unhealthy or irrational beliefs.

As a law enforcement officer, Jake wants to believe he is a good person. Jake’s concept of a good law enforcement officer is someone who protects the prey from the predators, not the other way around.

Since Jake cannot change the reality of this call for service, he changes his belief, “I’m not a law enforcement officer, or I’m not right for this job.”  Woulda coulda shoulda thinking enters the scenario as Jake goes over and over the report.

Jake may not realize it, but he is acting like he believes he is not a good law enforcement officer, or a good person.  Officer Pedro the Peer Supporter notices the change in his colleague and can help Jake by listening, and reflecting this belief back to him. Pedro points out that the healthier concept is “a law enforcement officer usually protects the sheep from the sheep dog,” and shows Jake that the call for service was messed up, not Jake.

Pedro the Peer Supporter is a fictional character. This article was originally published in the San Francisco Police Officer Association Journal, 2012.

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