A Case Study in Cognitive Dissonance

Recently the nursing community reeled from news of an unspeakable tragedy when Brian Short, owner of allnurses.com, a large discussion forum for nurses, was reported to have murdered his family before taking his own life.

How can people do unspeakable things? In this case, a reportedly sociable, unpretentious and generous man acted in  a violent manner totally inconsistent with his own and society’s values. How can that be?

Brian was the head of a family much like many other families. He was a neighbor, a boss,  a friend. He plowed snow from his neighbor’s walkways. He gave rides to kids on his snowmobile in winter and on his boat in summer.  He was the one who quietly picked up the dinner check.  By all accounts of those who knew him and worked with him, he was affable and friendly. Skeletons are simply not coming out of the closet.

He was facing financial pressure  and a  lawsuit was pending against his company. It’s becoming clearer in the media that he was also clinically depressed.

The news has left the the nursing community in shock and with an array of emotions.


Cognitive Dissonance

What is cognitive dissonance? It’s the mental distress or discomfort  experienced when you attempt to hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or when confronted by  information that conflicts with and challenges your own existing beliefs, ideas, or values.

We seek consistency in our beliefs and attitudes in any situation where two cognitions are inconsistent.

We may dislike the person or situation that forces us to entertain two opposing thoughts in our head. We don’t like unanswerable “Whys?” and we can’t tolerate indefinite discomfort. We don’t want to feel sad, and horrified, and angry. One overwhelming emotion at  a time is enough.

How do we reduce the discomfort of dissonance?

How to Cope with Cognitive Dissonance

Compartmentalizing. Sometimes we cope by compartmentalizing. Nurses compartmentalize when caring for inmates, for example, or gang members in the ED. Doctors compartmentalize when performing surgery- they have to, to cut open another person. They rationalize and then…assault.

Black and white thinking. Gray areas are unpredictable, confusing, and shake our beliefs. They are hard to tolerate.

Black and white thinking is easy on the brain. This is accepting one point of view to the exclusion of the opposite and conflicting point of view. Because you can’t hold opposite beliefs in your head. So you flip-flop. He was a good person, he was a monster. He was either all good, or all bad. But…no one is either all good or all bad.

Trying to understand. Searching for a reason,  a pattern, meaning, an explanation. We try to  find similarities over our differences. It’s safer and a relief when we can understand things.

We’ve all suffered times of prolonged frustration and feelings of inadequacy. Maybe we’ve even experienced  real or imagined catastrophic loss, perhaps financial ruin, or the loss of a relationship. This is hard because while  we can maybe imagine ourselves feeling depressed, or hopeless, or even taking our own life to stop the pain….we can’t imagine taking our children with us.  That’s where the understanding stops.

Some things remain beyond human understanding.

Do We Really Ever Know Someone?

It proves that you can never fully know someone and that in itself is scary and unsettling. It undermines our sense of trust and security in the world and with others.

It leads to self-doubt. Did I really know him? Was I duped? Can I trust my own instincts and impressions? It is hardest for those who knew Brian Short for years, who worked with him, who were welcome in his home, whose children played soccer with his children. Were there signs that were missed? Did no one see this coming?

Trying to Make Sense

How do we make sense of something as  horrific and baffling as this? We can’t make sense of it, but we are desperate to try.

Many of us  hide things that hurt the most, or conceal our own inadequacies. Men and women react differently to pressures and what’s perceived by them as catastrophic loss.

Was there an undiagnosed or under diagnosed mental illness? Was he so far gone in his own darkness that he saw  this as the only solution to save his family from future pain?

Men see themselves as the main support of a family. Was he a severely depressed father who believed his children were better off dead than to face what lay ahead? Did he see himself as the “owner” of his family?

Clearly he ran out of coping skills. Was antidepressant medication involved that paradoxically deepened his depression and contributed to or created suicidal and homicidal behavior?

It is truly beyond human understanding as no one really knows what was in Brian’s head except for Brian.


Is it possible to hate the crime, to grieve the loss,  and yet not hate the person? Is that in itself too much cognitive dissonance? Some people believe so.

Others believe we can never understand, we can never condone, but that we can choose compassion. We each have to come to terms with this terrible tragedy in our own way.

My deepest condolences to the family and friends. I am so very sorry for your loss.


Nurse Beth


About Beth Hawkes

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Nurse Beth (Beth Hawkes, MSN, RN-BC), is a nursing career specialist and blogs at nursecode.com. She's also the author of Your Last Nursing Class: How to Land Your First Nursing Job. If you have ever submitted a resume or interviewed and never heard back, this book is for you. You will learn why never to say “I’m a perfectionist” when asked “What’s your greatest weakness?” You will be given insider tips and discover what nurse managers are really looking for in a candidate. Filled with real life examples and testimonials, “Your Last Nursing Class: How to Land Your First Nursing Job” truly is the ultimate guide to composing winning cover letters, essays, resumes-and landing a nursing job. Available at Amazon.