Cognitive dissonance example from "Murder Among the Mormons"

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In the 2021 Netflix three-episode documentary, Murder Among the Mormons, we learn about the exploits of forger and murderer Mark Hofmann. Hofmann had a lot people snookered; people believed that the documents about the origin of the Church of Latter Day Saints he had in his possession were real. And once so decided, it was hard for them to change their minds and see Hofmann and his documents for what they were.

After three bombings that took place on Oct 15 and 16, 1985 that killed two people and injured two—including Hofmann—police immediately began an investigation of Hofmann. News outlets interviewed a number of people regarding the case. One such interview was with historian Brent Metcalfe, a colleague of Hofmann’s. Metcalfe said at the time, “I have a great deal of doubt that Mark [Hofmann] is involved in any way at this point…I just have no reason to believe, despite the assertions that have been made, that Mark was involved in any kind of forgery of this kind.” In episode 3 of Murder Among the Mormons at the 14:05 mark, in addition to clips from that 1985 interview, a much older Brent Metcalfe talks with the producers of this documentary about what he said in that interview, and, more generally, what he thought at the time and why.

After covering cognitive dissonance, share with your students a little background about Mark Hofmann and his forgeries. (Watch Murder Among the Mormons or read the Wikipedia entry for more information). Ask your students to put themselves into Brent Metcalfe’s shoes. “You are a colleague of Mark Hofmann’s. You believe him—you believe that the documents he had in his possession and collected over the previous five years were genuine. And now there were these bombings that killed and injured people connected to Hofmann. The third bomb injured Hofmann himself. The police are investigating Hofmann. As Hofmann’s colleague, would you continue to believe him as you have for the last five years? How easily would you be able to say, ‘Boy, was I ever wrong about him!’”

Divide students into groups, and ask them to identify which two of Metcalfe’s thoughts were in conflict. How might Metcalfe reduce this dissonance? Would Metcalfe immediately say, “Well, I sure was wrong about him!” or would Metcalfe be more likely to hold onto his belief? Explain.

Bring students back together, and ask groups to report their predictions.

Brent Metcalfe, in an interview 36 years after the 1985 bombings, said,

Part of the reason I maintained my belief in Mark Hofmann’s innocence is because, again, I felt like, what does that mean for me as a person?... I could not accept that I had no suspicion whatsoever. That was almost unacceptable to me, because it went right to the heart of who I am. And that frightened me, that I could be that deceived by someone.  

Sum up your discussion of cognitive dissonance with an explanation of how Metcalfe’s comments exemplify this concept.

A small, but important, concluding note: Showing this clip to your students in a real or virtual classroom setting is a violation of Netflix’s terms of use. You can describe, you can quote, you can encourage your students to watch it on their own time using their own Netflix account, but you cannot show them the clip yourself.

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.