Applying Cognitive Dissonance Theory to America’s Domestic Concentration Camps and Semantics Usage

Here is a paper that I wrote in college, regarding the refugee detainment camps at the border of the United States and how CDT plays into the terminology that is used to describe them. Enjoy.


Applying Cognitive Dissonance Theory to America’s Domestic Concentration Camps and Semantics Usage

            The United States was supposedly founded on the basis of freedom. Immigrants came to North America from Europe and eventually formed their own country, and history books paint a legacy of the country’s forefathers as generally making decisions based on ethics that apply to everyone. Thomas Jefferson authored much of the Declaration of Independence, which said, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…” (US 1776). The United States played a big part in halting the horrors of the Nazis in the 1940’s and is proud of doing so. How then, could the United States, in the year 2020, have concentration camps? How do concentration camps and the current dialogue surrounding them integrate into the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance? This essay examines the importance of semantics and various forms of cognitive dissonance occurring amongst the presidential administration and citizens of the United States in present time.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory was originated in the twentieth century by Leon Festinger, PhD, the son of Russian-Jewish parents who immigrated to Brooklyn, New York (“Cognitive Dissonance Theory,” 2014). Cognitive dissonance is described as “the mental clash or tension resulting from the processes of acquiring knowledge or understanding through the senses” (“Cognitive Dissonance Theory,” 2014). Cognitive Dissonance Theory states that:

Our mind[s] have a tendency to avoid such clashes and tensions through various methods and attain harmony.  The dissonance will be on it highest on the matters regarding the self-image. The theory states that we are possessed with a powerful drive to maintain cognitive steadiness and reliability which may sometimes become irrational. The mind will attain its harmony by the following steps

    1. Altering cognitions: Changing the attitude or behavior
    2. Changing cognitions: Rationalize our behavior by changing the differing cognitions
    3. Adding cognitions: Rationalize our behavior by adding new cognition (“Cognitive Dissonance Theory,” 2014).

These processes are referred to as subjective due to the qualitative nature of their observation and measurement. The natural tendency to create justifications can lead to miscommunications as two people may observe a situation and react with different resulting cognitions. Because of the subjective nature of perceptions on cognition, it is vital that, when discussing the theory in the context of a current event, as much detail is provided into the current event as possible, to create as objective of a basis as possible for consideration in a classroom setting.

Applying Cognitive Dissonance Theory to domestic concentration camps can first be discussed as an argument of semantics usage due to differing connotations of what concentration camp means. In order to determine if the term “concentration camp” is appropriate, the term must first be defined. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a concentration camp is defined as “a place where large numbers of people are kept as prisoners in extremely bad conditions, especially for political reasons: [example] Nazi concentration camps” (Cambridge English Dictionary, n.d.). The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines concentration camp as an “internment centre for political prisoners and members of national or minority groups who are confined for reasons of state security, exploitation, or punishment, usually by executive decree or military order” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019). A current sociopolitical argument exists around whether or not the immigrant camps on United States soil which are currently being used to hold non-United States citizens can appropriately be deemed “concentration camps.” Some people say that it is inappropriately hyperbolic because the term likens the country’s current sociopolitical atmosphere to that of Nazi Germany. The idea of being associated with Nazi Germany’s identity is inconceivable to many people. However, experts agree that according to the definition of the term, the present conditions within, and treatment of those being held in the country’s camps, the term concentration camp is indeed appropriate and accurate.

On June 13, 2019 Esquire published an article and asked for the expert opinions of lecturer and concentration camp historian Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long NightA Global History of Concentration Camps (2017) and Waitman Wade Beorn, a University of Virginia lecturer and historian of the Holocaust and genocide studies. Both historians described the current conditions at United States immigrant detention facilities as concentration camps. Beorn stated that “things can be concentration camps without being Dachau or Auschwitz. Concentration camps in general have always been designed—at the most basic level—to separate one group of people from another group. Usually, because the majority group, or the creators of the camp, deem the people they’re putting in it to be dangerous or undesirable in some way” (Holmes, 2019). Pitzer stated that she would describe the border facilities as concentration camps, narrowing her definition as “mass detention of civilians without trial” (Holmes, 2019).

To delve deeper, it is necessary to look at history and determine whether or not these expert opinions are valid. Historical records note that Nazi concentration camps were not death camps to begin with. The first Nazi concentration camps were opened in March of 1933 and were used to house Jews and others who politically opposed the Nazis; in 1941, Chelmno became the first Nazi concentration camp to turn into a death camp (Florida Center for Instructional Technology, 2005). This is what Waitman Wade Beorn is implying when he states that it is necessary to demystify the phrase “concentration camp” (Holmes, 2019). A concentration camp is not the same thing as a death camp although it may also result in death.

In A Macro-Micro Integrated Theoretical Model of Mass Participation in Genocide, Olusanya postulates that “the negative affect arising from state-engineered perceptions of inequality and distributive injustice motivates individuals to engage in genocidal behaviour to correct the ‘problem’ and that anger plays a key role in energizing and engaging people” (Olusanya, 2013). He discusses the question of whether people who participate in atrocities such as genocide and torture are inherently psychopathic or regular people thinking they were acting with righteous intentions (Olusanya, 2013). There are many theories on what kinds of factors come into play on this topic. Olusanya forms a Macro-Micro framework that incorporates and takes into account both an individual’s personality traits and the society in which they are a part of. Incentives, including positive stimuli and pressure, and negative stimuli and pressure, are the primary forces behind genocidal participance (2013).

Other major factors in Olusanya’s model involve social connections that create in-group cohesion and general sentiments of disenfranchisement among the populace, key factors that played into Rwanda’s and the Nazi’s legacies of genocide (2013). All of these topics come into play when activated by a leader’s deliberate schemes, aimed at distorting the populace’s cognitive processes. Olusanya notes that Hitler was liberal towards Jews until well into his reign, when the populace he controlled had developed new justifications and perceptions due to solidified and cognitively justified ideologies through deliberated analogies and semantics. Semantics are therefore important when considering Cognitive Dissonance Theory and how it applies to concentration camps, as concentration camps are one of the first signs of a fascist regime coming into play in a society.

There is a common misconception that Nazis invented concentration camps; however, concentration camps originated during the Anglo-Boer War in 1900 in the midst of guerilla warfare. Originally designed as refugee camps for children, women, and men who could not participate in the war, people voluntarily entered them at first and over time were forced into them. The refugee camps soon became concentration camps, described as “abhorrent” and resulting in the deaths of 22,074 children, 4,177 women, and 1,676 men (South African History Online, 2019). After facing opposition to visiting the concentration camps and finally allowed entry, English social worker and philanthropist Emily Hobhouse wrote a letter to the South African Distress Fund describing them as:

Numbers crowded into small tents: some sick, some dying, occasionally a dead one among them; scanty rations dealt out raw; lack of fuel to cook them; lack of water for drinking, for cooking, for washing; lack of soap, brushes and other instruments of personal cleanliness; lack of bedding or of beds to keep the body off the bare earth; lack of clothing for warmth and in many cases for decency…(South African History Online, 2019).

This sounds precisely how activists and lawyers have recently described the concentration camps at the United States border.

On June 18, 2019, lawyers representing the Trump administration argued that they were not in violation of the Flores agreement due to not providing or being willing to provide basic sanitation and safety measures for the immigrant children in federal custody in the border camps (17-56297 Jenny Flores v. William Barr, 2019). Sarah Fabian of the Justice Department’s Office of Immigration Litigation stated that the children were safe and sanitary despite being forced to sleep on cold concrete with nothing but aluminum blankets, and not having access to soap or toothbrushes (17-56297 Jenny Flores v. William Barr, 2019). The presiding judge disagreed though a verdict was not given.

Four days later, HuffPost broke a story about four immigrant toddlers at the U.S. Border Patrol facility in McAllen, Texas being hospitalized after a visit from immigration attorneys (Chapin, 2019). Florida-based attorney Toby Gialluca described one of the toddlers as “completely unresponsive,” with their eyes rolled in the back of their head; Seattle-based attorney Mike Fassio said that the border patrol agents referred to the children as “bodies” and not humans (Chapin, 2019). The rooms were described as dangerously overcrowded and cold, kept at 55 degrees Fahrenheit and described as “hieleras,” or iceboxes, with bright lights that are on twenty-four hours a day. Gialluca described witnessing a sixteen-year-old mother have her eight-month-old infant aggressively taken away from her and removed of their clothes, then handed back and forced to sleep on the concrete outside without clothes or a blanket (Chapin, 2019).

The Associated Press broke a similar story on June 21, 2019, when several immigration attorneys visited a detention facility near El Paso, Texas and interviewed sixty children. They described the children as filthy, covered in mucous and deprived of diapers, with soiled clothing, underfed or fed frozen and uncooked food, terrified, exhausted, sick with flus and other ailments, and without adult supervision, with children as young as ten watching a critically ill toddler (Attanasio, Burke, & Mendoza, 2019). Both articles quote attorneys as saying that they had observed willful abuse and negligence unlike anything they had seen before. Many children have died and been denied hospitalization despite requests, and Gialluca said that death seemed imminent for the toddlers needing hospitalization had the attorneys not shown up (Chapin, 2019). Other children and infants have died while in custody.

The abuse described makes it clear that there is some level of cognitive dissonance occurring on multiple levels of both the Trump administration and the border patrol officers. The country has clear definitions of what defines child abuse and neglect, as “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation (including sexual abuse as determined under section 111), or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm (42 U.S.C. 5101 note, § 3)” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2019). There is no excuse for how the children have been treated in these border patrol facilities; they clearly have been described by numerous attorneys and activists as being severely abused and neglected.

Any child discovered in these kinds of conditions with a parent or family member in the United States would be immediately removed and put into foster care and their caregivers would likely be charged with crimes. The Trump administration is claiming that it needs billions of dollars in order to properly address the border crisis with military solutions; however, this is cognitively dissonant because no amount of money or lack thereof will change whether or not adults purposefully mistreat children. It does not take billions of dollars to provide blankets, water, toothbrushes, and soap to children; nor is there any logical reason for keeping humans in freezing cells and rooms without toilets and subsequently denying them medical needs as a result of the imposed illnesses that come from unsanitary living conditions. On the contrary, it would be reckless and inhumane to allow these children to remain inside these facilities. The United Nations has denounced these facilities as inhumane and in violation of human rights; but the Trump administration has revoked ICC prosecutors’ visas and therefore obstructed the ICC’s ability to investigate the camps. Additionally, children are still being questionably separated from their parents despite the end of Trump’s “Zero Tolerance Policy.” This is a self-imposed crisis that the Trump administration has created and there is no logical reason for it other than racism, xenophobia, and sadism. This is a form of rationalizing behavior via creating new cognitions, specifically cognitions surrounding what defines child abuse and neglect, and redefining human rights as not applicable to people of specific ethnicities.

It is necessary to define who are being detained in United States immigrant detention facilities and why they are being detained. The above examples describe the treatment of children more than adults, who have been reportedly treated in the same manner as well as experienced sexual abuse by border patrol officers. Most immigrants being held in the detention facilities come from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala (, 2019). Reasons for attempting to enter the United States vary from person to person and family to family, but many people are fleeing violence in their home countries and seeking asylum in the United States (Human Rights Watch, 2018).

The Human Rights Watch warns that the semantics used by the country’s chief executive, President Donald Trump, are important and have an effect on how the immigrants—or refugees—who come here are treated due to his influence on public perception. This reiterates Olusanya’s point about semantics creating an atmosphere for genocidal participation and should not be ignored. Donald Trump is quoted as referring to illegal immigrants as “animals,” as well as “drug dealers, criminals, rapists” (Human Rights Watch, 2018). This is important to note because authoritarian regimes in the past have notoriously described the minorities that were imprisoned in concentration camps in similar terms. The Nazis referred to people with Christian and Jewish ancestors as “Mischlinge,” which means “mongrel,” or a dog of mixed breeds, and “Untermenschen,” which meant “sub-human” (Holocaust Museum Houston, n.d.). The people forced into the concentration camps during the Anglo-Boer War were likewise referred to as “Undesirables” (South African History Online, 2019).

Donald Trump’s descriptions of immigrants are purposefully dehumanizing and xenophobic, thus creating an idea of a crisis to hundreds of millions of people. He has painted a picture of the country being overrun by caravans of criminals in order to justify maltreatment of refugees. This is a form of cognitive dissonance because the reality is that we do not have caravans of criminals trying to overrun the country, nor are they stealing money from our economy. In a 2018 publication by the Center for Immigration Studies, the cost to detain an illegal immigrant averaged at about $65,292 in 2016 U.S. dollars per lifetime, as opposed to between $6,000 and $11,000 to deport them (Center for Immigration Studies & Camarota, 2018). Immigrants are currently being detained indefinitely and without trial, hence their inhumane detention serves no legitimate purpose. The Trump administration recently requested that the Federal Court modify the Flores agreement, which stipulates that children cannot be detained for over twenty days and prevents indefinite detention of families (Bach, 2019).

The dangers presented with this kind of deliberate indoctrination of cognitive dissonance and the subsequent denial of the serious nature of the concentration camps at our border cannot be stressed enough. There is substantial evidence from historical and psychological studies to show that humans can lose touch with their sense of empathy very quickly when faced with either/or scenarios involving human rights abuses. Losing a sense of empathy is part of losing a sense of human connection, a disassociation from caring for other humans.

The infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Project, designed by Philip Zimbardo, showed that students who were placed in mock-prisons and watched by students acting out the roles of prison guards went from being humanely treated to being abused at an alarming rate. In an analysis of Cognitive Dissonance Theory and how it relates to integrity, Professor of Law David Luban describes the Stanford Prison Experiment as a cause for loss of personal integrity, due to a loss of self-identity caused by self-identifying with specific roles (Luban, 2003). What was intended to be a one to two-week experiment was cut short at day six due to the grotesque and violent ways in which the mock guards treated the mock prisoners. This included an instance of the mock guards really spraying the mock prisoners with fire extinguishers. Luban describes the psychological transformation of one of the guards by comparing his journal entries:

The transformation of the subjects almost defies belief. One guard wrote in his diary before the experiment, “[a]s I am a pacifist and nonaggressive individual, I cannot see a time when I might maltreat other living things.”6 By day five of the experiment, this same student wrote the following in his diary: This new prisoner, 416, refuses to eat. That is a violation of Rule Two: “Prisoners must eat at mealtimes,” and we are not going to have any of that kind of shit …. Obviously we have a troublemaker on our hands. If that’s the way he wants it, that’s the way he gets it. We throw him into the Hole ordering him to hold greasy sausages in each hand. After an hour, he still refuses …. I decide to force feed him, but he won’t eat. I let the food slide down his face. I don’t believe it is me doing it. I just hate him more for not eating. (Luban, 2013)

Luban goes further and notes this as a form of Situationism, inextricably linked to cognitive dissonance. Each person in some way forms their perceptions uniquely—but given specific orders, they begin to perceive of their roles as something that places them in their particular space in society. When roles are placed onto them, they therefore are vulnerable to manipulation. This can result in a temporary cognitive dissonant state or a permanent one, depending on the circumstances.

Luban warns that, while the people responsible for programming others into roles have the ability to help them snap out of it—such as in the case of the temporary Stanford Prison Experiment when Philip Zimbardo reminded a traumatized participant that it was not real—they also have the ability to do just the opposite. This is when a permanent form of cognitive dissonance can occur. Luban states the following as the process by which a person or entity aims to permanently alter the cognitions of others, which goes as “action, rationalization, commitment, further action” (Luban, 2003). Echoing the words of Olusanya, purposefully inflicted cognitive dissonance within groups of people can therefore lead to terrible actions and crimes against humanity.

The state of the concentration camps at the United States border should serve as a warning. The United States has long been touted as “The Land of the Free” and took part in the take-down of Adolph Hitler and his kin. Many United States citizens feel a strong identity and association to their country; it is in cases of self-identity that cognitive dissonance has the greatest potential to occur. There is a real danger in harboring fascist attitudes and carrying out human rights violations in the name of federal law, especially while under the authority of a president who uses tried and true rhetoric and semantics to spread division amongst the people. If that fascist attitude becomes a part of the core identity of United States citizens, it would be accurate to say that the country is running on a campaign of cognitive dissonance. It would be advisable for more people to pay attention to what is happening with the concentration camps and help educate others about them when possible, before a critical mass of people experience permanent cognitive dissonance and potentially become violent.


17-56297 Jenny Flores v. William Barr (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit June 18, 2019).

Attanasio, C., Burke, G., & Mendoza, M. (2019, June 21). Attorneys: Texas border facility is neglecting migrant kids. Associated Press.

Bach, N. (2019, June 21). When Asked About Human Rights Issues, Trump Pointed to His Website.

Cambridge English Dictionary. (n.d.). “Concentration Camp.” Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary.

Chapin, A. (2019, June 22). 4 Severely Ill Migrant Toddlers Hospitalized After Lawyers Visit Border Patrol Facility. HuffPost.

Center for Immigration Studies, & Camarota, S. A. (2018, October 28). Enforcing Immigration Law Is Cost Effective. (2014, July 10). Cognitive Dissonance Theory.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, March 28). “Concentration camp.” Definition in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Florida Center for Instructional Technology. (2005). A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust. College of Education, University of South Florida. (2019, June). Detention Map & Statistics.

Holmes, J. (2019, June 13). An Expert on Concentration Camps Says That’s Exactly What the U.S. Is Running at the Border.

Holocaust Museum Houston. (n.d.). Vocabulary Terms Related to the Holocaust.

Human Rights Watch. (2018, May 23). Trump’s Racist Language Serves Abusive Immigration Policies.

Luban, D. (2003). Integrity: Its causes and cures. Fordham Law Review, Volume. 72, Pages 279-310.  doi:10.1017/cbo9780511487484.009

Olusanya, Olaoluwa. (2013, September). A Macro-Micro Integrated Theoretical Model of Mass Participation in Genocide. The British Journal of Criminology, Volume 53 (Issue 5), Pages 843–863.

South African History Online. (2019, February 20). Women and Children in White Concentration Camps during the Anglo-Boer War, 1900-1902.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2019). What Is Child Abuse and Neglect? Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.