A traumatic dissonance theory of perpetrator-related distress

Rachel E. Williamson, David E. Reed, Robert E. Wickham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


The evolving conceptualization of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) reflects ongoing debate regarding the development and manifestation of symptoms related to psychological trauma. The most recent iteration of the disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) broadened Criteria A’s definition of an index trauma, making possible its application to individuals experiencing symptoms related to their own act of perpetration. The current research aims to develop a theoretical basis for understanding the mechanism of psychological distress resulting from perceived perpetration. It is hypothesized that unresolved dissonance relating to a violation of one's symbolic source of self-esteem and meaning (i.e., one's belief system) represents a traumatic experience that can produce significant psychological distress. This hypothesis forms the basis of the Traumatic Dissonance Scale (TDS), which contains three facets required to meet the criteria for a traumatic perpetrator experience: (a) the act must clearly violate one's belief system, (b) the belief system must be important to one's identity, and (c) there must be no perceived way of atoning for one's actions. Participants (N = 429) were recruited online and include subsamples of military, police, and civilian participants. Confirmatory factor analysis supported the hypothesized 3-factor model, and latent profile analysis identified four respondent classes that differ in mean responses to the three TDS dimensions. Class membership was used as a predictor of PTSD symptoms, and results demonstrated that elevation on all three factors was significantly related to increased PTSD symptom severity compared to those in classes not reporting traumatic dissonance experiences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)75-91
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Theoretical Social Psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2020


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