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Valuing Dissonance - Into the rabbit hole…

Updated: May 27, 2020

by Anneka Ferguson SFHEA, Senior Lecturer, ANU

“Curiouser and Curiouser!” Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, or Lewis Carroll, was a well-respected mathematics tutor at Christ Church College, Oxford. He felt compelled to critique the educational paradigm of his day through the tale of Alice in Wonderland –i.e. Alice was supposed to learn by listening to her sister but fell asleep as she did so, and Alice’s comments at various times throughout her adventure as she mangles some rote learned piece of information. More intriguing, are his Tangled Tales, containing ten narrative (contextualized?) logic knots for readers to untangle, and/or his many highly satirical descriptions in Sylvie and Bruno by the “Other Professor” of entry examination processes and the (scarily identifiable) chase to get students.

With my eclectic mix of qualifications in psychology, law and legal practice, along with pedagogical experience as both a legal practitioner, a “teacher” and a researcher of legal practice and undergraduate law, I invite you into a rapid fall into the rabbit hole wherein we will briefly snatch at and examine various curiosities on Values, Self-Determination Theory and Wellbeing of law students. When we hit the bottom I encourage you to “Drink” the bottle marked cognitive dissonance and consider if this drink can account for law students’ attitudes, values and wellbeing changes whilst at law school.

Curiosity #1: Self-Determination Theory

Human beings can be proactive or engaged, or alternatively passive and alienated, largely as a function of the social conditions in which they function. Ryan and Deci (2000)

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) as elucidated by Ryan and Deci is a theory of motivation based on the idea that a person has three innate psychological needs that facilitate motivation, assimilation of information, behavioural regulation and wellbeing, namely:

  • Competence – the knowledge that you can deal with your environment;

  • Autonomy – that you have control of your direction and choices; and

  • Relatedness – that you have meaningful connections with others.

Curiosity #2 – Values

A person’s values – what is important to them – is an important function of SDT. While competence, autonomy and relatedness explain the “what” of a human’s basic psychological needs; your values and feeling that you have the competence, autonomy and relatedness in order to pursue these values, provide the “why”.

Curiosity #3 – How do SDT and Values apply to legal education?

Studies of lawyers and law students by Krieger and Sheldon in the US have suggested that negative outcomes in wellbeing and professionalism in law students are associated with the undermining of these SDT factors in law school. Furthermore, the corresponding shift from intrinsic to extrinsic values that occurs as a result is not furthering the wellbeing of the profession either.

In Australia, research conducted by my colleague Stephen Tang and I confirmed this relationship between SDT and wellbeing. Furthermore, our research has also been able to demonstrate the effects of improving the SDT factors. Most notably, our modelling of what predicted overall levels of distress in our cohorts demonstrated that it is values obstruction that significantly predicts more psychological distress in students, while increases in Autonomy and Relatedness, in particular, are predictors of less psychological distress in students.

Curiosity #4 – What happens with values in first year?

When I start teaching my first year law students I ask them, after an appropriate build up: why they are studying law, what values they bring to the study of law and what they are worried/concerned about in their studies. I anonymously receive and collate these responses and feed them back to the students to both comfort them (as they see what they are all worried about) and to demonstrate my acknowledgement of their values. The table below indicates the themes:

Curiosity #5 – What happens to values at the end of 1st year?

Unfortunately, by the end of the first year of study and definitely by the second year of study students’ values change in focus quite dramatically. This is most profoundly shown by O’Brien and Tang (2013) in a survey of beginning and end of first year students about their expectations and experiences of law school. They discovered that extrinsic motivations such as “Personal success” and “Professional prestige” increased significantly over just the first year of study, whereas intrinsic motivations such as “Making a difference and help people” and “intellectual curiosity” have significantly decreased over the year.

Curiosity #6 – But Why? Cognitive Dissonance?

“The holding of two or more inconsistent cognitions arouses the state of cognitive dissonance, which is experienced as uncomfortable tension. This tension has drive-like properties and must be reduced” Festinger (1962)

Could cognitive dissonance explain the change from intrinsic to extrinsic values in our law students? Or, in other words, are the ‘values’ of law school (hidden or otherwise) so at odds with student entry-level values that students change these values?

How motivated you are to change your values/attitudes will be a function of the magnitude of the dissonance you experience. This magnitude can be impacted by the difficulty of the decision you are facing (the Free Choice Paradigm) and whether you were induced to comply. Interestingly, as long as decision freedom is high and the unwanted and aversive consequences of your decision are foreseeable, the lower the incentive you have been given to complete the act that goes against your previous attitude, the greater the attitude change. (Cooper, 2007).

However, there is no doubt that when cognitive dissonance is aroused the resolution of this dissonance is more likely to be done through attitude change rather than behavioural change (Cooper, 2007). For example, if you find yourself working in a law firm in a despised area of law because it clashes with your values, you are more likely to change your attitude to the area of law than to change your behavior of working at the firm. Alternatively, you may address the dissonance by:

  • Adjusting the importance of the cognitions (Simon et al 1995);

  • Bolstering supportive cognitions (Sherman and Gorkin, 1980); and

  • Seeking new supportive cognitions (Frey, 1981).

Finally, an interesting observation of cognitive dissonance is that of Effort justification i.e. liking what you have suffered for. As Aronson and Mills found in 1959, the more onerous, difficult or noxious a process gone through to join a club or prepare to climb a wall, the more you believe the club or the wall is fun. Now maybe I’m projecting a little here, but I wonder whether this theory applies to law school?

Waking up in Wonderland? – What is real (significant)?

Even if cognitive dissonance does explain this values shift, we do have to ask ourselves whether it matters? One answer to this question could be no.

After all, our research indicates that by the end of a law degree, or least by the start of the GDLP, student distress levels are in line with societal averages. So maybe the main ‘pain’ of dissonance occurs in the first or second year and then by the time this dissonance resolves in later years, the distress is less as the attitude change becomes the norm? However, if we follow this argument, we must ask ourselves the ethical question, is it acceptable to provide an educational environment that so shifts values even if students, through some form of effort justification, become comfortable with it?

And how does this relate to our research that quite strongly suggests that feeling like you have autonomy to set your direction and to make progress towards your values predicts less psychological distress symptoms?

And finally, what does this mean for teaching? Can we just prioritise our own views on not changing our ways of teaching, over values of improving wellbeing and thus stick to the status quo? Or do we need to fight our own cognitive dissonance and try to make the aversive consequences of changing students attitudes more explicit so that dissonance and possibly detrimental attitude/or values change for the students does not occur.

After all, with the issues the world has to face today, it would seem that the need for a legal profession committed to socially just outcomes is just as, if not, more prevalent than before. Therefore, as educators, should we not be trying to provide an environment that continues these social justice values in our students beyond the first year of law school?


Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59(2), 177.

Cooper, J. (2007). Cognitive dissonance: 50 years of a classic theory. Sage.

Ferguson, A. (2015). Creating practice ready, well and professional law graduates. Journal of Learning Design, 7(2), pp 26

Ferguson, A. (2018). ‘Chapter 2: Determined to be Professional, Ethical and Well’ in Fields. Rachael and Strevens, Caroline (eds) “Educating for Well-Being in Law” (Forthcoming)

Festinger, L. (1962). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press

Frey, D. (1981). Reversible and irreversible decisions: Preference for consonant information as a function of attractiveness of decision alternatives. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 7(4), 621-626.

O'Brien, M & Tang, S. (2013). Stop struggling for the struggle's sake: Make it meaningful, The International First Year in Higher Education Conference. The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, New Zealand, pp. 1-10.

Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci (2000) Self Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being, American Psychologist 55(1), 68

Sheldon, K. M., & Krieger, L. S. (2004). Does legal education have undermining effects on law students? Evaluating changes in motivation, values, and well‐being. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 22(2), 261-286.

Simon, L., Greenberg, J. and Brehm, J. (1995). Trivialization: the forgotten mode of dissonance reduction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68(2), 247 - 260

Sherman, S. J., & Gorkin, L. (1980). Attitude bolstering when behavior is inconsistent with central attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16(4), 388-403.

Tang, S., & Ferguson, A. (2014). The possibility of wellbeing: Preliminary results from surveys of Australian professional legal education students. QUT L. Rev., 14, 27.

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