The Rolling Stone Tsarnaev Cover and Cognitive Dissonance

The cover photo of alleged bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev which makes him look like a sexy rock star has sparked outrage across the country. How dare they “glorify” this alleged terrorist? Well the truth is, they don’t. In a classic case of judging a book by its cover, people don’t seem to notice that the subheading on the cover itself refers to Tsarnaev as a monster. The outrage existed before the article was even released, so it can’t be unbalanced reporting sparking this uproar. Any judgment of the article itself is already tainted with the lens of anger evoked by the cover image.

So why then, are we so outraged? In reality it is a basic psychological tendency fueling our anger. When we see attractive people, we automatically attribute positive qualities to them without any evidence to support our assumptions. In this case, we know that Tsarnaev allegedly committed atrocities. Our brains struggle to reconcile what we see with what we already know, and the result is cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance theory, coined by Leon Festinger in 1957, is the idea that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (dissonance). When we see a monster we subconsciously think they should bear the mark of Caine. However, Tsarnaev is not deformed; indeed he is attractive in the photo. This internal contradiction evokes anger, which is then directed at the Rolling Stone or Tsarnaev himself.

Furthermore, the image and accompanying article point to one simple truth: Tsarnaev is one of us. It violates the basic in group/out group barrier which we rely on to simplify our world. We are huddled around the fire and the evil is out there, in the dark of the woods. However here we have someone who looks like one of us, one of our sexy idols who frequent the cover of the Rolling Stone. Most, if not all, Rolling Stone cover photos are images of sexy famous people.

We blame the Rolling Stone for “portraying” him in a certain light, but the honest truth is that as little as a year ago this image was Tsarnaev. He was attractive, as is frequently pointed out by the girls interviewed in the article. We may not like seeing the truth, but that’s real journalism. Yes, they could have picked an image of him beaten, bloody, and defeated. That, however, would have simply reaffirmed our established biases and robbed us of an opportunity to really examine ourselves.

Evil is not something that comes from “over there.” It exists within us all, and we all have the potential to do terrible things. That does not excuse the actions. Tsarnaev made a choice to do a horrible act and many others in the same situation would have done the right thing. However, some of us who have never been tested may have chosen wrong. That is a hard truth that we don’t like to consider. We have a deeply ingrained psychological aversion to it. This could have been your child, your friend, or even you yourself. Can we handle that?


Podcast – Tsarnaev Cover – The Adam Goldfein Show – Hour 1

Podcast – Tsarnaev Cover – The Adam Goldfein Show – Hour 2



Additional Resources

The Rolling Stone, Jahar’s World:

NPR, Rolling Stone’s Tsarnaev Cover: What’s stirring Such Passion?

Simply Psychology, Cognitive Dissonance:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s