PUNCHGATE | Roxanne Pallett’s Cognitive Dissonance & The Dangers of Fake News

In the three years that I spent studying at University, I heard more about ‘Fake News’ than about my degree.

Either I had never joined the conversation and had never heard of this terminology, or it was legitimately popularised in the years since 2015. Regardless, Fake News is a loaded phrase, and there were few students who could genuinely deny having ever heard of the phenomenon.

My first experiences with Fake News came about in the autumn of 2016, just months before America’s most recent Presidential election. I had delved into a ‘History in Theory and Practice’ module, and one week’s content centred on postmodernism. Postmodernism argues for the lack of Absolute Truth, positing instead that researchers must assign their faith in one truth or another, based on the ascribed evidence. One critic engaged with Holocaust deniers as an example. Shockingly, select individuals persist in their beliefs that this event did not occur, even though there is well-documented evidence to the contrary. While a postmodernist would argue that The Holocaust is not, in fact, an Absolute Truth, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that this event did, in fact, occur.

Holocaust Deniers might refer to the Nuremburg Trials, which support the existence of the event, as Fake News. They might criticise the media for suggesting any truth other than their own. That is exactly what the 45th President of the United States of America has done since cinching victory from a second Clinton Administration two years ago. For instance, when the Fourth Estate accused him of colluding with Russia:

Or when he fired back at journalists for suggesting that his meeting with Chancellor Merkel went anything other than ‘GREAT’:

And even when the Tump Administration was accused of ‘infighting’:

The list goes on. Trump believes in a reality that differs from the one ascribed to him. A postmodernist would claim that neither reality is Absolute, but Trump’s vocal critics have argued ardently that there is more reason to side with the media. The fact that the President continually refutes contrary realities suggests that he may, in fact, suffer from cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a condition in which an individual holds values and beliefs that uphold their version of reality, regardless of facts that suggest otherwise. They will often uncover means to resolve conflicting situations by continuing to distance themselves from the more widely-accepted version of reality. This essay’s intention is to warn readers about the condition, rather than to further blemish Trump’s image. Numerous other articles have been written discussing fears surrounding Trump’s dissonance, and I urge you to conduct your own research regarding that matter, for America’s future is not this essay’s primary concern.

Rather, this essay’s purpose is to inform readers of the potentially catastrophically damaging effects of cognitive dissonance. My life was affected when a friend displayed all the symptoms of the mental discomfort. Their determination to hold on to a drastically warped version of reality resulted in their lies rapidly falling apart. Cognitive dissonance tore them from our group; none of us have heard from them since. I found it difficult to describe this phenomenon, until a podcast host applied the label to Trump, and it stuck.

I was intrigued: who else suffers? Is this common? How badly has dissonance affected others?

No sooner had I begun research than Celebrity Big Brother’s controversial ‘punchgate’ began. Contestants Roxanne Pallett and Ryan Thomas, both former ITV soap stars, were involved. Pallett accused Thomas of assault, labelling him a ‘woman-beater’. To convince her fellow housemates, Pallett re-enacted the alleged assault, striking them far harder than Thomas struck.

As Pallett’s twisted version of reality rocked the Big Brother house, Thomas’ emotional state deteriorated. This was for good reason; had the scene not been recorded, Thomas’ acting career could have been destroyed.  However, little more than a warning was issued to the accused. The production team was in no rush to evict Thomas from the show, seriously undermining allegations.

Causes rooted in Psychology

What caused Pallett’s dissonance? To answer, we must turn to Psychology.

A 1974 study by Loftus & Palmer tested the effects of the passage of time on eyewitness testimony. Participants were split into three groups and presented with a video clip containing a traffic accident. One group was asked ‘how fast were the cars going when they smashed each other?’, another ‘how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?’, and the other was asked no questions at all.

One week later they were questioned on the film – one involved the presence of broken glass. In the original film no broken glass could be seen, but the ‘smashed’ group reported more sightings of broken glass than the ‘hit’ group, who still reported some sightings, nonetheless. This demonstrated the effects of leading questions on eyewitness testimony. It also indicates how an individual’s memory can change over the passage of time.

This, I believe, was the case for Pallett. Her own reality worsened over the hours and days that followed the incident. What began as play-fighting evolved into a vicious attack. She did not actively lie; I doubt many sufferers do. Instead, Pallett became convinced of the Absolute Truth to her reality, refuting any evidence to the contrary, such as Thomas’ statements. It was only after leaving the house and being shown the clip by Emma Willis, who interviewed the former contestant, that Pallett’s morphed reality was quashed.

Pallett could finally see ‘what every single person saw’. Pallett finally understood the Truth.

Perhaps she was, on one subconscious level, already aware that her Truth was not Absolute. For instance, she refused to approach Thomas directly about this issue, despite having done so numerous times with issues encountered between Pallett and fellow contestants. It is possible that the former Emmerdale star feared interacting with any situation that dared contradict her beliefs – a very typical sign of cognitive dissonance.


Online critics have called for Pallett to face repercussions, due to the belief that her false assault accusations have undermined real abuse victims, but to do so is counterproductive. Instead, it is far better for us to take the time to understand the actions of Pallett and others suffering and show them that they are wrong, with the hope that their thinking normalises. This route is far more productive than one arguing for repent, such as the decimation of her acting career. I argued that Lord Sugar’s controversial racist tweet should be dealt with in a similar fashion earlier this year.

Likewise, the same stance should be taken with Trump’s ideas on Fake News. Continue to refute his reality and hope that Truth prevails – or else risk further dissolution between the public and politicians.

At the same time, we must understand that those with cognitive dissonance are suffering from a psychological condition. They exhibit a strong sense of denial that is often through no fault of their own, but instead due to the brain’s inaccurate perception of the situation. You should be wary of a sufferer’s ability to manipulate you – unintentionally or otherwise – but above all else, be empathetic, for they are suffering.

Don’t fight fire with fire.



Mental health helplines

If you or somebody you know is suffering from poor mental health, one of these helplines may be able to help (via the NHS):

Anxiety UK

Charity providing support if you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety condition.

Phone: 03444 775 774 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5.30pm)

Website: www.anxietyuk.org.uk

Bipolar UK

A charity helping people living with manic depression or bipolar disorder.

Website: www.bipolaruk.org.uk


CALM is the Campaign Against Living Miserably, for men aged 15-35.

Website: www.thecalmzone.net

Depression Alliance

Charity for sufferers of depression. Has a network of self-help groups.

Website: www.depressionalliance.org

Men’s Health Forum

24/7 stress support for men by text, chat and email.

Website: www.menshealthforum.org.uk

Mental Health Foundation

Provides information and support for anyone with mental health problems or learning disabilities.

Website: www.mentalhealth.org.uk


Promotes the views and needs of people with mental health problems.

Phone: 0300 123 3393 (Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm)

Website: www.mind.org.uk

No Panic

Voluntary charity offering support for sufferers of panic attacks and OCD. Offers a course to help overcome your phobia/OCD. Includes a helpline.

Phone: 0844 967 4848 (daily, 10am-10pm)

Website: www.nopanic.org.uk

OCD Action

Support for people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Includes information on treatment and online resources.

Phone: 0845 390 6232 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm)

Website: www.ocdaction.org.uk


A charity run by people with OCD, for people with OCD. Includes facts, news and treatments.

Phone: 0845 120 3778 (Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm)

Website: www.ocduk.org


Young suicide prevention society.

Phone: HOPElineUK 0800 068 4141 (Mon-Fri,10am-5pm & 7-10pm. Weekends 2-5pm)

Website: www.papyrus-uk.org

Rethink Mental Illness

Support and advice for people living with mental illness.

Phone: 0300 5000 927 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-4pm)

Website: www.rethink.org


Confidential support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair.

Phone: 116 123 (free 24-hour helpline)

Website: www.samaritans.org.uk


Emotional support, information and guidance for people affected by mental illness, their families and carers.

SANEline: 0300 304 7000 (daily, 4.30-10.30pm)

Textcare: comfort and care via text message, sent when the person needs it most: http://www.sane.org.uk/textcare

Peer support forum: www.sane.org.uk/supportforum

Website: www.sane.org.uk/support


Information on child and adolescent mental health. Services for parents and professionals.

Phone: Parents’ helpline 0808 802 5544 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-4pm)

Website: www.youngminds.org.uk


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