Cognitive dissonance is a social psychological theory introduced by Leon Festinger (1957), describing the way in which people cope with and rationalize inconsistencies in their experience, such as holding incompatible beliefs, acting in ways that violate their values, being forced to choose one of two equally attractive alternatives, or discovering that their efforts were not worth the result obtained. The term refers both to a lack of harmony among one’s thoughts and to the discomfort that results from this, which individuals are motivated to reduce by changing their mind or their behavior in the service of greater cognitive consonance. From its initial focus on discordant thoughts, the theory has evolved over the years to stress that the ultimate motivation for reducing dissonance is to preserve the belief that one is a good and rational person, and the theory is now primarily used to understand processes by which individuals justify past behavior to themselves. The concept has also been fruitfully borrowed by other social sciences: Sociologists, for example, use the theory to study the experience of individuals with conflicting identities, to analyze the maintenance of myths, and to explore aspects of religious life. Economists have used it to understand investment decisions, happiness with allocation decisions, or satisfaction with welfare policies.
In the first experimental demonstration of how people reduce dissonance, Festinger showed that when students agreed to lie to a peer for a token reward of one dollar (by saying that a boring task was in fact interesting), they came to like the task more than if they were compensated with twenty dollars. The discomfort of having lied with no obvious justification was alleviated by deciding that it was not such a lie after all. Unable to change the memory of their past behavior, they addressed the dissonance by altering the other incompatible cognition, and pronounced the task more interesting. This finding was inconsistent with learning theories prevalent at the time, which predicted that organisms would prefer those behaviors for which they are rewarded most. It was also a striking demonstration of how, contrary to the common perception that attitudes always govern behavior, behavior can also influence attitudes.
Later dissonance research relied heavily on two experimental procedures capturing the discomfort that lingers after difficult decisions. Most inspired by the original Festinger demonstration, the induced compliance paradigm requires that participants write an essay on a topic that they care about, but in support of a position opposite to their own. When the experimenter emphasizes that participants are free to refuse to write the essay, they still write it, but eventually change their stance from their original position toward the position in the essay. No such change happens when participants are simply instructed to write the essay with no room for choice. As before, the discomfort caused by misrepresenting their attitude without sufficient justification led high-choice participants to bring their attitudes more in line with their actions.
A second widely used procedure, the forced choice paradigm, introduced by Jack Brehm (1956), illustrates how people cope after they have had to pick one of two options when they had no clear-cut initial preference. After making such a choice (in Brehm’s study, housewives had to pick one of two moderately but equally attractive household appliances to take home as a gift), a typical reaction is to immediately start liking the chosen option more, and the rejected option less. This spread of alternatives prevents postdecisional regret and increases comfort with one’s decision. Difficult choices in everyday life are followed by similar mental work aimed at reducing dissonance by bringing to mind thoughts that support one’s choice, such as benefits of the chosen option or flaws of the rejected one.
A noteworthy feature of the theory is its proposal that a “cold” incompatibility between pieces of information in the mind would lead to a “hot” motivational state, a discomfort that individuals would feel a strong urge to reduce. What does this discomfort feel like? In the induced compliance paradigm, individuals report psychological discomfort just after agreeing to write the essay, but less so after they have been given a chance to express their revised attitude. Stress measures such as skin conductance have also been used to show that individuals experiencing dissonance are more physiologically aroused. Dissonance researchers have also relied on misattribution instructions to show the role of discomfort more indirectly: When participants in an induced compliance paradigm were told that a pill they just took might make them feel tense, the discomfort arising from writing the essay was ascribed (misattributed) to the pill, and participants changed their attitude less than when the pill was revealed to be just a placebo. This again demonstrates that attitude change results from discomfort with the inconsistent cognitions, because cognitions are left alone when discomfort is attributed elsewhere.
Besides these powerful experimental demonstrations, social psychologists have also used the theory to understand, for example, why new members disappointed by a group still appreciate it more if they went through harsh initiation practices to get admitted (effort justification), how individuals come to terms with doing things that they know are bad for them (e.g., smoking), or how, more encouraging, people who are reminded that their habits do not fit their values sometimes start practicing what they preach. And while the bulk of the research has focused on attitude change as the means to reduce dissonance, psychologists have shown that discomfort can also be reduced by trivializing the inconsistency, denying responsibility for the problematic behavior, looking for social support for a disconfirmed belief, or by taking substances such as alcohol that directly alter one’s psychological state.
Cognitive dissonance is the theory that has inspired the most debate and reinterpretation in social psychology. One early attempt at reappraisal was Daryl Bem’s self-perception theory (1972), which argued that what looks like attitude change does not result from inconsistent cognitions, but rather from the fact that individuals first learn about their own preferences and attitudes by observing their own behavior. As they would if observing others, individuals who saw themselves agree to write an essay for little reward inferred that they must be sympathetic with the position defended—and discomfort need not be involved. Similarly, individuals choosing one option over another in the forced-choice paradigm inferred that they must like the chosen option more. After much debate, psychologists now believe that self-perception explains the effects observed in unimportant domains, where people do not hold strong preformed attitudes, but that in important domains where individuals have strong attitudes, dissonance (and its accompanying discomfort) is a better account of the evidence available. In fact, later theorists have framed dissonance more in terms of threats to the self than in terms of purely cognitive inconsistency. They argued that inconsistency is only aversive if it threatens the actor’s sense of integrity (Aronson 1969), or that the behaviors elicited in dissonance paradigms violate the actor’s self-standards. Claude Steele (1988) suggested that they threaten the actor’s sense of moral and adaptive adequacy, and predicted that asserting any valued aspect of the actor’s self would suffice to alleviate dissonance without need for attitude change, even if this self-affirmation was unrelated to the inconsistency at hand. Indeed, he showed that individuals for whom art was very important did not exhibit as much dissonance in an unrelated induced compliance paradigm if they had a chance to express and reflect on their artistic interests beforehand. Finally, cross-cultural comparisons suggest that dissonance might be uniquely aversive to individuals from cultures emphasizing an independent self and analytic forms of thinking (e.g., Americans), based on the finding that classic dissonance inductions are much less effective with individuals from cultures that emphasize an interdependent self and holistic forms of reasoning with greater tolerance for inconsistency (e.g., Japanese).
Attribution; Choice in Psychology; Cognition; Festinger, Leon; Lying; Self-Perception Theory; Social Cognition; Social Psychology; Steele, Claude
Bem, Daryl J. 1972. Self-Perception Theory. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 6, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, 1-62. New York: Academic Press.
Brehm, Jack W. 1956. Postdecision Changes in the Desirability of Alternatives. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 52 (3): 384-389.
Festinger, Leon. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Steele, Claude M. 1988. The Psychology of Self-Affirmation: Sustaining the Integrity of the Self. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 21, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, 261-302. New York: Academic Press.
An influential concept in the study of the relationship between attitudes and behavior.
First proposed by Leon Festinger in 1957, the theory of cognitive dissonance is based on the principle that people prefer their cognitions, or beliefs, to be consistent with each other and with their own behavior.
Inconsistency, or dissonance, among their own ideas makes people uneasy enough to alter these ideas so that they will agree with each other. For example, smokers forced to deal with the opposing thoughts "I smoke" and "smoking is dangerous" are likely to alter one of them by deciding to quit smoking. Alternatively, one can diffuse dissonance by reducing its importance (discounting the evidence against smoking or adopting the view that smoking will not harm you personally); adding new information that gives more weight to one of the dissonant beliefs or appears to reconcile them (deciding that smoking is less dangerous than the stresses it helps alleviate).
In a classic study of cognitive dissonance, subjects were asked to perform a dull task and then to persuade others that this task was interesting and enjoyable. Some were paid one dollar to do this, while others were paid $20, and all of their attitudes toward the task were measured at the conclusion of the experiment. The subjects who had been paid one dollar showed a marked improvement in their attitude toward the task, while the more highly paid subjects did not. The designers of the experiment interpreted their results in the following way. Cognitive dissonance was created in all of the subjects by the conflicting facts that the task had been boring and that they were saying it was interesting—their statements and beliefs did not match. However, those who were paid $20 had been given a justification for lying: they could tell themselves that their actions made some kind of sense. However, the actions of the other group made no sense unless they could persuade themselves that the task had indeed been interesting. Thus they acted to reduce the dissonance by changing their original belief.
Children have shown similar responses to experimental situations involving cognitive dissonance. In one case, children were asked not to play with an appealing toy. One experimenter made this request mildly and politely while another one made it in a threatening fashion. Those children who had accommodated the polite request also became less attracted to the toy, since liking the toy and giving it up were conflicting experiences that created dissonance. However, the children who were threatened felt no pressure to change their opinions about the toy since they had a logical reason for giving it up.
Several types of cognitive dissonance have been identified. In post-decision dissonance, a person must decide between two choices, each of which has both positive and negative components (in other contexts, this type of situation is called a multiple approach-avoidance conflict). Forced compliance dissonance occurs when people are forced to act in ways that conflict with their beliefs and can not find any way to justify their actions to themselves. Dissonance also occurs when people are exposed to new information that threatens or changes their current beliefs. Various group situations also generate cognitive dissonance. It occurs when a person must abandon old beliefs or adopt new ones in order to join a group, when
members disagree with each other, and when the group as a whole has its central beliefs threatened by an external event or by the receipt of new information.
Festinger proposed that some individuals have a higher tolerance for cognitive dissonance than others. Subsequent researchers have found correlations between various personality traits , such as extroversion , and the ability to withstand dissonance.
Festinger, Leon. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957.
. The theory addresses competing, contradictory, or opposing elements of cognition and behaviour: for example, why do people continue smoking, when they know that smoking damages health? Festinger suggests that individuals do not believe so much out of logic as out of psychological need—a kind of psycho-logic. He argues that, striving for harmony and balance, there is a drive towards consonance amongst cognitions. Dissonance reduction may happen either through a change in a person's behaviour or a shift in attitude; thus, in the example cited above, either they stop smoking, or else modify their knowledge, for example to the belief that ‘most people who smoke don't die young and so aren't really at risk’. The theory is almost tautological in postulating some inner need for consistency, and has been criticized for ambiguity, but it has been enormously influential. See also COGNITIVE THEORY.