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Cognitive dissonance is the perception of incompatibility between two cognitions, which can be defined as any element of knowledge, including attitude, emotion, belief, or behavior. The theory of cognitive dissonance holds that contradicting cognitions serve as a driving force that compels the mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, so as to reduce the amount of dissonance (conflict) between cognitions. Experiments have attempted to quantify this hypothetical drive.
The theory of cognitive dissonance was first proposed by the psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957 after observing the counterintuitive belief persistence of members of a UFO doomsday cult and their increased proselytization after the leader's prophecy failed. The failed message of earth's destruction, sent by aliens to a suburban housewife in 1956, became a disconfirmed expectancy that increased dissonance between cognitions, thereby causing most members of the impromptu cult to lessen the dissonance by accepting a new prophecy; that the aliens had instead spared the planet for their sake.
Empirical Research into Cognitive Dissonance
Several experimental methods were used as evidence for cognitive dissonance. These were:
- Induced compliance studies, where people are asked to act in ways contrary to their attitudes;
- Postdecisional studies, where opinions of rejected alternatives after a decision are studied;
- Studies of how people seek out information that is consonant rather than dissonant with their own views, so as to avoid cognitive dissonance
Induced Compliance Studies
Origins and one of the first experiments testing the theory
In Festinger and Carlsmith's classic 1959 experiment, students were made to perform tedious and meaningless tasks, consisting of turning pegs quarter-turns, then removing them from a board, then putting them back in, and so forth. Participants rated these tasks very negatively. After a long period of doing this, students were told the experiment was over and they could leave. This is an example of an induced compliance study.
However, the experimenter then asked the subject for a small favor. They were told that a needed research assistant was not able to make it to the experiment, and the participant was asked to fill in and try to persuade another subject (who was actually a confederate) that the dull, boring tasks the subject had just completed were actually interesting and engaging. Some participants were paid $20 for the favor, another group was paid $1, and a control group was not requested to perform the favor.
When asked to rate the peg-turning tasks later, those in the $1 group rated them more positively than those in the $20 group and control group. This was explained by Festinger and Carlsmith as evidence for cognitive dissonance. Experimenters theorized that people experienced dissonance between the conflicting cognitions "I told someone that the task was interesting", and "I actually found it boring". When paid only $1, students were forced to internalize the attitude they were induced to express, because they had no other justification. Those in the $20 condition, it is argued, had an obvious external justification for their behavior.
The researchers further speculated that with only $1, subjects faced insufficient justification and therefore "cognitive dissonance", so when they were asked to lie about the tasks, they sought to relieve this hypothetical stress by changing their attitude. This process allows the subject to genuinely believe that the tasks were enjoyable.
Put simply, the experimenters concluded that human beings, when asked to lie without being given sufficient justification, will convince themselves that the lie they are asked to tell is the truth.
This study has been criticised, on the grounds that being paid twenty dollars may have aroused the suspicion of some participants. In the 1960s, experimenters used counter-attitudinal essay-writing, in which people were paid varying amounts of money (e.g. one or ten dollars) for writing essays expressing opinions contrary to their own. These studies also found support for dissonance theory.
Postdecisional Dissonance Studies
Jack Brehm's famous experiment looked at how housewives, after making a decision, favoured the alternatives which they had selected more strongly (Brehm, 1956). This can be explained in dissonance terms - to go on wishing for rejected alternatives would arouse dissonance between the cognitions "I chose something else" and "I preferred that option".
Cognitions which contradict each other are said to be "dissonant," while cognitions which agree with each other are said to be "consonant." Cognitions which neither agree nor disagree with each other are said to be "irrelevant."
The introduction of new cognition that is dissonant with a currently held cognition creates a state of "dissonance," the magnitude of which relates to the relative importance of the involved cognitions. Dissonance can be reduced either by eliminating dissonant cognitions, or by adding new consonant cognitions. The maximum possible dissonance is equal to the resistance to change of the less resistant cognition; therefore, once dissonance reaches a level that overcomes the resistance of one of the cognitions involved, that cognition will be changed or eliminated, and dissonance will be reduced.
This leads some people who feel dissonance to seek information that will reduce dissonance and avoid information that will increase dissonance. People who are involuntarily exposed to information that increases dissonance are likely to discount that information, either by ignoring it, misinterpreting it, or denying it.
Conflicting cognitions: An example
After a superficial (or no) evaluation of various blenders, Luke purchases one. However, while his decision is consonant with the good aspects of his choice and with the defects of the blenders he rejected; it is dissonant with any known (or unknown) defects of his choice and with the good aspects of the rejects.
Unknown defects: If Luke's dissonance is amplified often enough, e.g. by new, authoritative reviews of his blender, reviews which rate his blender poorly. Or, if his experience using his friends' blenders has Luke finding his machine wanting, Luke begins to be overwhelmed by his blender's dissonant-side at which point he starts to second-guess his choice. (buyer's remorse.)
Known defects: Luke's previously unavailable first choice had caused him to "settle" for a lesser choice, for a "placeholder", if you will. Then if his first choice becomes available, Luke will experience an instant ramping-up of the second choice blender's hitherto repressed dissonance.
Under either scenario, Luke experiences full-blown cognitive dissonance when dissonance outweights consonance.
Tipping point: Luke may act to resolve the imbalance in favor of consonance by exchanging his blender for one that more fully meets his expectations. Or, if no exchange is possible and if Luke is cognitively dissonant enough, he may even outright discard his blender and buy one which is less dissonance inducing, as consonance should always trump dissonance.
Qualifications to the Basic Theory
Aronson (1969) challenged the basic theory by linking it to the self-concept. He said that cognitive dissonance did not arise because people experience dissonance between conflicting cognitions; rather, it surfaced when people saw their actions as conflicting with their self-concept. Thus, in the Festinger and Carlsmith study, Aronson would interpret the dissonance as between "I am an honest person" and "I lied to some one about finding a task interesting". Thus, according to Aronson, people would not experience dissonance in this situation if their self-concept involved perception of the self as a liar. More recently, Tedeschi has argued that maintaining cognitive consistency is a way to protect public self-image (Tedeschi, Schlenker & Bonoma, 1971). From 1965, Daryl Bem (1965; 1967) has proposed self-perception theory as an alternative to cognitive dissonance theory. This states that people do not have inner access to their own attitudes - let alone whether they are in conflict. Bem interpreted people in the Festinger and Carlsmith study as inferring their attitudes from their behaviour. Thus, when asked "Did you find that task interesting?" they would judge that, as they told some one they did, they must have done. This self-perception theory was based largely on the behaviourism of B.F. Skinner. Bem interprets those paid twenty dollars in the Festinger and Carlsmith study as being able to interpret their vocal behaviour as an example of what behaviourists such as B.F. Skinner call "mands" - that is, elements of speech that are commands and demands rather than mere statements. Consequently, these people would have not seen their vocal behaviour as an utterance describing their behaviour. Since, in many experimental situations, Bem's theory and Festinger's theory make similar predictions, it has been very difficult for experimental social psychologists to design a conclusive experiment that will provide more evidence for one rather than the other of these two theories. However, advocates of dissonance theory sometimes argue that of these two theories, only Festinger's theory predicts that certain processes in social cognition will increase arousal, although there is some dispute about how much Festinger's original theory really did imply that cognitive dissonance increased arousal. Therefore, from 1970 onwards, some psychologists have investigated whether being faced with situations where one's cognitions are likely to conflict, arousal is likely to increase, and have found experimental evidence that this is the case.
- Aronson, E. (1969). The theory of cognitive dissonance: A current perspective. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.). Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 4, pp1-34. New York: Academic Press.
- Bem, D.J. (1965). An experimental analysis of self-persuasion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1, 199-218
- Bem, D.J. (1967). Self-perception: An alternative interpretation of cognitive dissonance phenomena. Psychological Review, 74, 183-200
- Brehm, J. (1956). Post-decision changes in desirability of alternatives. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52, 384-389
- Festinger, Leon; co-authors Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter When Prophecy fails a Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World (1956)
- Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Festinger, L. and Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). "Cognitive consequences of forced compliance". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-211. Full text.
- Harmon-Jones, E., & Mills, J. (1999). Cognitive Dissonance: Progress on a pivotal theory in social psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Sherman, S. J., & Gorkin, R. B. (1980). "Attitude bolstering when behavior is inconsistent with central attitudes". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16, 388-403.
- Knox, R. E., & Inkster, J. A. (1968). "Postdecision dissonance at post time". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 319-323.
- Tedeschi, J.T., Schlenker, B.R. & Bonoma, T.V. (1971). Cognitive dissonance: Private ratiocination or public spectacle? American Psychologist, 26, 685-695
- The Great Disappointment of 1844 as an example of cognitive dissonance in a religious context
- Groupthink, lacking in cognitive process
- Self-perception theory, a competing theory of attitude change
- Choice-supportive bias, memory distortion that makes past choices seem better than they actually were.
- Supernaturalization for a description of another explanation of causal belief
- The Fox and the Grapes for an example in fiction
- Luigi Russolo's ideas about noise music in an industrialized society
- Does not compute, a phrase common in popular science fiction to indicate the theme of cognitive dissonance in an artificial intelligence
- Does not ring true, claims, predictions or theories that conflict immediately with your current knowledge of a subject. Cognitive dissonance sometimes only shown to be accurate some time later.
- Doublethink, is the act of holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously and fervently believing both.
- Unfulfilled historical predictions by Christians
- Introduction at ithaca.edu
- Introduction to Cognitive Dissonance: Progress on a Pivotal Theory in Social Psychology
- Paper: Cognitive dissonance in decision making
- Festinger and Carlsmith's original paper
- When Prophecies Fail: A Sociological Perspective on Failed Expectation in the Watchtower Society by Randall Waters from the Bethel Ministries Newsletter May/June 1990 (now the Free Minds Journal)
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