In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.
Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency. When inconsistency (dissonance) is experienced, individuals largely become psychologically distressed. His basic hypotheses are listed below:
- "The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance"
- "When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance"
- 1 Relationship between cognitions
- 2 Reducing cognitive dissonance
- 3 Theory and research
- 4 Examples
- 5 Applications of research
- 6 Challenges and alternative theories
- 7 Neuroscience findings
- 8 Modeling in neural networks
- 9 See also
- 10 References
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
Relationship between cognitions
Individuals can adjust their attitudes or actions in various ways. Adjustments result in one of three relationships between two cognitions or between a cognition and a behavior.
- Consonant relationship – Two cognitions/actions that are consistent with one another (Ex: Not wanting to get intoxicated while out, then ordering water instead of alcohol)
- Irrelevant relationship – Two cognitions/actions that are unrelated to one another (Ex: Not wanting to get intoxicated while out, then tying your shoes)
- Dissonant relationship – Two cognitions/actions that are inconsistent with one another (Ex: Not wanting to get intoxicated while out, then consuming six tequila shots)
Magnitude of dissonance
The amount of dissonance produced by two conflicting cognitions or actions (as well as the subsequent psychological distress) depends on two factors:
- The importance of cognitions: The more elements that are personally valued, the greater the magnitude of the dissonant relationship will be.
- Ratio of cognitions: The proportion of dissonant to consonant elements
The pressure to reduce cognitive dissonance is a function of the magnitude of said dissonance.
Reducing cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance theory is founded on the assumption that individuals seek consistency between their expectations and their reality. Because of this, people engage in a process called dissonance reduction to bring their cognitions and actions in line with one another. This creation of uniformity allows for a lessening of psychological tension and distress. According to Festinger, dissonance reduction can be achieved in four ways:
Attitude: "I am going on a diet and will avoid high fat food" Behavior: Eating a doughnut or some other high fat food
- 1. Change behavior/cognition
- (Ex: Stop eating the doughnut)
- 2. Justify behavior/cognition by changing the conflicting cognition
- (Ex: "I'm allowed to cheat every once in a while")
- 3. Justify behavior/cognition by adding new cognitions
- (Ex: "I'll spend 30 extra minutes at the gym to work it off")
- 4. Ignore/Deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs
- (Ex: "I did not eat that donut. I always eat healthy.")
Theory and research
Most of the research on cognitive dissonance takes the form of one of four major paradigms. Important research generated by the theory has been concerned with the consequences of exposure to information inconsistent with a prior belief, what happens after individuals act in ways that are inconsistent with their prior attitudes, what happens after individuals make decisions, and the effects of effort expenditure.
Belief disconfirmation paradigm
Dissonance is felt when people are confronted with information that is inconsistent with their beliefs. If the dissonance is not reduced by changing one's belief, the dissonance can result in restoring consonance through misperception, rejection or refutation of the information, seeking support from others who share the beliefs, and attempting to persuade others.
An early version of cognitive dissonance theory appeared in Leon Festinger's 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails. This book gives an account of the deepening of cult members' faith following the failure of a cult's prophecy that a UFO landing was imminent. The believers met at a pre-determined place and time, believing they alone would survive the Earth's destruction. The appointed time came and passed without incident. They faced acute cognitive dissonance: had they been the victim of a hoax? Had they donated their worldly possessions in vain? Most members chose to believe something less dissonant to resolve reality not meeting their expectations: they believed that the aliens had given Earth a second chance, and the group was now empowered to spread the word that earth-spoiling must stop. The group dramatically increased their proselytism despite the failed prophecy.
In Festinger and Carlsmith's classic 1959 experiment, students were asked to spend an hour on boring and tedious tasks (e.g., turning pegs a quarter turn, over and over again). The tasks were designed to generate a strong, negative attitude. Once the subjects had done this, the experimenters asked some of them to do a simple favour. They were asked to talk to another subject (actually an actor) and persuade the impostor that the tasks were interesting and engaging. Some participants were paid $20 (equivalent to $162 in present day terms) for this favour, another group was paid $1 (equivalent to $8 in present day terms), and a control group was not asked to perform the favour.
When asked to rate the boring tasks at the conclusion of the study (not in the presence of the other "subject"), those in the $1 group rated them more positively than those in the $20 and control groups. This was explained by Festinger and Carlsmith as evidence for cognitive dissonance. The researchers 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, however, had an obvious external justification for their behaviour, and thus experienced less dissonance.
In subsequent experiments, an alternative method of inducing dissonance has become common. In this research, experimenters use counter-attitudinal essay-writing, in which people are paid varying amounts of money (e.g. $1 or $10) for writing essays expressing opinions contrary to their own. People paid only a small amount of money have less external justification for their inconsistency and must produce internal justification in order to reduce the high degree of dissonance that they are experiencing.
A variant of the induced-compliance paradigm is the forbidden toy paradigm. An experiment by Aronson and Carlsmith in 1963 examined self-justification in children. In this experiment, children were left in a room with a variety of toys, including a highly desirable toy steam-shovel (or other toy). Upon leaving the room, the experimenter told half the children that there would be a severe punishment if they played with that particular toy and told the other half that there would be a mild punishment. All of the children in the study refrained from playing with the toy. Later, when the children were told that they could freely play with whatever toy they wanted, the ones in the mild punishment condition were less likely to play with the toy, even though the threat had been removed. The children who were only mildly threatened had to justify to themselves why they did not play with the toy. The degree of punishment by itself was not strong enough, so the children had to convince themselves that the toy was not worth playing with in order to resolve their dissonance.
A 2012 study using a version of the forbidden toy paradigm showed that hearing music reduces the development of cognitive dissonance. With no music playing in the background, the control group of four-year-old children were told to avoid playing with a particular toy. After playing alone, the children later devalued the forbidden toy in their ranking, which is similar findings to earlier studies. However, in the variable group, classical music was played in the background while the children played alone. In that group, the children did not later devalue the toy. The researchers concluded that music may inhibit cognitions that result in dissonance reduction. Music is not the only example of an outside force lessening post-decisional dissonance; a 2010 study showed that hand-washing had a similar effect.
In a different type of experiment conducted by Jack Brehm, 225 female students rated a series of common appliances and were then allowed to choose one of two appliances to take home as a gift. A second round of ratings showed that the participants increased their ratings of the item they chose, and lowered their ratings of the rejected item.
This can be explained in terms of cognitive dissonance. When making a difficult decision, there are always aspects of the rejected choice that one finds appealing and these features are dissonant with choosing something else. In other words, the cognition, "I chose X" is dissonant with the cognition, "There are some things I like about Y." More recent research has found similar results in four-year-old children and capuchin monkeys.
In addition to internal deliberations, the structuring of decisions among other individuals may play a role in how an individual acts. Researchers in a 2010 study examined social preferences and norms as related, in a linear manner, to wage giving among three individuals. The first participant's actions influenced the second's own wage giving. The researchers argue that inequity aversion is the paramount concern of the participants.
Effort justification paradigm
Dissonance is aroused whenever individuals voluntarily engage in an unpleasant activity to achieve some desired goal. Dissonance can be reduced by exaggerating the desirability of the goal. Aronson & Mills had individuals undergo a severe or mild "initiation" in order to become a member of a group. In the severe-initiation condition, the individuals engaged in an embarrassing activity. The group they joined turned out to be very dull and boring. The individuals in the severe-initiation condition evaluated the group as more interesting than the individuals in the mild-initiation condition.
All of the above paradigms continue to be used in fruitful research.
Washing one's hands has been shown to eliminate post-decisional dissonance, presumably because the dissonance is often caused by moral disgust (with oneself), which is related to disgust from unsanitary conditions.
"The Fox and the Grapes"
A classic illustration of cognitive dissonance is expressed in the fable "The Fox and the Grapes" by Aesop (ca. 620–564 BCE). In the story, a fox sees some high-hanging grapes and wishes to eat them. When the fox is unable to think of a way to reach them, he decides that the grapes are probably not worth eating, with the justification the grapes probably are not ripe or that they are sour (hence the common phrase "sour grapes"). The moral that accompanies the story is "Any fool can despise what he can not get". This example follows a pattern: one desires something, finds it unattainable, and reduces one's dissonance by criticizing it. Jon Elster calls this pattern "adaptive preference formation".
Cognitive dissonance has also been demonstrated to occur when people seek to:
- Explain inexplicable feelings: When a disaster occurs in a community, irrationally fearful rumors spread in nearby communities not involved in the disaster because of the need of those who are not threatened to justify their anxieties
- Minimize regret of irrevocable choices: Bettors at a racetrack are more confident in their chosen horse just after placing the bet because they cannot change it (the bettors felt "post-decision dissonance").
- Justify behavior that opposed their views: Students judge cheating less harshly after being induced to cheat on a test.
- Align one's perceptions of a person with one's behaviour toward that person: the Ben Franklin effect refers to that statesman's observation that the act of performing a favour for a rival leads to increased positive feelings toward that individual.
- Reaffirm already held beliefs: Congeniality bias (also referred to as Confirmation Bias) refers to how people read or access information that affirms their already established opinions, rather than referencing material that contradicts them. For example, a person who is politically liberal might only read newspapers and watch news commentary that is from liberal news sources. This bias appears to be particularly apparent when faced with deeply held beliefs, i.e., when a person has 'high commitment' to their attitudes.
Balance theory suggests people have a general tendency to seek consonance between their views, and the views or characteristics of others (e.g., a religious believer may feel dissonance because their partner does not have the same beliefs as he or she does, thus motivating the believer to justify or rationalize this incongruence). People may self handicap so that any failures during an important task are easier to justify (e.g., the student who drinks the night before an important exam in response to his fear of performing poorly).
Applications of research
In addition to explaining certain counter-intuitive human behaviour, the theory of cognitive dissonance has practical applications in several fields.
Creating and resolving cognitive dissonance can have a powerful impact on students' motivation for learning. For example, researchers have used the effort justification paradigm to increase students' enthusiasm for educational activities by offering no external reward for students' efforts: preschoolers who completed puzzles with the promise of a reward were less interested in the puzzles later, as compared to preschoolers who were offered no reward in the first place. The researchers concluded that students who can attribute their work to an external reward stop working in the absence of that reward, while those who are forced to attribute their work to intrinsic motivation came to find the task genuinely enjoyable.
Psychologists have incorporated cognitive dissonance into models of basic processes of learning, notably constructivist models. Several educational interventions have been designed to foster dissonance in students by increasing their awareness of conflicts between prior beliefs and new information (e.g., by requiring students to defend prior beliefs) and then providing or guiding students to new, correct explanations that will resolve the conflicts.
For example, researchers have developed educational software that incorporates these principles in order to facilitate student questioning of complex subject matter. Meta-analytic methods suggest that interventions that provoke cognitive dissonance to achieve directed conceptual change have been demonstrated across numerous studies to significantly increase learning in science and reading.
The general effectiveness of psychotherapy and psychological intervention has been explained in part through cognitive dissonance theory. Some social psychologists have argued that the act of freely choosing a specific therapy, together with the effort and money invested by the client in order to continue to engage in the chosen therapy, positively influences the effectiveness of therapy. This phenomenon was demonstrated in a study with overweight children, in which causing the children to believe that they freely chose the type of therapy they received resulted in greater weight loss.
In another example, individuals with ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) who invested significant effort to engage in activities without therapeutic value for their condition, but which had been framed as legitimate and relevant therapy, showed significant improvement in phobic symptoms. In these cases and perhaps in many similar situations, patients came to feel better in order to justify their efforts and to ratify their choices. Beyond these observed short-term effects, effort expenditure in therapy also predicts long-term therapeutic change.
It has also been demonstrated that cognitive dissonance can be used to promote behaviours such as increased condom use. Other studies suggest that cognitive dissonance can also be used to encourage individuals to engage in prosocial behaviour under various contexts such as campaigning against littering, reducing prejudice to racial minorities, and compliance with anti-speeding campaigns. The theory can also be used to explain reasons for donating to charity.
Research and understanding of cognitive dissonance in consumers reveals potential for developing marketing practices. Existing literature suggests that three main conditions exist for arousal of dissonance in purchases: the decision involved in the purchase must be important, such as involvement of a lot of money or psychological cost and be personally relevant to the consumer, the consumer has freedom in selecting among the alternatives, and finally, the decision involvement must be irreversible.
A study performed by Lindsay Mallikin shows that when consumers experience an unexpected price encounter, they adopt three methods to reduce dissonance: Consumers may employ a strategy of constant information, they may have a change in attitude, or they may engage in trivialization. Consumers employ the strategy of constant information by engaging in bias and searching for information that will support their prior beliefs. Consumers might search for information about other retailers and substitute products consistent with their belief states. Alternatively, consumers may show change in attitude such as reevaluating price in relation to external reference prices or associating high or low prices with quality. Lastly, trivialization may occur and the importance of the elements of the dissonant relationship is reduced; consumers tend to trivialize importance of money, and thus of shopping around, saving, and receiving a better deal.
Cognitive dissonance is also useful to explain and manage post-purchase concerns. If a consumer feels that an alternate purchase would have been better, it is likely he/she will not buy the product again. To counter this, marketers have to convince buyers constantly that the product satisfies their need and thereby helps reduce their cognitive dissonance, ensuring repurchase of the same brand in the future.
At times cognitive resonance is induced, rather than resolved, to market products. The Hallmark Cards tag line "When you care enough to send the very best" is an example of a marketing strategy that creates guilt in the buyer if he or she goes for a less expensive card. Such aggressive marketing ensures that the recipient also is aware that the product has a premium price. This encourages the consumer to buy the expensive cards on special occasions.
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Social engineering as applied to security is the exploitation of various social and psychological weaknesses in individuals and business structures, sometimes for penetration testing but more often for nefarious purposes, such as espionage against businesses, agencies, and individuals, typically toward the end of obtaining some illegal gain, either of useful but restricted or private information or for monetary gain through such methods as phishing to obtain banking account access, or for purposes of identity theft, blackmail, and so forth. Exploitation of weaknesses caused by inducing cognitive dissonance in targets is one of the techniques used by perpetrators.
Challenges and alternative theories
While cognitive dissonance theory has been utilized in experiments and is generally (although not entirely) accepted by those in the psychology field, there are alternative theories that account for human attitudes and behaviors.
Self-perception theory (Bem)
Daryl Bem was an early critic of cognitive dissonance theory. He proposed self-perception theory as a more parsimonious alternative explanation of the experimental results. According to Bem, people do not think much about their attitudes, let alone whether they are in conflict. Bem's self-perception theory functions under the notion that people develop attitudes by observing their own behavior and concluding what attitudes caused it. This is particularly true when internal cues are weak or ambiguous. Individuals are considered to be in the same position as an observer, meaning they must rely on external cues to infer their own inner state. Self-perception theory suggests people adopt attitudes without accessing internal cognition and mood states.
Bem interpreted people in the Festinger and Carlsmith study or the induced-compliance paradigm as inferring their attitudes from their behavior. Thus, when asked "Did you find the task interesting?" they decided that they must have found it interesting because that is what they told someone. Bem suggested that people who were paid $20 had a salient, external incentive for their behavior and were likely to perceive the money as their reason for saying the task was interesting, rather than concluding that they actually found it interesting.
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In many experimental situations, Bem's theory and Festinger's dissonance theory make identical predictions, but only dissonance theory predicts the presence of unpleasant tension or arousal. Lab experiments have verified the presence of arousal in dissonance situations. This provides support for cognitive dissonance theory and makes it unlikely that self-perception by itself can account for all the laboratory findings.
In 1969, Elliot Aronson reformulated the theory by linking it to the self-concept, clarifying that cognitive dissonance arises from conflicts between cognitions when those conflicts threaten a person's normally positive self-image. Thus, Aronson reinterpreted the findings of the original Festinger and Carlsmith study using the induced-compliance paradigm, stating that the dissonance was between the cognition, "I am an honest person" and the cognition, "I lied to someone about finding the task interesting." Other psychologists have argued that maintaining cognitive consistency is a way to protect public self-image, rather than private self-concept. However, a recent result seems to rule out such an explanation by showing revaluation of items following a choice even when people have forgotten their choices.
Balance theory ("P-O-X" Theory) (Heider)
Fritz Heider proposed a motivational theory of attitude change that functions on the idea that humans are driven to establish and maintain psychological balance. This drive is known as the consistency motive—the urge to maintain one's values and beliefs over time. According to balance theory there are three things interacting: (1) you (P), (2) another person (O), and (3) an element (X). These are each positioned at one point of a triangle and share two relations:
- Unit relations – things and people that belong together based on similarity, proximity, fate, etc.
- Sentiment relations – evaluations of people and things (liking, disliking)
As individuals, we seek a balanced state with harmonious relations between the three positions (3 positive or 2 negative, 1 positive):
P = you O = John X = John's dog
- "I don't like John"
- "John has a dog"
- "I don't like the dog either"
We also avoid unbalanced states (3 negatives or 2 positive, 1 negative)
P = you O = your child X = picture your child drew
- "I love my child"
- "She drew me this picture"
- "I love this picture"
Cost-benefit analysis (Dupuit)
Jules Dupuit claims behaviors and cognitions can be understood from an economic standpoint such that individuals engage in the systematic processing and comparison of the costs and benefits of a decision. This process helps justify and assess the feasibility of a decision and provides a basis for comparison (determining if the benefits outweigh the costs and to what extent). Although this analysis works well in economic situations, humans are inefficient when it comes to comparing costs and benefits.
Self-discrepancy theory (Higgins)
E. Tory Higgins proposed that individuals have three selves that they compare themselves to:
- Actual self – representation of the attributes you believe you actually possess (basic self-concept)
- Ideal self – attributes you would ideally like to possess (hopes, aspiration, what motivates you to change/improve)
- Ought self – attributes you believe you should possess (duties, obligations, responsibilities)
When these self-guides are contradictory they result in emotional discomfort. Individuals are motivated to reduce self-discrepancy (the gap between two self-guides).
Averse consequences vs. inconsistency (Cooper & Fazio)
During the 1980s, Cooper and Fazio argued that dissonance was caused by aversive consequences, rather than inconsistency. According to this interpretation, the belief that lying is wrong and hurtful, not the inconsistency between cognitions, is what makes people feel bad. Subsequent research, however, found that people experience dissonance even when they feel they have not done anything wrong. For example, Harmon-Jones and colleagues showed that people experience dissonance even when the consequences of their statements are beneficial—as when they convince sexually active students to use condoms, when they, themselves are not using condoms.
Free-choice paradigm criticism (Chen et al.)
Chen and colleagues have criticized the free-choice paradigm and have suggested that the "Rank, choice, rank" method of studying dissonance is invalid. They argue that research design relies on the assumption that if the subject rates options differently in the second survey, then the subject's attitudes towards the options have therefore changed. They show that there are other reasons one might get different rankings in the second survey — perhaps the subjects were largely indifferent between choices. Although some follow-up studies have found supportive evidence for Chen's concerns, other studies that have controlled for Chen's concerns have not, instead suggesting that the mere act of making a choice can indeed change preferences. Nevertheless, this issue remains under active investigation.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Van Veen and colleagues investigated the neural basis of cognitive dissonance in a modified version of the classic induced compliance paradigm. While in the scanner, participants "argued" that the uncomfortable MRI environment was nevertheless a pleasant experience. The researchers replicated the basic induced compliance findings; participants in an experimental group enjoyed the scanner more than participants in a control group who simply were paid to make their argument.
Importantly, responding counter-attitudinally activated the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insular cortex; furthermore, the degree to which these regions were activated predicted individual participants' degree of attitude change. Van Veen and colleagues argue that these findings support the original dissonance theory by Festinger, and support the "conflict theory" of anterior cingulate functioning.
Using the free choice paradigm, Sharot and colleagues have shown that after making a choice, activity in the striatum changes to reflect the new evaluation of the choice object, increasing if the object was chosen and decreasing if it was rejected. Follow-up studies have largely confirmed these results.
Subsequent fMRI studies, also using the free choice paradigm, have examined the decision-making process in the brain. A 2010 study showed that during decision-making processes where the participant is trying to reduce dissonance, activity increased in the right-inferior frontal gyrus, medial fronto-parietal region and ventral striatum, whereas activity decreased in the anterior insula. Researchers concluded that rationalization activity may take place quickly (within seconds) without conscious deliberation. In addition, the researchers stated that the brain may engage emotional responses in the decision-making process.
There may be evolutionary forces behind cognitive dissonance reduction. Researchers in a 2007 study examined how preschool children and Capuchin monkeys reacted when offered the choice between two similar options. The researchers had the two subject groups choose between two different kinds of stickers and candies. After choosing, the two groups were offered a new choice between the item not chosen and a similarly attractive option as the first. In line with cognitive dissonance theory, the children and the monkeys chose the "novel" option over their originally unchosen option, even though all had similar values. The researchers concluded that there were possible development and evolutionary forces behind cognitive dissonance reduction.
Modeling in neural networks
Neural network models of cognition have provided the necessary framework to integrate the empirical research done on cognitive dissonance and attitudes into one model of explanation of attitude formation and change.
Various neural network models have been developed to predict how cognitive dissonance will influence an individual's attitude and behavior. These include:
- Parallel constraint satisfaction processes
- The meta-cognitive model (MCM) of attitudes
- Adaptive connectionist model of cognitive dissonance
- Attitudes as constraint satisfaction model
- Affective forecasting
- Ambivalence, particularly the reference to The agony of ambivalence and ways to resolve it, Love–hate relationship, Psychoanalytic concepts of love and hate, and Splitting (psychology)
- Buyer's remorse is a form of post-decision dissonance.
- Choice-supportive bias is a memory bias that makes past choices seem better than they actually were.
- Cognitive bias
- Cognitive distortion
- Cognitive inertia
- Cultural dissonance is dissonance on a larger scale.
- Double bind is a communicative situation where a person receives different or contradictory messages.
- Double consciousness is conceiving of one's self both as itself and as society's image of it.
- Doublethink is a concept present in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four that allows a person to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously and accept both of them as correct.
- Effort justification is the tendency to attribute a greater (than objective) value to an outcome which demands a great effort in order to resolve a dissonance.
- Emotional conflict is the presence in the subconscious of different and opposing emotions concerning the same situation.
- The Great Disappointment of 1844 is an example of cognitive dissonance in a religious context.
- Illusion-of-truth effect states that a person is more likely to believe a familiar statement than an unfamiliar one.
- Information overload
- Metanoia (psychology)
- Techniques of neutralization
- Terror management theory
- True-believer syndrome demonstrates carrying a post-cognitive-dissonance belief regardless of new information.
- Wishful thinking
- Memory conformity
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