by Saul McLeod published 2008
Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors.
This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance etc.
For example, when people smoke (behavior) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition).
Festinger's (1957) cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance).
Attitudes may change because of factors within the person. An important factor here is the principle of cognitive consistency, the focus of Festinger's (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance. This theory starts from the idea that we seek consistency in our beliefs and attitudes in any situation where two cognitions are inconsistent.
Leon Festinger (1957) proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior.
According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, a discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it, and achieve consonance (i.e. agreement).
Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger, arising out of a participant observation study of a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult when the flood did not happen.
While fringe members were more inclined to recognize that they had made fools of themselves and to "put it down to experience", committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members).
Cognitive Dissonance Example
When someone is forced to do (publicly) something they (privately) really don't want to do, dissonance is created between their cognition (I didn't want to do this) and their behavior (I did it).
Forced compliance occurs when an individual performs an action that is inconsistent with his or her beliefs. The behavior can't be changed, since it is already in the past, so dissonance will need to be reduced by re-evaluating their attitude to what they have done. This prediction has been tested experimentally:
In an intriguing experiment, Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) asked participants to perform a series of dull tasks (such as turning pegs in a peg board for an hour). As you can imagine, participant's attitudes toward this task were highly negative. They were then paid either $1 or $20 to tell a waiting participant (relay a confederate) that the tasks were really interesting. Almost all of the participants agreed to walk into the waiting room and persuade the subject accomplice that the boring experiment would be fun.
Aim Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) investigated if making people perform a dull task would create cognitive dissonance through forced compliance behavior.
Method In their laboratory experiment, they used 71 male students as participants to perform a series of dull tasks (such as turning pegs in a peg board for an hour).
They were then paid either $1 or $20 to tell a waiting participant (a confederate) that the tasks were really interesting. Almost all of the participants agreed to walk into the waiting room and persuade the confederate that the boring experiment would be fun.
Results When the participants were asked to evaluate the experiment, the participants who were paid only $1 rated the tedious task as more fun and enjoyable than the participants who were paid $20 to lie.
Conclusion Being paid only $1 is not sufficient incentive for lying and so those who were paid $1 experienced dissonance. They could only overcome that dissonance by coming to believe that the tasks really were interesting and enjoyable. Being paid $20 provides a reason for turning pegs and there is therefore no dissonance.
There has been a great deal of research into cognitive dissonance, providing some interesting and sometimes unexpected findings. It is a theory with very broad applications, showing that we aim for a consistency between attitudes and behaviors, and may not use very rational methods to achieve it. It has the advantage of being testable by scientific means (i.e. experiments).
However, there is a problem from a scientific point of view, because we cannot physically observe cognitive dissonance, and therefore we cannot objectively measure it (re: behaviorism). Consequently, the term cognitive dissonance is somewhat subjective.
There is also some ambiguity (i.e. vagueness) about the term 'dissonance' itself. Is it a perception (as 'cognitive' suggests), or a feeling, or a feeling about a perception? Aronson's revision of the idea of dissonance as inconsistency between a person s self-concept and a cognition about their behavior makes it seem likely that dissonance is really nothing more than guilt.
There are also individual differences in whether or not people act as this theory predicts. Highly anxious people are more likely to do so. Many people seem able to cope with considerable dissonance and not experience the tensions the theory predicts.
Finally, many of the studies supporting the theory of cognitive dissonance have low ecological validity. For example, turning pegs (as in Festinger's experiment) is an artificial task that doesn’t happen in everyday life. Also, the majority of experiments used students as participants which raise issues of a biased sample. Could we generalize the results from such experiments?
Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Festinger, L. (1959). Some attitudinal consequences of forced decisions. Acta Psychologica, 15, 389-390.
How to cite this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2008). Cognitive Dissonance. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html