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Cognitive Dissonance

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

Group situations sometimes create cognitive dissonance. A potential member of a group will change his or her opinions to conform to the group's collective opinion. In Hitler's Germany, this had tragic consequences. (Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbursitz. Reproduced with permission.)

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.

Further Reading

Festinger, Leon. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Abacus to Courage