Cognitive dissonance theory

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What is cognitive dissonance?

Festinger (1957) stated the theory of cognitive dissonance in three parts: 1. Dissonance occurs when a person’s attitudes contradict other attitudes or behaviors. 2. Dissonance is an aversive state; therefore, a person feels pressure to reduce the dissonance and prevent future increases of dissonance. 3. A person tries to reduce this aversive state through behavior changes, changes of cognition, and avoidance of introduction to new information or opinions that could produce dissonance (p. 31) (Festinger, 1957). Festinger further defines consonance and dissonance as a conflict between “knowledges (p. 9)” of reality that a person has about himself, his behavior, and his surroundings (Festinger, 1957).

A person experiencing this aversive state strives to decrease the dissonance. There are several ways to reduce dissonance which include: change of attitude, change of perception of the behavior, addition of consonant cognitions, minimization of the importance of the conflict, and reduction of perceived choice (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999).

Festinger and Carlsmith 1957

Based on previous research by Janis and King (1954; 1956) and Kelman (1953), Festinger and Carlsmith constructed a study that explored the induced-compliance paradigm. In the study, Festinger and Carlsmith predicted that the greater the reward, the smaller the change in the participant’s opinion (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1957) To create a very boring task, Festinger and Carlsmith had the participants place spools on a tray and remove them for 30 minutes; then participants turned 48 pegs clockwise for another 30 minutes. Once participants completed the task, the experimenter asked the participants to fill in for an absent experimenter by lying to another participant about how enjoyable the experiment was for either one or 20 dollars; a control group was not asked to lie. Lastly, participants rated the task for its enjoyment. Therefore, the contradiction between their attitudes of the boring task and their actions (lying) should cause the participants to suffer dissonance. For the experiment, Festinger and Carlsmith operationally defined force as the amount of reward offered for lying and dissonance as the participant’s rated enjoyment of the tasks.

The results corroborated Festinger and Carlsmith’s hypothesis. They focused their analysis on the question that asked participants to rate how enjoyable the task was because this would reveal how participants managed their dissonance. Both the control and 20 dollar conditions rated the task as boring; meanwhile, participants in the one dollar condition rated the experiment as significantly much more enjoyable and interesting (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1957). Therefore, participants who received one dollar to lie resolved the dissonance between their initial attitudes towards the boring task and their actions by rating the experiment as pleasant. Participants who received 20 dollars did not experience as much dissonance because the high monetary reward justified their actions. The lack of a strong external reward (20 dollars) forced participants in the low reward condition (one dollar) to change their attitudes in order to relieve the stress caused by the conflict between their attitudes and behaviors (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1957).

Additional Evidence

In order to investigate Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance further, researchers worked with other paradigms of cognitive dissonance. Brehm (1956) looked into the consequences of making a choice in post-decision dissonance. Participants in Brehm’s experiment rated several objects on desirability (Brehm 1956). The experimenters manipulated the level of dissonance by having participants choose between two objects either close or distant in rated desirability. After participants chose an object and read dissonant or consonant information about the two objects, they had to re-rate the objects. Results showed that participants re-ranked the chosen object as more desirable and disregarded the negative information. When dissonance was high (objects closely rated), participants had to justify their choice of object more than those who had to choose between objects not closely rated by re-evaluating the object as more desirable than their initial impression.

Aronson and Mills (1959) investigated dissonance using an effort justification paradigm. Female participants, who were joining a discussion group about the psychology of sex, were either accepted into the group (control condition), had to go through a mild initiation, which involved reading aloud sex-related words, or had to go through a severe initiation by reading aloud explicit sec words (Aronson 1959). When the participants were later asked the rate the discussion and the group members, those who went through severe initiation rated both categories much higher than both the control and mild initiation groups. Because the female participants had to justify the effort and humiliation they experienced to enter the group, they rated the group as more attractive than the other conditions.

Alternative explanation and a resolution

Bem (1970) critiqued cognitive dissonance theory by demonstrating that many of the effects could be explained using self-perception theory, which states that stated attitudes are formed only after a person has behaved; therefore, dissonant cognitions cannot exist (Bem 1970). Bem (1970) tested this idea by surveying participants about how much students should control course choices at the university. To manipulate perceived choice, participants were separated into a choice or no-choice groups about what topic they could write about, but participants were encouraged to write anti-control essays. After writing the essay, experimenters surveyed students again on their opinions of the topic. Because participants sensed no change in their attitudes even though there was such an effect, self-perception theory was supported. The essay provided new information that erased the participants’ old opinions. Because the participants did not notice attitude changes, participants reasoned that they did this task because they actually hold the opinions expressed in their essays.

To resolve the conflict between the two theories, Fazio, Zanna, and Cooper (1977) conducted a study that was similar to Bem (1970) except that experimenters surveyed the participants’ views of political ideologies (Fazio, Zanna & Cooper, 1977). When the participants were seated to write their essays, they were also asked to rate the new booths they were seated in. Because the questionnaire included both very positive and negative attitudes towards the booths, it allowed the participants to attribute any dissonance to the booth rather than to their decision to write the essay. Before the participants were even able to write their essays about the political position, the experimenter stopped the participants. Results showed that the participants assigned a position that was more extreme than their most acceptable political position reflected attitudes of the extreme position even without the cue from the booth survey. Therefore, participants demonstrated the self-perception theory because they looked to their actions to determine their attitudes since their initial attitudes were weak. On the other hand, when participants were assigned to write about objectionable political positions opposite of their initial opinions, participants who “blamed” the booth for their discomfort could attribute their discomfort from the conflict between their personal attitudes and the attitudes expressed in the essays to the booths. Thus, they did not need to change their opinions to resolve the dissonance. Those who could not attribute their aversive arousal to the booths needed to change their attitudes to eliminate the unpleasant state. Therefore, participants who had strong initial attitudes and wrote about an opposing opinion experienced dissonance. Only those who were provided with a cue to blame their discomfort on could relieve this distress without changing their attitudes. Fazio, Zanna, and Cooper (1977) found that if initial attitudes are weak, participants will use the self-perception method to determine their opinions. On the other hand, those who have strong views will resort to cognitive dissonance theory to resolve any dissonance that may be triggered when their initial views are challenged by newer views, especially when such people are asked to support such controversial attitudes.


Aronson, E. & Mills, J. (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59(2), 177-181.

Bem, D.J. & McConnell, H.K. (1970). Testing the self-perception explanation of dissonance phenomena. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 14(3), 271-280.

Brehm, J.W. (1956). Postdecision changes in the desirability of alternatives. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52(3), 384-289.

Harmon-Jones, E. & Mills, J. (1999). Cognitive dissonance: progress on a pivotal theory in social Psychology. Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.

Fazio, R.H., Zanna, M.P. & Cooper, J. (1977). Dissonance and self-perception: An integrative view of each theory’s proper domain of application. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13(5), 464-479.

Festinger, L. & Carlsmith, J.M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 56(2), 276-278.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Standford University Press.

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