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Almost half a century ago social psychologist Leon Festinger developed
the cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957). The theory has
obviously stood the test of time in that it is mentioned in most general
and social psychology textbooks today. The theory is somewhat counterintuitive
and, in fact, fits into a category of counterintuitive social psychology
theories sometimes referred to as action-opinion theories. The
fundamental characteristic of action opinion theories is that they propose
that actions can influence subsequent beliefs and attitudes. This is counterintuitive
in that it would seem logical that our actions are the result of our beliefs/attitudes,
not the cause of them. However, on further examination these types of
theories have great intuitive appeal in that the theories, particularly
cognitive dissonance, address the pervasive human tendency to rationalize.
Cognitive dissonance theory is based on three fundamental assumptions
- Humans are sensitive to inconsistencies between actions and beliefs.
- According to the theory, we all recognize, at some level, when we
are acting in a way that is inconsistent with our beliefs/attitudes/opinions.
In effect, there is a built in alarm that goes off when we notice such
an inconsistency, whether we like it or not. For example, if you have
a belief that it is wrong to cheat, yet you find yourself cheating on
a test, you will notice and be affected by this inconsistency.
- Recognition of this inconsistency will cause dissonance, and will
motivate an individual to resolve the dissonance.
- Once you recognize that you have violated one of your principles,
according to this theory, you wonít just say "oh well". You
will feel some sort of mental anguish about this. The degree of dissonance,
of course, will vary with the importance of your belief/attitude/principle
and with the degree of inconsistency between your behavior and this
belief. In any case, according to the theory, the greater the dissonance
the more you will be motivated to resolve it.
- Dissonance will be resolved in one of three basic ways:
- Change beliefs
- Perhaps the simplest way to resolve dissonance between actions
and beliefs is simply to change your beliefs. You could, of
course, just decide that cheating is o.k. This would take care
of any dissonance. However, if the belief is fundamental and
important to you such a course of action is unlikely. Moreover,
our basic beliefs and attitudes are pretty stable, and people
donít just go around changing basic beliefs/attitudes/opinions
all the time, since we rely a lot on our world view in predicting
events and organizing our thoughts. Therefore, though this is
the simplest option for resolving dissonance itís probably not
the most common.
- Change actions
- A second option would be to make sure that you never do this
action again. Lord knows that guilt and anxiety can be motivators
for changing behavior. So, you may say to yourself that you
will never cheat on a test again, and this may aid in resolving
the dissonance. However, aversive conditioning (i.e., guilt/anxiety)
can often be a pretty poor way of learning, especially if you
can train yourself not to feel these things. Plus, you may really
benefit in some way from the action thatís inconsistent with
your beliefs. So, the trick would be to get rid of this feeling
without changing your beliefs or your actions, and this leads
us to the third, and probably most common, method of resolution.
- Change perception of action
- A third and more complex method of resolution is to change
the way you view/remember/perceive your action. In more colloquial
terms, you would "rationalize" your actions. For example,
you might decide that the test you cheated on was for a dumb
class that you didnít need anyway. Or you may say to yourself
that everyone cheats so why not you? In other words, you think
about your action in a different manner or context so that it
no longer appears to be inconsistent with your beliefs. If you
reflect on this series of mental gymnastics for a moment you
will probably recognize why cognitive dissonance has come to
be so popular. If youíre like me, you notice such post-hoc reconceptualiztions
(rationalizations) of behavior on the part of others all the
time, though itís not so common to see it in oneís self.
There have been 100s, if not 1000s, of experiments that have examined
cognitive dissonance theory since the theorieís inception, but the seminal
experiment was published in 1959 (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959). This
experiment is very interesting viewed within a psychological/historical
context because it involved a direct test of a "mentalistic"
theory versus a behaviorist theory. Cognitive dissonance theory was based
on abstract/internal/mental concepts, which were, of course, anathema
to the behaviorists. Festinger and Carlsmith set up an ingenious experiment
which would allow for a direct test of cognitive dissonance theory versus
a behavioral/reinforcement theory.
In this experiment all participants were required to do what all
would agree was a boring task and then to tell another subject (who was
actually a confederate of the experimenter) that the task was exciting.
Half of the subjects were paid $1 to do this and half were paid $20 (quite
a bit of money in the 1950s). Following this, all subjects were asked
to rate how much they liked the boring task. This latter measure served
as the experimental criterion/the dependent measure. According to behaviorist/reinforcement
theory, those who were paid $20 should like the task more because they
would associate the payment with the task. Cognitive dissonance theory,
on the other hand, would predict that those who were paid $1 would feel
the most dissonance since they had to carry out a boring task and lie
to an experimenter, all for only 1$. This would create dissonance between
the belief that they were not stupid or evil, and the action which is
that they carried out a boring task and lied for only a dollar (see
Figure 2). Therefore, dissonance theory would predict that those in
the $1 group would be more motivated to resolve their dissonance by reconceptualizing/rationalizing
their actions. They would form the belief that the boring task was, in
fact, pretty fun. As you might suspect, Festingerís prediction, that those
paid $1 would like the task more, proved to be correct.
- Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance, Evanston,
IL: Row & Peterson.
- Festinger, L. & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences
of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology,
58, 203 Ė 210.
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