Cognitive Dissonance

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

In psychology, cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values, and is typically experienced as psychological stress when they participate in an action that goes against one or more of them. According to this theory, when two actions or ideas are not psychologically consistent with each other, people do all in their power to change them until they become consistent. The discomfort is triggered by the person’s belief clashing with new information perceived, wherein they try to find a way to resolve the contradiction to reduce their discomfort.

In A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), Leon Festinger proposed that human beings strive for internal psychological consistency to function mentally in the real world. A person who experiences internal inconsistency tends to become psychologically uncomfortable and is motivated to reduce the cognitive dissonance. They tend to make changes to justify the stressful behavior, either by adding new parts to the cognition causing the psychological dissonance (rationalization) or by avoiding circumstances and contradictory information likely to increase the magnitude of the cognitive dissonance (confirmation bias).

Later research documented that only conflicting cognitions that threaten individuals’ positive self-image cause dissonance (Greenwald & Ronis, 1978). Additional research found that dissonance is not only psychologically uncomfortable but also can cause physiological arousal (Croyle & Cooper, 1983) and activate regions of the brain important in emotions and cognitive functioning (van Veen, Krug, Schooler, & Carter, 2009).

A photograph shows a person doing pushups while a military leader stands over the person; other people are doing jumping jacks in the background.A classic example of cognitive dissonance is John, a 20-year-old who enlists in the military. During boot camp, he is awakened at 5:00 a.m., is chronically sleep-deprived, yelled at, covered in sand flea bites, physically bruised and battered, and mentally exhausted (Figure 2). It gets worse. Recruits that make it to week 11 of boot camp have to do 54 hours of continuous training.

Not surprisingly, John is miserable. No one likes to be miserable. In this type of situation, people can change their beliefs, their attitudes, or their behaviors. The last option, a change of behaviors, is not available to John. He has signed on to the military for four years, and he cannot legally leave.

If John keeps thinking about how miserable he is, it is going to be a very long four years. He will be in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. As an alternative to this misery, John can change his beliefs or attitudes. He can tell himself, “I am becoming stronger, healthier, and sharper. I am learning discipline and how to defend myself and my country. What I am doing is really important.” If this is his belief, he will realize that he is becoming stronger through his challenges. He then will feel better and not experience cognitive dissonance, which is an uncomfortable state.

Video 1. Cognitive Dissonance 

Magnitude of Dissonance

The term magnitude of dissonance refers to the level of discomfort caused to the person. This can be caused by the relationship between two differing internal beliefs, or an action that is incompatible with the beliefs of the person. Two factors determine the degree of psychological dissonance caused by two conflicting cognitions or by two conflicting actions:

  1. The importance of cognitions: the greater the personal value of the elements, the greater the magnitude of the dissonance in the relation. When the value of the importance of the two dissonant items is high, it is difficult to determine which action or thought is correct. Both have had a place of truth, at least subjectively, in the mind of the person. Therefore, when the ideals or actions now clash, it is difficult for the individual to decide which takes priority.
  2. Ratio of cognitions: the proportion of dissonant-to-consonant elements. There is a level of discomfort within each person that is acceptable for living. When a person is within that comfort level, the dissonant factors do not interfere with functioning. However, when dissonant factors are abundant and not enough in line with each other, one goes through a process to regulate and bring the ratio back to an acceptable level. Once a subject chooses to keep one of the dissonant factors, they quickly forget the other to restore peace of mind.

There is always some degree of dissonance within a person as they go about making decisions, due to the changing quantity and quality of knowledge and wisdom that they gain. The magnitude itself is a subjective measurement since the reports are self relayed, and there is no objective way as yet to get a clear measurement of the level of discomfort

Types of Cognitive Dissonance

There are five primary types of cognitive dissonance: post-decisional dissonance, dissonance from wanting something we can’t have, dissonance due to inconsistency between attitude and behavior, dissonance due to inadequate justification, and dissonance due to inconsistency between commitment and information. People invested in a given perspective shall—when confronted with contrary evidence—expend great effort to justify retaining the challenged perspective.

Post-Decisional Dissonance

Post-decisional dissonance occurs after making a decision that is irrevocable, or that would be very difficult to reverse. This type of cognitive dissonance occurs in a person faced with a difficult decision when there always exist aspects of the rejected-object that appeal to the chooser. The action of deciding provokes the psychological dissonance consequent to choosing X instead of Y, despite little difference between X and Y; the decision “I chose X” is dissonant with the cognition that “There are some aspects of Y that I like”. The study Choice-induced Preferences in the Absence of Choice: Evidence from a Blind Two-choice Paradigm with Young Children and Capuchin Monkeys (2010) reports similar results in the occurrence of cognitive dissonance in human beings and in animals.

Dissonance that Results from Wanting Something We Can’t Have

With dissonance that results from wanting something we can’t have, there are things we would like to have that we cannot for any number of reasons. When the desired “something” is very important, we may have dissonant cognitions that make us tense and unhappy.

In the Effect of the Severity of Threat on the Devaluation of Forbidden Behavior (1963), children were left in a room with toys, including a greatly desirable steam shovel, the forbidden toy. Upon leaving the room, the experimenter told half the children that there would be severe punishment if they played with the steam-shovel toy. The other half of the children were told there would only be a mild consequence for playing with the forbidden toy. All of the children refrained from playing with the forbidden toy. Later, when the children were told that they could freely play with any toy they wanted, the children in the mild-punishment group were less likely to play with the steam shovel (the forbidden toy), even though they knew that they would no longer receive a punishment.

The children had a choice to make–play with the toy that they really wanted and face punishment, or ignore their desire for the toy. For the children threatened with severe punishment, the choice was easy–do not play with the toy. Their desire for the toy was great, but the risk of severe punishment was not worth it. However, for the mild punishment children, it was a more difficult decision. Their desire for the toy was great and their concern for the mild punishment was small. While they also chose not to play with the toy, they may have needed to justify, to themselves, why they did not play with the forbidden toy. The degree of punishment was insufficiently strong to resolve their cognitive dissonance; the children had to convince themselves that playing with the forbidden toy was not worth the effort.

Dissonance as a Result of Inconsistencies of Attitude and Behavior

Dissonance as a result of inconsistencies of attitudes and behavior occurs when there are discrepancies between what we believe and what we do. This discrepancy makes us uncomfortable and stressed.

In the Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance (1959), the investigators asked students to spend an hour doing tedious tasks; e.g. turning pegs a quarter-turn, at fixed intervals. The tasks were designed to induce a strong, negative, mental attitude in the subjects. Once the subjects had done the tasks, the experimenters asked some subjects to speak with another new subject about the tasks. Unknown to the subjects, this new subject was actually a confederate (an actor) and part of the research team. The subjects were directed to persuade the confederate that the tedious tasks were interesting and engaging. Subjects of one group were paid twenty dollars ($20) for their participation. Those in a second group were paid only one dollar ($1). The third group, the control group, was not asked to speak with the confederate.

At the conclusion of the study, subjects were asked to rate the tedious tasks. The subjects paid one dollar ($1) rated the tasks more positively than did the subjects in the twenty-dollar ($20) or control groups. The responses of the paid subjects were evidence of cognitive dissonance. The subjects in the paid groups experienced dissonance due to inconsistencies between their attitudes and behavior. The subjects’ believed the tasks to be boring, but they told the confederate that the tasks were interesting. However, the one-dollar group rated the tasks positively, while the twenty-dollar group rated the tasks negatively. The twenty-dollar group had external justification for their inconsistency–money motivated them to lie to the confederate about the task being interesting when it was actually boring. Receiving only one dollar did not seem to justify lying to the confederate and compelled subjects in the one-dollar group to internalize the “interesting task” mental attitude. The subjects convinced themselves that the tasks were somewhat interesting to rectify the dissonance due to inconsistency between believing the tasks were boring but telling someone they were interesting. 

Dissonance due to Inadequate Justification

Dissonance due to inadequate justification occurs when we invest a significant amount of time, energy, money, or effort, but we receive little or nothing in return on the investment. We may feel as if the effort was a waste or that we were cheated out of our payoff.

In The Effect of Severity of Initiation on Liking for a Group (1956), to qualify for admission to listen in on a discussion, two groups of people underwent an embarrassing initiation of varied psychological severity. The “strong initiation” group of subjects were to read aloud twelve sexual words considered obscene. The “mild initiation” group of subjects were to read aloud twelve sexual words not considered obscene. After reading the list of words, participants were given headphones to listen in on an animal-sexuality discussion that they were told was occurring in the next room. In reality, they were listening to a recorded discussion about animal sexual behavior, which the researchers designed to be dull and banal.

After listing in on the discussion, subjects were asked to evaluate how interesting they found it. The subjects whose strong initiation required reading aloud obscene words evaluated the discussion as more-interesting than the subjects of the mild initiation group. The reading of obscene sexual words to be initiated to the discussion involved a greater investment by the subjects than reading non-obscene words. Listening to a dull discussion was not worth the embarrassment of reading the obscene words, resulting in cognitive dissonance. The strong initiation subjects convinced themselves that the discussion was more interesting than it actually was to make their effort to feel worthwhile. The mild initiation group did not invest as much to listen to the discussion, so when they found it to be boring they did not feel cheated. 

Dissonance due to Inconsistency between Commitment and Information

Dissonance due to inconsistency between commitment and information occurs when we commit to a belief, value, or ideal before having all of the information, or new information contradicts the commitment we have made to a belief. The contradiction in belief creates tension.

The belief contradiction presented in When Prophecy Fails (1956) reported that faith deepened among the members of an apocalyptic religious cult, despite the failed prophecy of an alien spacecraft soon to land on Earth to rescue them from earthly corruption; they believed that only they would survive planetary destruction. At the determined place and time, the cult assembled to await their rescue. yet the spaceship did not arrive. The confounded prophecy caused them cognitive dissonance. They committed to a belief in the prophecy but new information, the aliens not coming, caused them to question their commitment. Had they been victims of a hoax? Had they vainly donated away their material possessions? To resolve the dissonance between their apocalyptic belief and the reality that aliens weren’t coming to save them, most of the cult chose to believe that the aliens had given planet Earth a second chance at existence, which, in turn, empowered them to re-direct their religious cult to environmentalism and social advocacy to end human damage to planet Earth.

Efforts to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance theory proposes that people seek psychological consistency between their expectations of life and the existential reality of the world. To function by that expectation of existential consistency, people continually reduce their cognitive dissonance in order to align their cognitions (perceptions of the world) with their actions. We can reduce cognitive dissonance by bringing our cognitions, attitudes, and behaviors in line—that is, making them harmonious. The creation and establishment of psychological consistency allow the person afflicted with cognitive dissonance to lessen mental stress by actions that reduce the magnitude of the dissonance. In practice, people reduce the magnitude of their cognitive dissonance in four ways:

  1. Change attitude: change the attitude or belief that is causing the dissonance.
  2. Change behavior: change the behavior that is causing the dissonance (“I’ll eat no more of this doughnut.”).
  3. Deny the evidence: ignore, disbelieve, or discredit the evidence that is causing the dissonance (“This doughnut is not a high-sugar food.”).
  4. Rationalization: make excuses for, defend, or justify what is causing the dissonance (“I’m allowed to cheat my diet every once in a while.”).
A diagram shows the process of cognitive dissonance. Two disparate statements (“I am a smoker” and “Smoking is bad for your health”) are joined as an example of cognitive dissonance. A flow diagram joins them in a process labeled, “Remove dissonance tension,” with two resulting flows. The first flow path shows the warning on a pack of cigarettes with a checkmark imposed over the image that is labeled, “Smoking is bad for your health.” The path then shows a photograph of an arm with a nicotine patch that is labeled, “I quit smoking.” The second flow path shows the warning on a pack of cigarettes with an X imposed over the image and is labeled, “Research is inconclusive,” then shows a photograph of a person smoking labeled, “I am still a smoker.”

Figure 1. Cognitive dissonance is aroused by inconsistent beliefs and behaviors. Believing cigarettes are bad for your health but smoking cigarettes anyway can cause cognitive dissonance. To reduce cognitive dissonance, individuals can change their behavior, as in quitting smoking or change their belief, such as discounting the evidence that smoking is harmful. (credit “cigarettes”: modification of work by CDC/Debora Cartagena; “patch”: modification of “RegBarc”/Wikimedia Commons; “smoking”: modification of work by Tim Parkinson)

Selective Exposure

Rather than trying to reduce dissonance after it occurs, we may attempt to avoid dissonance through selective exposure. People tend to selectively expose themselves to some information or experiences over others; specifically, they would avoid dissonant messages and prefer consonant messages, Through selective exposure, people actively (and selectively) choose to view, hear, or read that which fits their current state of mind, mood or beliefs. In other words, consumers select attitude-consistent information and avoid attitude-challenging information. This can be applied to media, news, music, and any other messaging channel. The idea is, choosing something that is in opposition to how you feel or believe in will render cognitive dissonance.

For example, a study was done in an elderly home in 1992 on the loneliest residents—those that did not have family or frequent visitors. The residents were shown a series of documentaries: three that featured a “very happy, successful elderly person”, and three that featured an “unhappy, lonely elderly person.” After watching the documentaries, the residents indicated they preferred the media featuring the unhappy, lonely person over the happy person. This can be attested to them feeling lonely, and experience cognitive dissonance watching somebody their age feeling happy and being successful. This study explains how people select media that aligns with their mood, as in selectively exposing themselves to people and experiences they are already experiencing. It is more comfortable to see a movie about a character that is similar to you than to watch one about someone who is your age who is more successful than you.

Another example to note is how people mostly consume media that aligns with their political views. In a study done in 2015, participants were shown “attitudinally consistent, challenging, or politically balanced online news.” Results showed that the participants trusted attitude-consistent news the most out of all the others, regardless of the source. It is evident that the participants actively selected media that aligns with their beliefs rather than opposing media.

In fact, recent research has suggested that while a discrepancy between cognitions drives individuals to crave attitude-consistent information, the experience of negative emotions drives individuals to avoid counter attitudinal information. In other words, it is the psychological discomfort that activates selective exposure as a dissonance-reduction strategy.

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