Leon Festinger (1919–1990) believed that individuals strive for internal consistency, with thoughts, beliefs, and feelings matching one’s actions. In everyone’s life, however, there will inevitably be occasions when actions are not consistent with beliefs. On these occasions, according to Festinger, an individual experiences cognitive dissonance, or discomfort, caused by the inconsistency between beliefs and actions. The greater the personal responsibility felt for a troubling action, the greater the dissonance felt. This tension can only be relieved by making changes to bring the actions and beliefs into line with each other. This discomfort will often lead to a change in beliefs rather than changing actions, explaining it away: “Since I did that, I must believe that it’s acceptable.”
Cognitive dissonance has been conﬁrmed in many experiments that follow a common pattern: make people feel responsible for behavior that violates their attitudes or beliefs and for which no clear justiﬁcation is at hand, and then measure their attitudes again. A classic example (which has been replicated dozens of times, with minor variations) involves paying research participants to write a short essay, or participate in a short debate, arguing for a position that they personally oppose, and for which there will be foreseeable consequences. In one variation on this theme, subjects are asked to write a short essay favoring a change in university policy that they oppose and are told that the resulting essay will be seen by university administrators.
As it turns out, the amount of cognitive dissonance (and, consequently, attitude change) that emerges appears to depend directly on the amount of money paid to subjects. If they are well compensated, little attitude change occurs. If they receive a mere pittance, they come around to genuinely supporting the position they have argued for. Subjects who have been well paid can easily justify the dissonance between their views and the position being presented (“I did it for the money”), whereas those who have received the smaller payment cannot use the same justiﬁcation and are thus confronted by real discomfort regarding the argument they’ve just made. They often reduce the uncomfortable dissonance by starting to believe their own disingenuous words.
The idea of cognitive dissonance has had a broad impact in social psychology, inﬂuencing opinion and research on everything from advertising to the Stockholm syndrome. Into a world in which we tend to assume (or at least tell ourselves) that our actions are ﬁrmly grounded in our beliefs and values, Festinger introduced the notion that in fact the reverse is frequently true: our actions and behaviors inﬂuence our beliefs and attitudes far more than we are usually willing to admit.
- Festinger, L. Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957.