Cognitive Dissonance Theory Definition
Introduced by Leon Festinger in 1957—and since that time debated, refined, and debated again by psychologists—cognitive dissonance is defined as the aversive state of arousal that occurs when a person holds two or more cognitions that are inconsistent with each other. The concept of dissonance was once enormously controversial, but its support through five decades of research has made it one of the most widely accepted concepts in social psychology.
Cognitive dissonance theory can explain a variety of ordinary and extraordinary events in our social lives. Indeed, for a concept to have as long and active a “shelf life” as dissonance, it must either help us see our social world differently, help us to understand why certain phenomena occur, or allow us to make (and confirm) interesting and nonobvious predictions about human nature. The theory of cognitive dissonance has accomplished all three.
To break the definition into its components, let us consider first what is meant by inconsistent cognitions, for it is the simultaneous holding of inconsistent cognitions that gives rise to the experience of dissonance. Festinger thought of a cognition as any piece of knowledge that we have. We can have knowledge about our beliefs, our behavior, our feelings, or about the state of the environment. We may have dozens of cognitions of which we are at least dimly aware at any moment in time and innumerable more of which we can become aware, once our attention or memory is set in motion. Most of the cognitions that we have are not related to each other in any obvious way. For example, my knowledge that I am hungry and my knowledge that the Earth travels around the Sun are two cognitions, but my hunger bears no relationship to the trajectory of the planets. However, some cognitions are directly related. My knowledge that I am hungry is very much related to my behavior at the local restaurant in which I am sitting. If I order a meal, the knowledge of that behavior is related to my knowledge that I’m hungry. In fact, it is quite consistent with my hunger. However, if I decide to forego the meal, or simply order a cup of coffee, my ordering behavior is again related to my hunger, but this time it is inconsistent.
Cognitive dissonance is all about the consequences of inconsistency. We prefer consistency to inconsistency and work hard to maintain (or restore) consistency among our cognitions. Failing to order food to allay my hunger at the restaurant, I may convince myself that I was not really that hungry, or that the restaurant’s food was bad. In this way, the inconsistency between my knowledge of my hunger and the decision not to purchase food would seem more consistent. In many ways, the need to restore consistency is similar to the familiar concept of rationalization— indeed, rationalization is one way to deal with the dilemma posed by inconsistent cognitions.
Formally, the state of cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds one cognition that follows from the obverse of another cognition. For example, not ordering food at the restaurant would follow from the obverse or opposite of being hungry. If I were full, I would not be expected to order food. But I was not full, and thus the decision to refrain from eating would follow from the obverse of my knowledge that I was hungry. The condition for dissonance is met.
How does cognitive dissonance feel? Dissonance is experienced as an unpleasant emotion, akin to feeling uncomfortable, bothered, or tense. In addition, dissonance is motivational. When we experience dissonance, we are motivated to reduce it, much like the way we are motivated to reduce physical drives such as hunger and thirst. The more dissonance we experience, the more we are motivated to find a way to reduce it. This need can lead to the kinds of rationalizing behaviors, such as those encountered in the restaurant scenario. Not ordering food when hungry creates a state of cognitive dissonance. Rationalizing, by convincing ourselves that we were not so hungry after all, reduces the inconsistency and thereby reduces the unpleasant state of dissonance.
The History of Cognitive Dissonance Research: Predictions and Findings
The occasions that cause us to experience dissonance are ubiquitous. Whenever we make a choice, there is the potential for dissonance. Imagine that you are purchasing an automobile. It is a tough choice with many alternatives from which to choose. Let’s say you have narrowed the field to your two favorite options: a slightly used BMW and a brand-new Neon. You consider the pros and cons of each car. The BMW is fast, gorgeous, and attracts positive attention. The Neon is new, so you can get a full selection of colors and a multiyear warranty. On the other hand, the BMW, being old, is more likely to break down, the cost of repairs is high, and you must take it in green. The downside of the Neon, you believe, is that it is slow, less attractive, and handles sluggishly. You choose the BMW, satisfied that, on balance, it provided more of what you were looking for than the Neon.
But wait… you have now selected a car that has several negative features. What if it breaks down? What if your friends hate the color green? And what do you do about the features of the Neon that you are giving up? You liked the warranty, and now you don’t have it. You liked the price, but you’ve now spent more money buying the BMW. All of these thoughts are inconsistent with your decision to buy the BMW. According to the theory of cognitive dissonance, you experience an unpleasant tension. Each time you think of a cognition that supported the Neon over the BMW, your tension rises. You are driven to reduce it. What can you do? Here are some possibilities: (a) You can increase the importance of some of the factors that caused you to like the BMW in the first place. Suddenly, speed seems like the most important dimension you can think of when it comes to buying a car. (b) You can reduce the importance of some of the good features of the Neon. For example, you decide that warranties are often deceptive and the parts of cars that break are usually not covered. (c) You can add cognitions that support your choice that you hadn’t considered previously. You may think about how many more people will be friends with you when you drive the BMW or how many people would have thought you were dull if you had picked the Neon. In the end, you may perform any or all of the cognitive changes that help you reduce your dissonance. And there is a measurable consequence to these cognitive changes. When you made your choice, you liked the BMW a bit more than you liked the Neon. By the time you are finished with your rationalizations and distortions that have been at the service of reducing cognitive dissonance, you will like the BMW much better than the (now) boring little Neon!
The predictions in the automobile purchasing scenario were confirmed in the first reported laboratory research on cognitive dissonance. In his 1956 study, Jack W. Brehm asked consumers to rate a variety of household items such as blenders and toasters. He told the consumers that they would be able to take home one of two items from the longer list of products. To create a high degree of dissonance, similar to the automobile example, Brehm asked the participants to choose between two highly attractive, closely related products. Brehm predicted that, just like the hypothetical BMW example, the consumers would rate the chosen product much more highly than they had rated it previously, and that they would downgrade the product that they did not choose. This is exactly what happened.
Changing Your Attitudes for Less
Here is another “thought experiment”: Imagine that a researcher asks you to write an essay in which you argue that tuition rates at public and private colleges should increase. The researcher tells you that the Dean of your college is trying to understand the arguments in favor of and against tuition increases, and you have been asked to write in favor. You think to yourself that this would be difficult because you do not want to see tuition rates increase. The researcher tells you that you can decide whether or not to write the essay, but he would really appreciate your doing it. You think it over and then agree. Now, you have a cognitive dissonance dilemma. Writing an essay in favor of a tuition increase is discrepant with your negative attitude about tuition. But you agreed that you would write it. This scenario should arouse dissonance. What can you do? Among the alternatives at your disposal is to decide that you really are not against tuition increases after all. If you actually believe that it is okay to raise tuition rates, then there will not be any cognitive dissonance resulting from your writing the essay. Similarly, it may be that politicians who are cajoled to support issues that they initially do not believe suffer the aversive state of dissonance and reduce it by coming to believe the position that they had just advocated— even though they did not believe it when they agreed to make the speech.
Once again, research in the laboratory demonstrated the truth of this prediction. Just as in the previous scenario, Festinger and his student, J. Merrill Carlsmith, showed that college students who agreed to make a speech with which they initially disagreed came to believe in the position they advocated following the speech. But there was more to this scenario: The students were given a monetary incentive to say what they did not believe. Would the magnitude of the incentive affect attitude change? Would speakers who received a large reward for making such a statement come to believe it more than students who received only a small token? Such a prediction may seem reasonable from what is known about the usual effects of rewards. Pigeons, rodents, and even humans have been shown to learn and act based on the magnitude of reward they receive for their behavior. However, dissonance theory makes a startling and nonobvious prediction—the lower the reward, the greater will be the attitude change. The magnitude of cognitive dissonance is increased by the magnitude and importance of the inconsistent cognitions a person holds, but it is reduced by the magnitude and importance of the consistent cognitions. Knowing that you made a speech that is contrary to your opinion is a cognition inconsistent with your opinion. On the other hand, receiving a bundle of money as a reward for the speech is a cognition quite consistent with giving the speech. The higher the reward is, the more important consistent cognition becomes. Therefore, making a counterattitudinal speech for a large reward results in less overall dissonance than making the same speech for a small reward. This is what Festinger and Carlsmith found: The lower the reward was for making the speech, the greater the attitude change was in favor of tuition increase. The notion that people change their attitude following counterattitudinal behavior has become known as the psychology of induced compliance. The finding that attitude change increases as the magnitude of the inducement decreases is perhaps the most telling signature that cognitive dissonance has been aroused.
To Suffer Is to Love
Imagine that you have decided to join a sorority or fraternity at your college. You know that you have to undergo some form of pledging ritual to join. The pledging will not be fun and may be uncomfortable and embarrassing, but you decide to do it. Will the pledging affect your view of how attractive the sorority or fraternity is? The theory of cognitive dissonance makes another bold and nonobvious prediction: The greater is the suffering involved in the pledging, the more you will be motivated to like the club you are trying to enter. The knowledge that you chose to endure some degree of discomfort and unpleasantness is discrepant with your typical desire to have pleasant rather than difficult experiences. However, in this scenario, there is a reason that you engaged in a difficult, less-than-pleasant pledging ritual: You wanted to join the group. Wanting to be a member of the group is the cognition that makes your suffering seem to make sense. Any dissonance created by your decision to endure the pledging is explained or justified by how enjoyable it will be to participate in the group. The more uncomfortable the group’s pledging procedure is, the more you need to find a reason for enduring it. And the justification can be made very compelling by distorting how good you think the group really is. Therefore, the prediction from cognitive dissonance theory is that the act of pledging will make the group seem attractive— and the more difficult or noxious the pledging is, the more attractive the group will seem. This phenomenon has been called effort justification.
Two social psychologists, Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills, tested the logic of effort justification in an experiment in which they had students undergo a screening test to join a group that was discussing the topic of sex. For some students, the screening was made avowedly difficult and embarrassing; for other students, the screening was less so. Although the group and the group members were precisely the same, those students who had the more embarrassing and difficult screening found the group discussion to be more interesting and the group members to be more attractive. By convincing themselves that the group was wonderful, the students were able to reduce the dissonance that had been aroused by their volunteering to engage in a difficult, embarrassing screening.
Volunteering to engage in difficult, effortful tasks happens frequently in our lives. Courses we choose to take may require a great deal of preparation, reading, and homework. Sports programs may require us to spend considerable amounts of time in training and in enduring the outbursts of demanding coaches. Yet, the very act of agreeing to participate in such effort has a positive consequence: It pushes us to like the activity for which we suffered.
Cognitive Dissonance and Social Life
Cognitive dissonance is ubiquitous. We like to think of ourselves as psychologically consistent human beings—that we act in ways that are consistent with our attitudes and that our attitudes are typically consistent with each other. We like to think that we make good choices and act in our own best interests. However, life often throws us curves that create inconsistency. The choices we make often lead us to dilemmas in which we need to relinquish some aspects of a rejected alternative that we would really like or to accept aspects of our chosen alternative that we would rather not have to accept. Sometimes, we find ourselves engaged in effortful activities that make little sense or find that we have to say or do things that do not quite fit with our private attitudes. These occasions cause us to experience dissonance—that uncomfortable state of tension that Festinger introduced in 1957. We do not live with the tension; rather, we take action to reduce it. And that is what is so interesting about cognitive dissonance. In our effort to reduce dissonance, we come to distort our choices to make them seem better, we come to like what we have suffered to attain, and we change our attitudes to fit our behaviors. Discovering and explaining the processes behind these occasions pervading our social life has been the hallmark of research on the theory of cognitive dissonance.
- Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 177-181.
- Brehm, J. W. (1956). Postdecision changes in the desirability of alternatives. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52, 384-389.
- Cooper, J., & Fazio, R. H. (1984). A new look at dissonance theory. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 17, pp. 229-262). New York: Academic Press.
- Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-210.