Cognitive dissonance refers to the psychological discomfort that people experience when there is inconsistency between their knowledge or beliefs and their behavior. Dissonance is distressing because humans strive to be consistent within themselves. A major category of cognitive dissonance is known as postdecision dissonance. This refers to the distress that occurs after one makes a decision.
Whenever individuals decide between a set of desirable alternatives, their decision will result in dissonance. For example, imagine that a person is considering job offers from company A and company B. Both positions have several positive features that make each of them uniquely appealing. After much consideration, the person selects job A but then immediately begins to wonder if it was the correct decision. This postdecision dissonance occurs because the person knew that job B had many attractive features and yet did not choose it; therefore, the decision is inconsistent with some of the person’s beliefs about the characteristics of an ideal job.
Different decisions are associated with varying levels of dissonance. How strongly the postdecision dissonance is felt depends on the importance of the decision, the attractiveness of each decision option, and the amount of similarity between the alternatives. Decisions of higher importance result in stronger dissonance. Therefore, a decision about which home to buy will result in greater dissonance than deciding what to eat for dinner.
Likewise, the more attractive an unchosen alternative is, the stronger the dissonance will be. Returning to the example of job offers, as the number of positive qualities of job B increase, so does the number of factors that are inconsistent with a decision to reject the job. The magnitude of the dissonance is decreased because there is more overlap between the different choices. Dissonance is caused by inconsistency, and because similar alternatives are highly consistent with each other, they will result in less dissonance.
The presence of dissonance results in a motivation to reduce it. There are three ways that postdecision dissonance can be alleviated. First, one can change or revoke the decision. Changing the decision may provide brief relief but will ultimately result in dissonance again because one is simply switching the elements that are consistent and inconsistent. Psychologically revoking the decision can be an effective means of reducing dissonance. One way this is achieved is by admitting that one made the wrong decision. Another tactic is to convince oneself that it was not a free decision. By believing that the decision was applied from the outside instead of through personal choice, the person has not engaged in any inconsistent behavior. A second way to reduce postdecision dissonance is to change one’s cognition about the alternatives. This can be achieved by adding to the consistent characteristics of the chosen alternative or by adding to the inconsistent characteristics of the alternative that was not chosen. One could also focus on reducing the inconsistent characteristics of the chosen alternative or reducing the consistent characteristics of the unchosen alternative. Finally, cognitive dissonance can be reduced by creating cognitive overlap between the alternatives. By picking aspects of each alternative and applying them so that they will lead to the same result, one can eliminate the inconsistency.
Cognitive dissonance is an unavoidable side effect of decision making. Depending on the characteristics of the alternatives, the strength of the dissonance will vary. Because the experience of cognitive dissonance is unpleasant, individuals will try to reduce the dissonance by changing their thoughts about the possible choices. This is done by increasing the attractiveness of their selection, decreasing the attractiveness of the other alternatives, creating overlap between the alternatives, or psychologically revoking the decision.
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