Inspired by cognitive dissonance theory, hundreds of experiments have demonstrated that following a difficult decision, compared with an easy one, individuals change their attitudes to be more consistent with their decisions. That is, following a decision, individuals evaluate the chosen alternative more positively and the rejected alternative more negatively than they did before the decision. This effect has been referred to as spreading of alternatives because the attitudes toward the chosen and rejected alternatives spread apart. Attributes of decision alternatives also become more coherent or more related with each other following decisions. Memories are also affected by choice, such that individuals incorrectly remember more positive features of chosen options and more negative features of rejected options.
In experiments on spreading of alternatives, people are induced to make an easy or difficult decision. An easy decision is created by having people chose between two things that are very different in value, with one being liked much and the other not being liked as much. A difficult decision is created by having people chose between two things that are close in value but with different attributes. According to the theory of cognitive dissonance, after one makes a difficult decision, one will evaluate the chosen alternative as more positive and the rejected as more negative. The decision does not need to be between two initially positively valued items; negatively valued items cause spreading of alternatives too.
After the person makes a decision, each of the negative aspects of the chosen alternative and positive aspects of the rejected alternative is dissonant (that is, inconsistent) with the decision, whereas each of the positive aspects of the chosen alternative and negative aspects of the rejected alternative is consonant or (that is, consistent) with the decision. Difficult decisions arouse more dissonance than do easy decisions because there are a greater proportion of dissonant cognitions after a difficult decision than after an easy one. Because of this, there will be greater motivation to reduce the dissonance after a difficult decision. Dissonance following a decision can be reduced by removing negative aspects of the chosen alternative or positive aspects of the rejected alternative, or adding positive aspects to the chosen alternative or negative aspects to the rejected alternative.
Research in both lab and field settings has provided support for the prediction that difficult decisions cause more spreading of alternatives than easy decisions do. Most evidence has been in the form of self-reported attitudes, though some research used behavioral and physiological measures. Research has revealed that individuals high in action orientation (who efficiently implement actions) show greater spreading of alternatives than do individuals low in action orientation. Spreading of alternatives research has implications for life satisfaction, interpersonal relationships, gambling, smoking, and many other issues. For example, when persons make a decision to commit to a relationship, they would be expected to increase their positive evaluations of the relationship partner and decrease their negative evaluations. This would lead to greater relationship satisfaction.
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