The theory of cognitive dissonance, invented by Leon Festinger in 1957, is generally considered to be social psychology’s most important and most provocative theory. Simply stated, cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever an individual simultaneously holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent with each other. Two cognitions are dissonant if, considering these two cognitions alone, the opposite of one follows from the other.
Because the experience of cognitive dissonance is unpleasant, people are motivated to reduce it either by changing one or both cognitions in such a way as to render them to be more compatible (more consonant) with each other, or by adding more cognitions that help bridge the gap between the original cognitions. For example, the cognition that I smoke cigarettes would be dissonant with my knowledge that cigarette smoking causes cancer. The most direct way to reduce dissonance would be to stop smoking: but suppose I have tried to stop smoking and have been unsuccessful. How might I reduce dissonance? I might try to convince myself that smoking isn’t that bad-by criticizing the scientific data, or by coming to believe that filters trap most of the harmful substances, or by focusing my attention on Sam Caruthers who smokes two packs a day and is 93 years old and still going strong. All of these cognitions help reduce some of the dissonance associated with smoking, by suggesting that smoking might not be as harmful as generally believed. Consistent with this reasoning, Gibbons et al. (1997) found that heavy smokers who attended a smoking cessation clinic, quit smoking for a while, and then relapsed into heavy smoking, subsequently succeeded in lowering their perception of the dangers of smoking.
Basic Research on Cognitive Dissonance
Dissonance theory has produced a wide array of interesting and provocative findings. The following is a list of just a few of the classic experiments.
- Post-decision dissonance. The theory suggests that, whenever we make a difficult decision, we will experience dissonance because all negative aspects of the chosen alternative are dissonant with having chosen it: similarly, all positive aspects of the rejected alternative are dissonant with having rejected it. Brehm (1956) demonstrated that within a few minutes after making a difficult decision, people reduced dissonance by spreading apart their evaluation of the two alternatives-convincing themselves that the chosen alternative is more attractive than they originally thought and that the rejected alternative was less attractive than they originally thought.
- Effort and dissonance. The theory suggests that, all other things being equal, the harder we work for something, the more we will like it. The cognition, “I worked hard for something” is dissonant with anything negative about it. To reduce dissonance we will try to distort our perception of the item in a positive direction. Aronson & Mills (1959) found that individuals who went through a severe initiation in order to gain admission to a boring discussion group, rated that group as more attractive than people who gained admission to the group with little or no effort.
- Induced compliance. If individuals are induced to make a statement opposite to their actual beliefs, the smaller the inducement offered, the greater will be the change in their actual belief in the direction of the statement they have made (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959; Nel, Helmreich, & Aronson. 1969). This occurs because the greater the inducement (in the form of rewards or punishments), the less the dissonance. Thus, if people are paid only $I for telling a lie they will experience more dissonance than if they are paid $20. To reduce dissonance they will convince themselves that the statement they made was actually close to their real beliefs.
Evolution of the Cognitive Dissonance Theory
The theory of cognitive dissonance caused a great stir in psychology, in part because it showed the limitations of conventional wisdom, which had been based primarily on reinforcement theory. In effect, the new wisdom became: If you want to get someone to do something unpleasant, high rewards will be helpful, as reinforcement theory suggests: but if you want that person to like what he is doing or to believe in the truth of what he is saying, the lowest possible reward will produce the greatest change.
As with most theories, dissonance theory has evolved in the years since its inception. Perhaps the most fundamental change had to do with the notion of the self-concept (Aronson, 1960, 1992, 1998; Aronson & Carlsmith, 1962). Aronson argued that, in any dissonant situation, dissonance is not produced by any two cognitions being discrepant (as Festinger believed). Rather it is the cognition about a particular behavior that is dissonant with a person’s self-concept. For example, in the Festinger-Carlsmith experiment, the researchers hypothesized that the cognition, “I believe X,” was dissonant with the cognition “I said Not-X.” According to the self-concept notion, the dissonance exists between the cognition: “I am a person of integrity,” and the cognition “I told a lie.”
The change in emphasis has had many ramifications. On a conceptual level, it clarified the theory by delineating where it did and did not apply. On a generative level it opened the door to a wide array of research and theorizing on self-behavior disparities such as Swann’s (1991) work on self-verification, Steele’s (1988) work on self-affirmation, and Aronson’s (1992) work on hypocrisy.
Applications of Dissonance Theory
From its inception, the applications of the theory to real world issues were apparent (see Festinger, Riecken & Schachter, 1956). This applicability continues to the present day. Dissonance theory has been used successfully to help find a solution to a diverse array of problems, such as curing snake phobias (Cooper, 19So), convincing sexually active teenagers to use condoms (Stone et al. 1994), inducing college students to conserve water by taking shorter showers (Dickerson. Thibodeau, Aronson, & Miller, 19g2), and reducing prejudice among college students (Leippe & Eisenstadt, 1994).
- Aronson, E. (1992). The return of the repressed: Dissonance theory makes a comeback. Psychological Inquiry, 3, 303-311.
- Aronson, E. (1998). Dissonance, hypocrisy, and the self concept. In E. Harmon-Jones E. & J. S. Mills (Eds.), Cognitive dissonance theory: Revival with revisions and controversies. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Books.
- Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston: Row Peterson.
- Harmon-Jones, E., & Mills, J. S. (1998). Cognitive dissonance theory: Revival with revisions and controversies. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Books.