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Cognitive dissonance

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Cognitive dissonance is a theory proposed by the psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957.

Cognitive dissonance is a state of imbalance between cognitions. For the purpose of this theory, cognitions are defined as being an attitude, emotion, belief or value, or even a mixture of these cognitions.

The experiment

In Festinger and Carlsmith's classic 1957 experiment, students were made to perform tedious and meaningless tasks, consisting of turning pegs quarter-turns, then removing them from a board, then putting them back in, and so forth. Subjects rated these tasks very negatively. After a long period of doing this, students were told the experiment was over and they could leave.

However, the experimenter then asked the subject for a small favor. They were told that a needed research assistant was not able to make it to the experiment, and the subject was asked if they could fill in and try to persuade another subject (who was actually a confederate) that the dull, boring tasks they had just completed were actually interesting and engaging. Some subjects were paid $20 for the favor, another group was paid $1, and a control group was not requested to perform the favor.

When asked to rate the peg-turning tasks, those in the $1 group showed a much greater degree of attitude change in favor of the experiment than those in either of the other two groups. Experimenters theorized that when paid only $1, students were forced to internalize the attitude they were induced to express, because they had no other justification. Those in the $20 condition, it is argued, had an obvious external justification for their behavior -- they did it for the money. But with only $1, subjects faced insufficient justification and therefore "cognitive dissonance" which they sought to relieve by changing their attitude in order to really believe that they found the tasks enjoyable.

Conflicting cognitions: cognitive dissonance

Once two cognitions are held and there is a conflict between them, one falls into a state of cognitive dissonance. This may be demonstrated by someone purchasing a brand of washing machine, initially believing that it was the best product to buy. One's cognition is that a good washing machine has been bought. However, after the purchase, one may be exposed to another cognition informing one that there is a better washing machine out on the market (for example, through an advertisement). This then leads to an imbalance between cognitions and a psychological state which needs to seek consonance between the two cognitions.

Two kinds of dissonance

Theorists have identified two different kinds of cognitive dissonance that are relevant to decision making: pre-decisional dissonance and post-decisional dissonance.

Pre-decisional dissonance might be analogous to what Freud called "compensation." When a test showed that subjects had latent sexist attitudes, they later awarded a female a larger reward than a male in what they were told was a different study. Researchers hypothesized that the larger reward reduced dissonance by attempting to show that they were not sexist in the later decision.

The more well-known form of dissonance, however, is ''post-decisional dissonance''. Many studies have shown that people will subjectively reinforce decisions or commitments they have already made. In one simple experiment, experimenters found that bettors at a horse track believed bets were more likely to succeed immediately after being placed. According to the theory, the possibility of being wrong is dissonance-arousing, so people will change their perceptions to make their decisions seem better. This is the basis of the foot-in-the-door technique in sales, and possibly confirmation bias.

Post-decisional dissonance may be increased by the importance of the issue, the length of time the subject takes to make or avoid the decision, and the extent to which the decision could be reversed.

Ways to reduce cognitive dissonance

A person in a state of cognitive dissonance will then seek consonance. There are various ways to achieve this. However, changing a cognition gives some discomfort: one has to reflect and admit to oneself that one has had a wrong cognition.

Therefore, rather than adapt to these cognitions, one may deride the new improved washing machine, and perceive the new advertisement as untrue. This is another way of allowing one's cognitions to be in a consonant state once more.

However, there are even more ways of reducing the state of dissonance. One example is through selecting information after the purchase. It might be that a person would purposely avoid other washing machine advertisements knowing that the decision had been made and finding out about other products could lead to some discomfort. Cognitive dissonance is therefore a huge problem to companies. For example, let us assume that a certain customer invests a large sum of money buying Windows operating system. However, sometimes after that, his or her competitor deploys another operating system (e.g. Linux) which is widely reported. The first customer, on hearing this, may hesitate to use Windows in the future. At this point, cognitive dissonance becomes a problem to both Microsoft and their customer.

Festinger proposed that cognitive dissonance is a "negative drive state", a similar psychological tension to hunger and thirst and that people will seek to resolve this tension.

Reduction of cognitive dissonance is good because one feels better, and because one can come closer to consonance by eliminating contradictions. On the other hand some of the ways of reduction of cognitive dissonance involve a distortion of the truth, which may cause wrong decisions. The harder way of changing favorable cognitions may in the longer run be better.

When confronted with two belief cognitions that contradict each other, the dissonance can be resolved by finding and adding a third piece of information relevant to the two beliefs. For example, if Sam believes that Bob is trustworthy, but also believes that Bob has broken his trust, then the cognitive dissonance can be resolved by discovering that no person is trustworthy with everything. This enables Sam to (hopefully) still hold that Bob is still largely trustworthy, but that in Sam's particular experience Bob failed to maintain that trust.

Cognitive dissonance and conspiracy theories

Some people believe that cognitive dissonance can be instrumental in the creation of conspiracy theories. Suppose that Fred believes that satanic ritual abuse kills hundreds of thousands every year. However, these supposed deaths don't get reported in the media. This leads Fred into cognitive dissonance, which he can resolve either by changing his belief in satanic ritual abuse, or by believing that satanic cultists have infiltrated the media. In the latter case, Fred's original belief is augmented by a new belief in a media conspiracy, and this starts the process towards the creation of a new conspiracy theory.

Festinger said that the idea that he developed into cognitive dissonance theory originally came from a phenomenon that occurred in the aftermath of the deadly Bihar earthquake in India in 1934. After the disaster, there were widespread rumors that there would soon be even more destructive events. Festinger said he mused on the notion that the rumors might serve to justify the remaining fear and anxiety that people experienced.


  • Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Festinger, L. and Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-211.
  • Sherman, S. J., & Gorkin, R. B. (1980). Attitude bolstering when behavior is inconsistent with central attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16, 388-403.
  • Knox, R. E., & Inkster, J. A. (1968). Postdecision dissonance at post time.
  • Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
  • , 8, 319-323.

See also

  • Self-perception theory a competing theory of attitude change
  • Supernaturalization for a description of another explanation of causal belief
  • Great Disappointment for an example of how cognitive dissonance works in relation to religion

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