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The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

The theory of Cognitive Dissonance states that when individuals are presented with information that implies we act in a way that contradicts our moral standards, we experience discomfort (Aronson, Wilson, and Akert, 1998, P. 191). This is considered Cognitive Dissonance. A psychological term used to describe the mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information; arouses unease or tension; relieved by one of several defensive maneuvers: rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding new information; persuading self that no conflict really exists; reconciling differences; or resorting to any other defensive means of preserving stability or order in the conception of the world and of self; first introduced in the 1950s; has become a major point of discussion and research in psychology (as cited in Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia, 1996).

This theory was developed by Leon Festinger (1957), is concerned with the relationships among cognitions. Cognition, for the purpose of this theory, may be thought of as a piece of knowledge, thoughts, feelings, or beliefs. Knowledge may be about an attitude, an emotion, a behavior, or a value. For instance, the fact that you like the color red is cognition. People have a massive amount of cognition at the same time, and these cognitions create irrelevant, relationships with one another. Therefore, that the two cognitions have nothing to do with each other. This occurs most often when we do something that contradicts our moral beliefs. If the dissonance is experienced it is almost always uncomfortable, so the individual is motivated to reduce it. This causes the individual to identify the magnitude of their discomfort and, it is possible to predict what we can do to reduce dissonance.

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There are three basic ways to reduce dissonance. First are changing cognitions, an example is if two cognitions don’t relate we can change one to make it relate to the other; or change each cognition in the direction of the other. The second is adding cognitions, if two cognitions cause a certain degree of dissonance, adding one or more cognitions can reduce the degree of dissonance. The third is altering importance, attempting to justify the behavior by adding new cognitions. These are the three basic ways of reducing cognitive dissonance (Aronson, Wilson, and Akert, 1998, P. 192). Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith also tested his theory in 1959. They put all the participants through a dull task. The task consisted of placing a large number of spools on pegs on a board, turn each spool a quarter turn, take the spool off the pegs and then put them back on. The subject’s attitudes toward this task were negative.

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The participants were then asked to lie about the task to another person. This person was actually an assistant in the study. The lie was to try to convince the assistant that the task was actually interesting and fun. The participants were either given one dollar or twenty dollars for lying about the task. The experimenters found that those who lied and received the one-dollar experienced the greatest dissonance, and they were more motivated to seek cognitive constancy than the participants who received twenty dollars. Those who received the one-dollar reported having enjoyed the task more than those who received the twenty dollars. There was an inconsistency between the attitudes of the participants and the behavior. The participants who received twenty dollars just wanted the money. The larger amount of money provided external justification for the behavior. There was no dissonance, and the participants did not need to change their attitudes.

For the subjects who received only one dollar, there was less external justification and more dissonance. They reduced their dissonance by changing their attitudes toward the task. The experimenters then asked the one-dollar group to evaluate the experiment and rated the task more fun than the twenty-dollar group, or the control group. This simply explains cognitive dissonance; the participants changed their attitudes to make them consistent with behavior. This experiment shows how easily people rationalize behavior to make them consistent with their morals. (Price, et al, 1959 pg. 507). I have an almost perfect example of cognitive dissonance. One of my really close friends is what you would call a social smoker. She doesn’t consider herself a smoker; she just does it on occasion. For example when she is drinking, or stressed. My friend doesn’t think the typical stereotypes of a smoker correspond to her, she thinks she is different.

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This one time she decided she wanted a cigarette totally out of the blue, this went against her moral standards. She was experiencing dissonance; she began to wonder if she really was a smoker if this could become a habit like other smokers. Then she began to justify her actions by saying, “just this one time, it is not like I do this all the time “. She justified her actions to try to make herself feel better about her decision and got rid of her dissonance. This is just one of many other solutions she could have chosen. The second possible solution could have been for her to realize how bad smoking is, how it causes cancer, and you could possibly die. Realizing these factors also would have persuaded her to quit. The third way of getting rid of cognitive dissonance would be to add a new cognition such as, “smoking is so relaxing, and it really calms my nerves”.

In all these situations she should rid herself of cognitive dissonance, this is an example of how the cognitive dissonance theory works in real-life situations. In my opinion people without a background in social psychology would see cognitive dissonance theory, as a form of denial. It is a way of making themselves believe what they are doing is not wrong. Cognitive dissonance explains how people change their opinions about themselves and their environment. It is also concerned with relationships and cognitions. When people do something that goes against their belief system, they experience dissonance. There are ways of resolving this dissonance, which vary for every person and situation. That is why people reduce dissonance in different ways.

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  • Price, H. R., et al, (1982). Principles in Psychology. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
  • Simon, & Schuster (Ed.). (1996). Compton Interactive Encyclopedia (2nd ed.). Massachusetts: Compton’s New Media. [/i:8deefbfa72]

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