In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. The occurrence of cognitive dissonance is a consequence of a person’s performing an action that contradicts personal beliefs, ideals, and values; and also occurs when confronted with new information that contradicts said beliefs, ideals, and values.
In A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), Leon Festinger proposed that human beings strive for internal psychological consistency in order to mentally function in the real world. A person who experiences internal inconsistency tends to become psychologically uncomfortable and is motivated to reduce the cognitive dissonance. This is done either by changing parts of the cognition to justify the stressful behavior, by adding new parts to the cognition that causes the psychological dissonance, and/or by actively avoiding social situations and contradictory information that are likely to increase the magnitude of the cognitive dissonance.
Relations among cognitions
To function in the reality of a modern society, human beings continually adjust the correspondence of their mental attitudes and personal actions; such continual adjustments, between cognition and action, result in one of three relationships with reality:
Consonant relationship: Two cognitions or actions consistent with each other (e.g. not wanting to become drunk when out to dinner, and ordering water rather than wine)
Irrelevant relationship: Two cognitions or actions unrelated to each other (e.g. not wanting to become drunk when out, and wearing a shirt)
Dissonant relationship: Two cognitions or actions inconsistent with each other (e.g. not wanting to become drunk when out, then drinking more wine)
Magnitude of dissonance
The reduction of the psychological stress of cognitive dissonance is a function of the magnitude of the dissonance caused by the existential inconsistency between two contradictory beliefs held by the person, or the contradiction between the person’s beliefs and an action taken and realised by him or her. Two factors determine the degree of psychological dissonance caused by two conflicting cognitions or by two conflicting actions:
The importance of cognitions: The greater the personal value of the elements, the greater the magnitude of the dissonance in the relation.
Ratio of cognitions: The proportion of dissonant-to-consonant elements.
There are four theoretic paradigms of cognitive dissonance, the mental stress people suffer when exposed to contradictory information that is inconsistent with their prior beliefs, ideals, and values; (i) Belief Disconfirmation, (ii) Induced Compliance, (iii) Free Choice, and (iv) Effort Justification; which respectively explain: what happens after a person acts inconsistently, relative to his or her prior intellectual perspectives; what happens after a person makes decisions; and what are the effects upon a person who has expended much effort to achieve a goal. Common to each paradigm of cognitive-dissonance theory is the tenet: People invested to a given perspective shall—when confronted with disconfirming evidence—expend great effort to justify retaining the challenged perspective.
The disconfirmation (contradiction) of a belief, an ideal, or a system of values causes cognitive dissonance that can be resolved by changing the belief under contradiction; yet, instead of effecting change, the resultant mental stress restores psychological consonance to the person, either by mis-perception, by rejection, or by refutation of the contradiction; by seeking moral support from people who share the contradicted beliefs; and acting to persuade other people that the contradiction is unreal.
The early hypothesis of belief disconfirmation presented in When Prophecy Fails (1956) reported that faith deepened among the members of an apocalyptic religious cult, despite the failed prophecy of an alien spacecraft soon to land on Earth, to rescue them from earthly corruption. At the determined place and time, the cult assembled; they believed that only they would survive planetary destruction; yet the spaceship did not arrive to Earth. The disconfirmed prophecy caused them acute cognitive-dissonance: Had they been victims of a hoax? Had they vainly donated away their material possessions? To resolve the dissonance, between apocalyptic, end-of-the-world religious beliefs and earthly, material reality, most of the cult restored their psychological consonance by choosing to hold a less mentally-stressful idea to explain the missed landing. That the aliens had given planet Earth a second chance at existence, which, in turn, empowered them to re-direct their religious cult to environmentalism; social advocacy to end human damage to planet Earth. Moreover, upon overcoming the disconfirmed belief by changing to global environmentalism, the cult increased in numbers, by successful proselytism.
The study of The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (2008) reported the belief disconfirmation occurred to the Chabad Orthodox Jewish congregation who believed that their Rebbe (Menachem Mendel Schneerson) was the Messiah. Yet, when he died of a stroke in 1994, instead of accepting that their Rebbe was not the Messiah, some of the congregants proved indifferent to that contradictory fact, and chose to continue believing that Schneerson was the Messiah, and soon would return from the dead.
Cognitive dissonance is used to promote positive social behaviours, such as increased condom use; other studies indicate that cognitive dissonance can be used to encourage people to act pro-socially, such as campaigns against public littering, campaigns against racial prejudice, and compliance with anti-speeding campaigns. The theory can also be used to explain reasons for donating to charity.
Cognitive dissonance can be applied in social areas such as racism and racial hatred. Acharya of Stanford, Blackwell and Sen of Harvard state CD increases when an individual commits an act of violence toward someone from a different ethnic or racial group and decreases when the individual does not commit any such act of violence. Research from Acharya, Blackwell and Sen shows that individuals committing violence against members of another group will develop hostile attitudes towards their victims as a way of minimizing CD. Importantly, the hostile attitudes may persist even after the violence itself declines (Acharya, Blackwell, Sen 2015).
The application provides a social psychological basis for the constructivist viewpoint that ethnic and racial divisions can be socially or individually constructed, possibly from acts of violence (Fearon and Laitin, 2000). Their framework speaks to this possibility by showing how violent actions by individuals can affect individual attitudes, either ethnic or racial animosity (Acharya, Blackwell, Sen 2015).
In The Gestalt Theory of Motivation (1960), the social psychologist Daryl Bem proposed the self-perception theory whereby people do not think much about their attitudes, even when engaged in a conflict with another person. The Theory of Self-perception proposes that people develop attitudes by observing their own behaviour, and concludes that their attitudes caused the behaviour observed by self-perception; especially true when internal cues either are ambiguous or weak. Therefore, the person is in the same position as an observer who must rely upon external cues to infer his or her inner state of mind. Self-perception theory proposes that people adopt attitudes without access to their states of mood and cognition.
As such, the experimental subjects of the Festinger and Carlsmith study (Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance, 1959) inferred their mental attitudes from their own behaviour. When the subject-participants were asked: “Did you find the task interesting?”, the participants decided that they must have found the task interesting, because that is what they told the questioner. Their replies suggested that the participants who were paid twenty dollars had an external incentive to adopt that positive attitude, and likely perceived the twenty dollars as the reason for saying the task was interesting, rather than saying the task actually was interesting.
The theory of self-perception (Bem) and the theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger) make identical predictions, but only the theory of cognitive dissonance predicts the presence of unpleasant arousal, of psychological distress, which were verified in laboratory experiments.
In The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance: A Current Perspective (1969), Elliot Aronson linked cognitive dissonance to the self-concept: That mental stress arises when the conflicts among cognitions threatens the person’s positive self-image. This reinterpretation of the original Festinger and Carlsmith study, using the induced-compliance paradigm, proposed that the dissonance was between the cognitions “I am an honest person.” and “I lied about finding the task interesting.”
The study Cognitive Dissonance: Private Ratiocination or Public Spectacle? (1971) reported that maintaining cognitive consistency, rather than protecting a private self-concept, is how a person protects his or her public self-image.
Moreover, the results reported in the study I’m No Longer Torn After Choice: How Explicit Choices Implicitly Shape Preferences of Odors (2010) contradict such an explanation, by showing the occurrence of revaluation of material items, after the person chose and decided, even after having forgotten the choice.
In the study On the Measurement of the Utility of Public Works (1969), Jules Dupuit reported that behaviors and cognitions can be understood from an economic perspective, wherein people engage in the systematic processing of comparing the costs and benefits of a decision. The psychological process of cost-benefit comparisons helps the person to assess and justify the feasibility (spending money) of an economic decision, and is the basis for determining if the benefit outweighs the cost, and to what extent. Moreover, although the method of cost-benefit analysis functions in economic circumstances, men and women remain psychologically inefficient at comparing the costs against the benefits of their economic decision.
E. Tory Higgins proposed that people have three selves, to which they compare themselves:
Actual self – representation of the attributes the person believes him- or herself to possess (basic self-concept)
Ideal self – ideal attributes the person would like to possess (hopes, aspiration, motivations to change)
Ought self – ideal attributes the person believes he or she should possess (duties, obligations, responsibilities)
When these self-guides are contradictory psychological distress (cognitive dissonance) results. People are motivated to reduce self-discrepancy (the gap between two self-guides).
Averse consequences vs. inconsistency
During the 1980s, Cooper and Fazio argued that dissonance was caused by aversive consequences, rather than inconsistency. According to this interpretation, the belief that lying is wrong and hurtful, not the inconsistency between cognitions, is what makes people feel bad. Subsequent research, however, found that people experience dissonance even when they feel they have not done anything wrong. For example, Harmon-Jones and colleagues showed that people experience dissonance even when the consequences of their statements are beneficial—as when they convince sexually active students to use condoms, when they, themselves are not using condoms.
The action–motivation model proposes that inconsistencies in a person’s cognition cause mental stress, because psychologic inconsistency interferes with the person’s functioning in the real world. Among the ways for coping, the person can choose to exercise a behavior that is inconsistent with his or her current attitude (a belief, an ideal, a value system), but later try to alter that belief to be consonant with a current behaviour; the cognitive dissonance occurs when the person’s cognition does not match the action taken. If the person changes the current attitude, after the dissonance occurs, he or she then is obligated to commit to that course of behaviour.
The occurrence of cognitive dissonance produces a state of negative affect, which motivates the person to reconsider the causative behaviour, in order to resolve the psychologic inconsistency that caused the mental stress. As the afflicted person works towards a behavioural commitment, the motivational process then is activated in the left frontal cortex of the brain.