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Cognitive dissonance

Dr. Simon Moss


The theory of cognitive dissonance, proposed by Festinger (1957, 1958, 1964), has been proposed to explain a series of key observations. For example, if individuals are instructed to present some speech, their subsequent attitudes are more inclined to align with this presentation. However, this pattern of findings arises only when individuals are not granted conspicuous incentives to present this speech.

The key premise is that individuals experience a sense of unease or discomfort, called cognitive dissonance, when they experience or manifest two cognitions that contradict one another. They might, for example, believe they are typically an altruistic person but then recognize that, nevertheless, they seldom donate money or time to charity. Any such inconsistencies between their attitudes or beliefs and their behavior will provoke this sense of dissonance. Dissonance manifests as feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment, anxiety, anger, or other negative affective states.

Dissonance does not tend to arise unless several conditions are fulfilled. First, individuals must feel they can control their behavior& they need to experience a sense of personal responsibility (e.g., Beauvois & Joule, 1999). Second, although some contention remains (e.g., Harmon-Jones, Brehm, Greenberg, Simon, & Nelson, 1996), the behavior is usually regarded as consequential and potentially aversive (Cooper & Fazio, 1984). Third, the cognitions need to be relevant to the self (Aronson, 1969)

Individuals experience a profound motivation to alleviate this sensation or feeling (see Elliot & Devine, 1994). To ameliorate dissonance, individuals can engage in various processes, all intended to align these cognitions with one another.

First, they might, for example, change their belief or attitudes. After failing to donate money to charities, for example, they might form the belief that such donations are ultimately futile.

Second, individuals could trivialize the domain or context. They could, for example, convince themselves the behavior is inconsequential (e.g., Simon, Greenberg, & Brehm, 1995).

Third, they could deny responsibility for their behavior--an inclination that curbs the negative affect that dissonance evokes (Gosling, Denizeau, & Oberl?, 2006). Similarly, they might justify their behavior, attempting to demonstrate to themselves that such acts do not conflict with their beliefs or attitudes. They could highlight, either to themselves or to someone else, they could not readily access their money. In other words, responsibility is not only a necessary condition to generate dissonance& personal responsibility can be denied to curb dissonance as well.

Finally, at least in some settings, individuals could change their behavior--and, in this instance, begin to donate money. Individuals might, for example, sometimes express positive attitudes about safety. Nevertheless, the same individuals might engage in unsafe sexual practices. After they become aware of this contradiction, they are more likely to buy more condoms (Stone, Aronson, Crain, Winslow, & Fried, 1994). These behaviors, then, overcome the aversive sense of dissonance.

Variants of cognitive dissonance

Aronson (1969) introduced some refinements to the variant that was proposed by Festinger (1957, 1958, 1964). Specifically, Aronson (1969) argued that dissonance does not arise from contradictions between any cognitions. Instead, dissonance arises from contradictions between the behaviors or actions of individuals and their, often positive, perceptions of themselves (for similar perspectives, see Stone & Cooper, 2001& Stone, Wiegand, Cooper, & Aronson, 1997& Tesser & Cornell, 1991).

Recent studies have uncovered findings that align with this variant. Specifically, research has shown that prosocial behavior can resolve dissonance. That is, after individuals experience a sense of dissonance, they become more inclined to engage in altruistic, prosocial behavior (Dietrich & Berkowitz, 1997).

To explain this finding, dissonance most likely reflects the inclination of individuals to engage in behaviors that diverge from the perception of themselves as honorable. Thus, to reconcile this dissonance, they can engage in honorable or appropriate behavior.

Evidence of cognitive dissonance

Sources of dissonance

In the laboratory, two main paradigms have been applied to examine cognitive dissonance. First, individuals are encouraged to engage in some behavior that contradicts their beliefs or attitudes. Importantly, subtle measures, rather than conspicuous incentives, are applied to encourage compliance to this request: if the incentives are too pronounced, individuals will ascribe their behavior to extrinsic factors and hence the experience of dissonance will dissipate.

For example, individuals might be encouraged to write an essay or present a speech about a topic that diverges from their beliefs or attitudes (e.g., Galinsky, Magee, Gruenfeld, Whitson, & Linjenquist, 2008). The experimenter might offer some trivial incentive, such as $1, to encourage individuals to adopt this position.

Second, individuals might be encouraged to choose between two items, but these alternatives are equally desirable. This protocol induces a sense of dissonance between their behavior--the rejection of one option--and their attitudes--the recognition this alternative does present some desirable features (see Brehm, 1956). To resolve this dissonance, individuals tend to rate the rejected items as less desirable. This pattern of observations has also been uncovered in children and even monkeys (Egan, Santos, & Bloom, 2007).

Third, vicarious dissonance has also been observed (Norton, Benoit, Cooper, & Hogg, 2003). In the study conducted by Norton, Benoit, Cooper, and Hogg (2003), participants watched someone engage in a behavior that contradicted their expressed attitudes. Participants who identified with this person also experienced the unease that coincides with dissonance.

Effects on performance

Cognitive dissonance, if a source of arousal, should enhance performance on simple tasks but diminish performance on complex tasks, such as activities that demand working memory. In particular, arousal tends to prime behavior and, therefore, can facilitate performance on simple reaction time tasks. Nevertheless, dissonance also primes attempts to reconcile the contradiction, depleting working memory, and hence compromising performance on tasks that depend on this system.

This possibility was verified by Martinie, Olive, and Milland (2010). Some participants, all of whom were university students, were asked to write an essay that highlights the benefits of an increase in tuition fees--a position that counters their actual beliefs. To provoke dissonance, some participants were told they are permitted to refuse, but nevertheless tended to feel obliged to write this essay. In the control condition, participants were not granted this choice. Consequently, they did not experience dissonance between their attitudes and behavior, because they knew they had not choosen to write the essay.

As one of the studies showed, dissonance actually improved performance on a reaction time task, in which participants merely needed to press a button whenever a particular signal appeared. Nevertheless, as a subsequent study showed, dissonance compromised performance on a difficult, but not a simple, memory task, in which they needed to memorize sequence of digits while being distracted by other events.

Effects of choices over time

Some of the effects of cognitive dissonance have been shown to persist for, at least, 3 or so years. Specifically, after individuals chose one option over other options, they are more likely to perceive the chosen alternative favorably. That is, they want to feel their choices or behaviors align to their attitudes, arguably to reduce cognitive dissonance. As shown by Sharot, Fleming, Yu, Koster, and Dolan (2012), these effects of choice last at least three years.

Specifically, in their study, participants first rated the extent to which they would enjoy various holiday destinations. Next, pairs of holiday destinations were presented. Some participants were asked which of these destinations they would choose. Other participants were told that a computer will randomly chose one destination of each pair--and their task was to press a space bar to indicate which destination the computer chose. These participants, therefore, were not granted the opportunity to choose a destination. Finally, about three years later, all participants were asked to rate the various destinations again.

If participants had chosen a specific destination, their ratings of this option were more favorable three years later. Arguably, the perceived value of an alternative is represented over a long period in the striatum (Sharot, De Martino, & Dolan, 2009).

Conditions that enable or inhibit dissonance

Attribution to extrinsic forces in adults

Sometimes, contradictions between the cognitions and behaviors of individuals can be ascribed to factors that individuals cannot control. Individuals who perceive themselves as charitable could, nevertheless, ascribe their reluctance to donate money to factors they cannot control. Perhaps their friends deterred these donations, arguing that most of the money is squandered on administration. Perhaps they had misplaced their wallet, and so forth. As a consequence, their behavior can be readily rationalized and the dissonance is thus transient or absent.

The importance of such attributions was illustrated convincingly by Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) in a seminal study. Individuals were encouraged to participate in a tedious activity--such as turning pegs continually. Next, these individuals were encouraged to persuade someone else to engage in this study, by promoting the research as interesting and engaging. In particular, these individuals were paid $20, $1, or nothing to attract another participant.

If participants were paid only $1, they subsequently rated the study as more interesting. Presumably, they experienced a sense of dissonance between their attitude or belief--in this instance, the study is tedious--and their behavior--in this instance, their remarks in which they championed the research. To offset this dissonance, they adjusted their attitudes, convincing themselves the study is interesting and engaging.

In contrast, if participants were paid $20, they did not subsequently rate the study as interesting. These individuals did not experience dissonance. Instead, they could readily ascribe their behavior to extrinsic forces--in this instance, the reward. Therefore, they did not recognize a contradiction between their behavior and attitudes.

Aronson (1969) present a distinct explanation, which nevertheless preserves the concept of cognitive dissonance. In particular, when paid only $1, individuals experience a sense of dissonance between their positive beliefs about themselves, that perhaps they are honest, and their behavior, in which they lied.

Indeed, many studies have shown that a sense of control can amplify the manifestations of cognitive dissonance. Wenzlaff and LePage (2000), for example, showed that relaxation exercises are more likely to affect the mood of individuals if these individuals felt they chose to engage in this task. That is, if individuals experience a sense of choice, they might experience dissonance between their beliefs about their affective state-in other words, their mood-and the experience of positive thoughts, emanating from the relaxation exercise. To resolve this dissonance, their beliefs about their affective state, and hence their mood, changes. In other words, relaxation exercises are more effective if individuals feel they chose to engage in this act.

Attribution to extrinsic forces in children

This principle of insufficient justification-the observation that dissonance is inconsequential if the contradictions can be ascribed to extrinsic forces-has also been corroborated in children. Indeed, this principle was confirmed in children as early as 1963, by Aronson and Carlsmith.

In this study, children were permitted to play with a variety of toys, one of which, a robot, was especially desirable. The experimenter then informed the children they would receive a severe or moderate punishment if they played with this toy. As a consequence, all the children refrained from playing with this toy.

Later, they were informed they could play with any toys, without fear of punishment. Children who had earlier anticipated moderate punishment subsequently abstained from playing with this robot. Presumably, they had experienced a sense of dissonance between their attitudes--their positive evaluation of the robot--and their behavior--they abstinence from this toy. To resolve this dissonance, they adjusted their attitudes, conceptualizing the toy as relatively undesirable.

In contrast, children who had earlier anticipated severe punishment did not abstain from playing with this robot. They could ascribe their previous behavior to the severe punishment. This justification reconciles the apparent contradiction between their behavior and their attitudes.

Determinants of these attributions

As a consequence, any characteristics that encourage individuals to ascribe their behavior to factors they cannot control, thus, often diminish the manifestations of cognitive dissonance. Indeed, a variety of studies have confirmed this proposition.

To illustrate, when individuals feel powerless, the behaviors of individuals are more likely to impinge on their attitudes. (e.g., Galinsky, Magee, Gruenfeld, Whitson, & Linjenquist, 2008).

In Experiment 5, reported by Galinsky, Magee, Gruenfeld, Whitson, and Linjenquist (2008), participants--all of whom were university students--were asked to write about an incident in which either they were granted power over other individuals or someone else was granted power over them. In other words, individuals experienced either a high or low sense of power.

Subsequently, the students were encouraged to present a speech that most likely contradicts their extant attitudes. For example, they were encouraged to question an existing university policy, in which formal classes are cancelled one week before the exams. Finally, they expressed their attitudes towards this policy.

Individuals who experienced an elevated sense of power demonstrated manifestations of cognitive dissonance. That is, after speaking about the drawbacks of this policy, they genuinely felt this university regulation is undesirable. Presumably, because they experienced a sense of power, the participants ascribed their behavior--their speech against this policy--to personal preferences rather than extrinsic constraints. As a consequence, they most likely experienced a sense of dissonance, emanating from the contradiction between the speech and extant attitudes towards the policy. To override this dissonance, the participants presumably adjusted their attitudes.

In contrast, individuals who experienced a limited sense of power did not demonstrate any manifestations of cognitive dissonance. Specifically, after speaking about the drawbacks of this policy, they subsequently reported positive attitudes towards this university regulation. These individuals perhaps ascribed their behavior to extrinsic forces, such as the instructions or demands of the experimenter& as a consequence, the discrepancy between their behavior and attitudes did not evoke a sense of dissonance.

Sensitivity to dissonance

Some factors enhance the capacity of individuals to resolve dissonance--such as attributions to extrinsic forces. In contrast, other factors increase or decrease sensitivity to such dissonance. Matz, Hofstedt, and Wood (2008), for example, showed that introversion might amplify sensitivity to dissonance, whereas extraversion might inhibit the corresponding feelings of arousal. That is, introverts experienced more dissonance and discomfort than extraverts when members of groups disagreed with one another. Introverts were also more inclined to adopt the majority position.

Cialdini, Trost, and Newsom (1995) developed a scale, called preference for consistency, which represents the extent to which individuals are sensitive to dissonance. When preference for consistency is low, the attitudes or behavior of individuals are less likely to change in response to cognitive dissonance.

Psychopathy and the new look theory

Psychopathy, characterized by a callous attitude, antisocial behavior, dishonesty, limited guilt, and superficial charm, has been shown to curb the effects of cognitive dissonance. In one study, reported by Murray, Wooda, and Lilienfeld (2012), participants completed the psychopathic personality inventory and the Levenson self-report psychopathy scale. In addition, to gauge cognitive dissonance, participants first undertook a tedious task for 15 minutes: shifting the beads on an abacus. Next, some participants were encouraged to pretend the task is enjoyable to another person who, supposedly, would soon complete this activity. They were told their cooperation would be appreciated but is not obligatory. Other participants were instructed to pretend the task is enjoyable& they were not really granted any choice. Finally, participants completed a questionnaire that gauges the extent to which they felt the task was enjoyable.

In general, if participants felt they had chosen to pretend the task was enjoyable, they were more likely to report they actually enjoyed the task. This pattern reflects cognitive dissonance: That is, the behavior of individuals, if chosen, shaped their attitudes. Yet, this pattern was not observed in people who reported elevated levels of psychopathy. Psychopathy, therefore, seemed to override the effects of cognitive dissonance.

This set of observations is consistent with an explanation of cognitive dissonance, propounded by Cooper and Fazio (1984& Cooper 2007), called the new look theory. According to this theory, when individuals harm other people or themselves, they tend to enact behaviors that diverge from their values& that is, their behaviors or inclinations tend to diverge from some of their core motivations, reflecting a form of cognitive dissonance. Over time, individuals thus associate such harmful behaviors with cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance, therefore, tend to evoke feelings of guilt, regret, or similar emotions, inspiring people to change. When psychopathy is elevated, however, individuals are not as susceptible to guilt or regret, and the effects of cognitive dissonance, therefore, tend to dissipate.

Self complexity

When individuals become aware that perhaps their attitudes diverge from their behaviors, they experience a sense of dissonance. To curb this dissonance, they might shift their attitudes, to ensure these cognitions align with their behaviors. Interestingly, self complexity--the extent to which people exhibit different traits in diverse settings--curbs the likelihood that individuals will shift these cognitions (McConnell & Brown, 2010).

Specifically, in one study, reported by McConnell and Brown (2010), self complexity was measured. In particular, participants differentiated the various roles or aspects, such as mother, employee, athlete, and so forth. For each role or aspect, they indicated which of 40 attributes corresponds to their personality or behavior. To calculate self complexity, or the extent to which these attributes vary across the aspects of their life, the H statistic was calculated (see Scott, 1969).

Next, participants, all of whom were students, specified the extent to which they value a range of study practices. They were asked, for example, "How important is to make flashcards...when preparing for an exam". Then, in some of the participants, a sense of dissonance was induced. In particular, participants wrote about the importance of study skills, before reflecting upon times in which they did not devote enough effort into their studies. Finally, the extent to which they value various study practices was assessed again.

If a sense of dissonance had been induced, participants shifted their attitudes. That is, they become less inclined to value study practices. Presumably, after they became aware they do not study as extensively as they should, they experienced the motivation to trivialize the importance of study. This pattern of findings, however, was observed only in individuals with low self complexity--that is, in individuals who feel they exhibit similar traits in all contexts.

Presumably, when self complexity is low, individuals are more sensitive to negative feelings about themselves. To illustrate, if they discover they are deficient on some attribute, such as their creativity, they realize this problem could undermine every facet of their lives. They feel especially upset. They become more sensitive to negative and aversive feelings. Consequently, they feel the need to nullify a sense of dissonance immediately.

Consistent with this premise, individuals did not adjust their attitudes to study if, earlier, they had reflected on their most important values. This affirmation of their values, as highlighted by self affirmation theory, instills a sense of integrity. This sense of integrity curbs the sensitivity of individuals to dissonance.

Terror management and cognitive dissonance

According to Jonas, Greenberg, and Frey (2003), individuals are more sensitive to cognitive dissonance, and thus more inclined to resolve any contradictions, when their mortality is salient. That is, according to terror management theory, when individuals become aware of their mortality, they feel an urge to connect to an enduring entity, such as society. This connection to an enduring entity confers a sense of immortality, overcoming the existential angst an awareness of mortality can provoke.

To fulfill this need, individuals strive to fulfill the needs of their societal norms. Any contradiction between these norms or attitudes and their behavior threatens this connection. Hence, individuals become especially sensitive to such discrepancies. Consistent with this proposition, when mortality is salient, individuals are more inclined to read material that aligns with their attitudes.

Neural underpinnings

According to some models, dissonance evokes activity in the anterior circulate cortex, which is involved in the detection of contradictions between cognitions. For example, this structure underpins the detection or errors or response conflicts (e.g., Gehring, Goss, Coles, Meyer, & Donchin, 1993). Studies using event related brain potentials show this region is active when individuals engage in acts that contradict their perception of themselves (Amodio, Harmon-Jones, Devine, Curtin, Hartley, & Covert, 2004)--the cornerstone of cognitive dissonance (Aronson, 1969).

To resolve this dissonance, individuals engage mechanisms of approach, which are primarily related to the left prefrontal cortex (see Harmon-Jones, Harmon-Jones, Fearn, Sigelman, & Johnson, 2008). Indeed, the left prefrontal cortex seems to be especially active when individuals engage in acts that are intended to reconcile cognitive conflict. The left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, for example, is especially active during the preparation of color naming, not word naming, in a Stroop task (MacDonald, Cohen, Stenger, & Carter, 2000). Indeed, several studies indicate the left prefrontal cortex is vital for guiding behaviors that constitute approach rather than avoidance, especially in the realm of self regulation and planning (e.g., Tomarken & Keener, 1998)

Alternative explanations and caveats

Evidence of self perception theory

Bem (1965, 1967) maintained that self perception theory, a model that he formulated, can accommodate findings that are usually ascribed to cognitive dissonance. According to Bem, individuals infer their attitudes and inclinations from their behavior. That is, individuals assume their attitudes, at least in some instances, caused their behavior. Hence, they can determine their attitudes in these circumstances by reflecting upon their behavior.

When individuals, for example, are paid $1 to encourage another person that a study is interesting, their behavior is salient. From this behavior, individuals infer they must perceive the study as interesting. When individuals, however, are paid $20 to encourage another person that a study is interesting, the incentive is salient. They become less inclined to infer their attitudes from their behavior. As evidence of self perception theory, observers could decipher the likely attitudes of participants who engaged in these studies.

Many other studies confirm self perception theory (e.g., Laird, 2007). For example, individuals often infer their emotional states from the behaviors they are encouraged to enact--such as facial expressions.

Self perception theory has also been applied to predict how people decide whether they feel bored or engaged. For example, if people feel their attention has shifted to positive events or to many diverse settings, they perceive themselves as bored (Critcher & Gilovich, 2010). Consequently, they perceive their ongoing activities as unsatisfying. Furthermore, consistent with self perception theory, if they can ascribe these shifts of attention to other causes, these attributions and feelings of dissatisfaction diminish.

To illustrate, in one study, students were instructed to consider leisure activities they would be undertaking now if they had not attended class. This instruction was intended to shift attention to positive thoughts. Other students were instructed to consider obligations they would be undertaking now if they had not attended class, intended to shift attention negative features. Next, all participants completed a puzzle. Finally, participants rated the extent to which they enjoyed this task.

If participants had not performed especially well on the puzzle, they did not perceive the activity as enjoyable--but only if their attention had been directed to positive thoughts (Critcher & Gilovich, 2010). Presumably, these participants had assumed that had oriented their attention to positive thoughts to overcome boredom. They, hence, inferred they were bored, biasing their perception of the puzzle.

Implications of self perception theory

Schrift and Parker (2014) invoked self-perception theory to develop an intriguing technique to enhance persistence: Individuals should recognize that one of their choices is always to refrain from any choice and continue as usual. That is, when people must choose one option, they may feel the item or activity they chose was not desirable but merely better than alternatives. Their commitment and persistence may decline. In particular, when people are not obliged to choose one option--but can abstain or continue as usual--they feel the item or activity they chose must have been valuable. Commitment and persistence escalate.

Schrift and Parker (2014) conducted a series of studies to validate this possibility. In one study, a matrix of letters was presented. Participants were instructed to uncover words within these letters. Some individuals were told they could attempt to uncover either capital cities or famous names. Other individuals were told they could attempt to uncover either capital cities or famous names--or even not to participate at all. Finally, some individuals were told they could attempt to uncover capital cities, famous names, or famous ballet dancers& this condition entailed three choices, but not the choice to abstain. All participants completed the task, because of the possibility of earning a bonus. Nevertheless, when the option not to complete this task was available, participants were more likely to persist on this task& they dedicated more time to this activity.

Subsequent studies challenged alternative explanations. For example, the same effect was observed even if, before receiving the choices, participants were granted the option to continue or discontinue. In addition, the availability to abstain from a choice did not enhance persistence on an unrelated activity.

Problems with self perception theory

Nevertheless, self perception theory does not predict that contradictions between attitudes and behavior will evoke negative affective states. Several studies confirm that such contradictions do indeed coincide with negative affective states (e.g., Waterman, 1969). For example, after cognitive dissonance is evoked, individuals subsequently perform well on simple but not difficult tasks. This finding is consistent with the proposition that dissonance provokes arousal, which facilitates performance on simple but not difficult activities.

Recent studies also imply that dissonance is related to arousal. For example, dissonance tends to coincide with increased skin conductance (e.g., Elkin & Leippe, 1986& Harmon-Jones, Brehm, Greenberg, Simon, & Nelson, 1996)--which indicates activation of the sympathetic nervous system.


Even proponents of cognitive dissonance do not always share the same perspective. Cooper and Fazio (1984) argued that feelings of dissonance arise only when individuals engage in behavior, such as lying, that could culminate in aversive consequences. However, Harmon-Jones, Brehm, Greenberg, Simon, and Nelson (1996) showed that dissonance can emerge even when individuals engage in behaviors that are not consequential or immoral.

Practical implications

Counselors often encourage individuals to engage in behaviors that reflect a positive mood or attitude, such as act confidently. This approach, sometimes called acting as if, is more effective after individuals experience a sense of control. To inculcate this sense of control, individuals can be asked to reminisce about a time in which they were granted power, influence, or responsibility.

The concept of cognitive dissonance has been applied to treat a variety of problems, such as anorexia. Specifically, Stice, Mazotti, Weibel, and Agras (2000) argue that individuals who demonstrate anorexia should be encouraged to engage in acts that contradict the belief that a slim body is ideal& they could, for example, inform someone else of the dangers and hazards of thin bodies. These acts will instill a contradiction between their attitudes--that a thin body is ideal--and their behavior. Hence, their attitudes might change. A variety of studies have confirmed the benefits of this approach (e.g., Becker, Smith, & Ciao, 2005& Matusek, Wendt, & Wiseman, 2004& Stice, Chase, Stormer, & Appel, 2001& Stice, Trost, & Chase, 2003).

Many practices can be encouraged to counter positive attitudes towards the thin ideal. Individuals can stand in front of a mirror in private, and subsequently share positive mental, physical, and emotional traits about themselves. Individuals can also be encouraged to specify activities they will undertake that counter this thin ideal, such as reduce their exercise or eat fatty food.


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