Cognitive Dissonance Theory Research Paper Starter

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

(Research Starters)

First proposed by Leon Festinger in the late 1950s, cognitive dissonance theory was a relatively simple and straightforward explanation of how human beings deal with inconsistency. The first empirical validation of the theory, however, inadvertently called into question one of the central tenets of behaviorism, the predominant paradigm in psychology at the time. Controversy ensued, and a flurry of research on dissonance soon followed. Several decades and thousands of publications later, cognitive dissonance has evolved into something quite different.

Keywords Attitudes; Aversive Consequences; Cognitions; Consonant Cognitions; Dissonance; Festinger, Leon; Foreseeable Consequences; Free Choice; Self-Affirmation Theory; Self-Consistency Theory; Self-Perception Theory

Educational Theory: Cognitive Dissonance Theory


Cognitive dissonance theory was first proposed by Leon Festinger – a psychology professor at Stanford University – in the late 1950s. Part of the original appeal of the theory was its simplicity and parsimony; it seemed to provide a relatively straightforward and commonsense framework for explaining how human beings deal with inconsistency in thought and action. Very quickly, however, the theory stirred up a "proverbial hornet's nest of controversy" by unintentionally discrediting a central tenet of behaviorism, the predominant paradigm in psychology at the time (Cooper, 2007, p. 6). The controversy, Cooper (2007) argues, propelled the theory forward; today, over one thousand studies have been published on cognitive dissonance theory, and the theory itself has evolved into something much different.

Further Insights

Festinger's Theory

What Festinger observed, and what became the central premise of his entire theory, was the simple fact that human beings like consistency. Furthermore, human beings strive to reduce inconsistency; that is, people are motivated to do something in order to eliminate the feelings of discomfort that result from what he called 'nonfitting relations among cognitions" (Festinger, 1957, p. 1). Comparing dissonance to hunger, Festinger (1957) wrote, "cognitive dissonance can be seen as an antecedent condition which leads to activity oriented toward dissonance reduction just as hunger leads to activity oriented toward hunger reduction" (p. 3). He summarized his basic hypotheses as follows:

• The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance; and

• When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance (Festinger, 1957, p. 3)


Festinger's theory helped move the study of social psychology forward by introducing the concept of cognitions. Defined as "any knowledge, opinion, or belief about the environment, about oneself, or about one's behavior" (Festinger, 1957, p. 3), cognitions allowed researchers to easily compare psychological phenomena – attitudes, behavior, opinions, and observations – which had previously been studied in isolation. When two cognitions are opposed to one another, or when "the obverse of one…would follow from the other," dissonance occurs. Festinger used the following as one example of dissonance; an individual may have a cognition representing a belief about smoking – it is bad for her health. This same person, however, continues to smoke. Thus, her cognition about her behavior is at odds with her cognition about her beliefs about smoking. As a result, the individual experiences dissonance.

Magnitude of Dissonance

Festinger introduced a second concept – the magnitude of dissonance – that further distinguished his theory from other 'inconsistency' theories. More specifically, he recognized that not all dissonance would be experienced equally. The magnitude of discomfort, he theorized, would depend on the importance of the cognitions (Festinger, 1957). A person who believes in animal rights, for example, but who fails to stop to help an injured animal might experience a great deal of dissonance; a person who eats a donut for breakfast, knowing that he is violating the diet he is unmotivated to maintain, might experience less. In addition to the importance of a particular set of cognitions, Festinger suggested magnitude could also be impacted by other relevant cognitions. If the person who ate a donut for breakfast, for example, ate only fruits and vegetables the day before, and also planned to exercise the day he consumed the donut, then these relevant consonant cognitions might help offset dissonance.

Reducing Dissonance

The above example suggests one way in which dissonance might be reduced, but Festinger's original theory suggested several methods, some used more frequently than others. If dissonance occurs between knowledge about the environment and one's behavior, for example, an individual may change her behavior in order to reduce dissonance. If the donut eating exerciser planned to run outside, but a thunderstorm looms overhead, he might decide to run inside instead. Another way in which dissonance can be reduced is by changing one's environment. In many cases this is the most difficult way to reduce dissonance - the runner can hardly expect to stop the thunderstorm, for example – but this is sometimes a viable option in social environments as opposed to physical ones (Festinger, 1957). Dissonance can also be reduced by adding new cognitions that are consonant with the knowledge or behavior an individual hopes to maintain; the dieter, for example, might seek out research which suggests a diet high in fat is good for one's health, and avoid all research which suggests otherwise. He might also reason that there are many worse things he could do for his health, such as smoking or drinking; such consonant cognitions help reduce the dissonance he experienced as a result of eating an unhealthy breakfast.

Relationship infidelity was studied as a dissonance-arousing behavior as well, and Foster and Misra (2013) found that perpetrators of infidelity respond in ways that reduce cognitive dissonance, such as through trivialization of the importance of the infidelity.

Just as changing the environment is often not a reasonable way in which to reduce dissonance, Festinger (1957) also recognized that behavior is often resistant to change. The behavior itself may be satisfying, or changing a particular behavior may result in pain or loss. As a result, the cognitions that most often change are the ones related to attitudes, beliefs, and opinions. As Cooper (2007) writes, "In general, it is difficult to change cognition about one's behavior. Therefore, when behavior is discrepant from attitudes, the dissonance caused thereby is usually reduced by changing one's attitude. The resistance to change of the behavioral cognition is what makes dissonance theory seem to be a theory of attitude change" (p. 8).

Context of Dissonance

Finally, Festinger's original theory also addressed the context and/or environments in which dissonance might occur. Specifically, he suggested that dissonance occurs as the result of almost any decision a person might make in daily life. Decisions often involve making choices between two attractive alternatives, between two alternatives that have both pros and cons, or between multiple alternatives, so that regardless of the end result, "dissonance is an almost inevitable consequence of any decision" (Festinger, 1957, p. 36). A person shopping for a car, for example, will recognize advantages and disadvantages to any choice she might make; one car may be more expensive, another uses less gas, a third might enhance her image. When faced with attractive alternatives, "the end result would be that having made the decision, and taken the consequent action, one would begin to alter the cognition so that alternatives which had previously been nearly equally attractive ceased to be so" (Festinger, 1957, p. 34).

Although Festinger's theory addressed the dissonance that results from everyday decision-making, his theory is arguably best known for its explanation of dissonance resulting from forced compliance. When an individual is forced to behave publicly, or make a public proclamation, that runs counter to his or her privately held beliefs, dissonance will result. How will individuals resolve dissonance in such situations? Festinger hypothesized that it would depend on the magnitude of the dissonance, as well as the magnitude of the punishment (for noncompliance) or reward (for compliance), but that a change in attitude would likely occur. He explained, "the empirical question, of course, arises as to how one can identify and distinguish public compliance without private [attitude] change from instances where private opinion is also altered" (Festinger, 1957, p. 87).

Testing the Hypothesis

An empirical test of his hypothesis is exactly what Festinger, along with his colleague J. Merrill Carlsmith, pursued next. Students were asked to participate in an intentionally tedious and boring peg turning task, and believed they were being evaluated on their performance. After they had completed the task, they were told that they had been assigned to the control condition; if they had been in the experimental group, they would have been confronted by a confederate in the waiting room, who would have told them how much fun they were about to have turning pegs. The researcher then announced that his confederate had failed to show up yesterday, and asked the student if she would be willing to play the role. Half of the students were given $1 to play the confederate role, the other half twenty dollars. Almost all students agreed to play the role. They would now experience dissonance by saying something – the peg turning task was fun – that was counter to their experience – the peg turning task as they experienced it was dull and repetitious. After the students made their public proclamations, their attitudes toward the peg turning task were reassessed.

What exactly did Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) predict? And what were the results? According to Cooper (2007) "Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) made a prediction that seemed less than obvious in terms of everyday wisdom but which followed logically from the theory of cognitive dissonance. They predicted that the speech given for a small amount of money would produce more favorable attitudes toward the task than the speech given for the large amount of money" (p. 17). And indeed, this is exactly what they found. The large reward helped reduce the dissonance (by providing a consonant cognition), but those who received only $1 weren't able to explain away their inconsistency as easily. As a result, they reduced their dissonance by changing their attitude toward the task, so that it was more in line with the behavior they exhibited as a confederate. And herein is where the controversy arose; Festinger...

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