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Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive Dissonance theory was first developed by Leon Festinger in 1956 after the publication of a book When Prophecy Fails , written with co-authors Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter, to explain how members of a UFO doomsday cult increased their commitment to the cult when a prophesised destruction of the Earth did not happen. The cult's leader, a certain Mrs Keech, had, seemingly, been advised by extra-terrestrials about the Earth's imminent destruction and was also assured by them that the cult, alone, was going to be rescued.

In the course of his investigations Festinger, a trained psychologist, actually infiltrated the cult himself and was thus a first hand witness to the groups behaviour in the wake of the non-fulfilment of their doomsday prophecy.
Given the reality of Earth's survival the dissonance of the thought between prior belief and failed fulfillment was typically rationalised by the cult members not so much through dismissal of the original prophecy as through modification of that prophecy. That is to say that the cult members tended to accept that the aliens had actually saved the entire world as their route to ensuring the survival of the cult.
Festinger suggested that to rationalize, or change beliefs and asttitudes, was an easier route to resolve the stress associated with cogitive dissonance than a complete dismissal of their individual acceptance of the original prophecy.

Festinger, Carlsmith, and several colleagues, went on to more fully and clinically investigate cognitive dissonance theory through an experiment or case study that was developed at Stanford University in 1956 but the results of which became widely known after appearing in an academic psychology journal in 1959:-

Festinger and Carlsmith
Cognitive Dissonance
case study / experiment

We tend to intuitively expect that peoples actions are guided by their opinions but Cognitive Dissonance theory is one of several action-opinion theories which hold that peoples actions can lead to subsequent influence on their individual beliefs and attitudes through rationalisations that takes place to preserve the integrity of that persons self image or overall world view.

Cognitive dissonance theory is based on three fundamental assumptions.

  1. Humans are sensitive to inconsistencies between actions and beliefs.
  • According to the theory, we all recognize, at some level, when we are acting in a way that is inconsistent with our beliefs/attitudes/opinions. In effect, there is a built in alarm that goes off when we notice such an inconsistency, whether we like it or not. For example, if you have a belief that it is wrong to cheat, yet you find yourself cheating on a test, you will notice and be affected by this inconsistency.
  1. Recognition of this inconsistency will cause dissonance, and will motivate an individual to resolve the dissonance.
  • Once you recognize that you have violated one of your principles, according to this theory, you won't just say "oh well". You will feel some sort of mental anguish about this. The degree of dissonance, of course, will vary with the importance of your belief/attitude/principle and with the degree of inconsistency between your behavior and this belief. In any case, according to the theory, the greater the dissonance the more you will be motivated to resolve it.
  1. Dissonance will be resolved in one of three basic ways:

    1. Change beliefs

      • Perhaps the simplest way to resolve dissonance between actions and beliefs is simply to change your beliefs. You could, of course, just decide that cheating is o.k. This would take care of any dissonance. However, if the belief is fundamental and important to you such a course of action is unlikely. Moreover, our basic beliefs and attitudes are pretty stable, and people don't just go around changing basic beliefs/attitudes/opinions all the time, since we rely a lot on our world view in predicting events and organizing our thoughts. Therefore, though this is the simplest option for resolving dissonance it's probably not the most common.

    2. Change actions

      • A second option would be to make sure that you never do this action again. Lord knows that guilt and anxiety can be motivators for changing behavior. So, you may say to yourself that you will never cheat on a test again, and this may aid in resolving the dissonance. However, aversive conditioning (i.e., guilt/anxiety) can often be a pretty poor way of learning, especially if you can train yourself not to feel these things. Plus, you may really benefit in some way from the action that's inconsistent with your beliefs. So, the trick would be to get rid of this feeling without changing your beliefs or your actions, and this leads us to the third, and probably most common, method of resolution.

    3. Change perception of action

      • A third and more complex method of resolution is to change the way you view/remember/perceive your action. In more colloquial terms, you would "rationalize" your actions. For example, you might decide that the test you cheated on was for a dumb class that you didn't need anyway. Or you may say to yourself that everyone cheats so why not you? In other words, you think about your action in a different manner or context so that it no longer appears to be inconsistent with your beliefs. If you reflect on this series of mental gymnastics for a moment you will probably recognize why cognitive dissonance has come to be so popular. If you're like me, you notice such post-hoc reconceptualiztions (rationalizations) of behavior on the part of others all the time, though it's not so common to see it in one's self.

Festinger, Leon; co-authors Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter When Prophecy fails a Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World (1956).

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.

Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When prophecy fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.