Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory and Research Examples

cognitive dissonance theoryWhy should actions so often shape our attitude, rather than vice versa? Much may be explained by Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory, whereby people tend to search for justifications to reduce the tension created by holding two inconsistent attitudes or performing an act inconsistent with an attitude. On the simplest level, if a woman is  choosing an evening dress and is undecided between a long blue one and a knee-length black one, whichever she eventually chooses, she will have to justify her choice to herself. She decides on the black one and tells herself that the blue one would have been impractical anyway. If she had chosen the blue one, she would probably convince herself that the black one wasn’t dressy enough. She needs to reduce the tension caused by the fact that she liked both but could only have one. Therefore one had to be more right than the other.

That is cognitive dissonance at its most basis – and reasonable. But behavior based on the need to reduce dissonance can be far more subtle to detect and alarming in its outcome.

Festinger showed the power of cognitive dissonance at work in an interesting way. He and an associate asked students to help in an extremely boring, repetitive manual task as part of an experiment. Afterwards, all the students were asked to tell, individually, another student who was also to participate in the same experiment that the task was rather interesting. To motivate them to tell this lie, some of the first team were offered one dollar, others twenty dollars. The first team were later asked to give their reactions to the task they had to complete. Those paid twently dollars to say it was interesting to another student admitted they found it boring. Those paid only one dollar tended to say the task was quite interesting really and more meaningful than they had imagined. What was happening was that both sets of students had had to justify themselves the telling of the lie. Those who had been paid a considerable amount of money needed only to say, ‘I did it for the money’. But those who had received a pittance couldn’t convince themselves that this was the reason for their lie. So they had to convince themselves that they hadn’t really lied at all and that, really, there was something interesting about the task they had to do.

On the same basis, though probably without knowing why, parents often find mild rebukes more effective in stopping disruptive behavior in children than heavier threats. If a child is threatened with death and destruction if he crayons on the curtains, he may stop for the moment. He will think, ‘I only stopped because I was forced to. But I still want to do it.’ If he gently turned to some other activity, he is more likely to justify his change of activity by saying to himself, ‘Well, I didn’t want to crayon on the curtains anyway, really.’

An amusing experiment, first carried out by Smith and then replicated, with modifications, by Zimbardo, showed that cognitive dissonance can make people start to like eating grasshoppers. Supposedly as an experiment in widening the range of menu in a military college, people were asked to try eating fried grasshoppers, an idea that no one found appealing. When a pleasant man made the request, stressing the voluntariness of its nature, numerous people complied but most still disliked grasshoppers afterwards. When an obnoxious man made the request, earning the dislike of the participants by the rule manner in which he treated his assistant, far more of those who ate claimed to like grasshoppers afterwards. The researchers explained this by cognitive dissonance theory. When the experimenter was a nice guy, the participants could justify their opting to eat something unpleasant by telling themselves they did it because the man was nice enough and they wanted to help him. When the man was not in the least bit likeable, how could they justify eating a food that why weren’t even being forced to eat? Only by coming to find that the food itself was quite palatable really, therefore justifying their decision to give it a try.

Ellot Aronson has said: ‘Dissonance theory does not rest upon the assumption that man is a rational animal; rather, it suggests that man is a rationalizing animal – that he attempts to appear rational, both to others and to himself.’ (Theories of Cognitive Consistency.) This need can considerably colour his attitudes.

An experiment by Aronson himself shows how effort invested in an activity can alter perceptions of the activity’s worth, all in line with dissonance theory. A group discussion on the psychology of sex was announced. Girls who wanted to join in were divided in three groups. One group was just given permission to join. The other two groups were given some sort of test to see if they were suitable. In one case the ‘initiation’ was mild. In the other case it was strong, the girls being required to recite swear words in front of a male experimenter. Afterwards all the girls were played a tape, supposedly of a similar psychology of sex discussion that had been help before. The tape was deliberately made extremely boring. Only the women who had suffered the severe initiation process said that they found the discussion interesting. Aronson concludes that the effort put in to joining the group could only be reconciled with achieving something that made it worth it. Therefore, it would have been impossible for the women who had been made embarrassed to perceive the discussion as boring and to face the fact that they had invested considerable energy in nothing.

Aronson himself admits that there could be other explanation for the girls’ behaviours. Perhaps the very reciting of swear words excited the girls and made them anticipate pleasure. Or, if the initiation had embarrassed them, perhaps the discovery that the discussion was in fact banal and not in the least threatening was such a relief that it coloured their judgement of the content. But the outcome is still all too obviously the same: defence of something worthless.

On the same principle of effort made requiring reward, Zimbardo, Brehm and Cohen have found that a speaker who has low credibility can often sway an audience over to his side more easily than a speaker with all the right credentials and reputation, if the people in the audience have had to make an effort to get to hear him. To travel a long distance and then to disagree with an expert is not tension-inducing because the expert is usually considered to be worth hearing. But to go out of one’s way to hear someone who has no standing and talks nonsense is more difficult to reconcile with one’s own intelligence. Therefore it may be easier to resolve the conflict aroused and the questioning of one’s integrity by finding something to agree with the man about.

Dissonance theory may help to explain why some people, when they are converted to a belief, hold on to it longer than others. Hoffman ran an experiment to test the role of conformity needs in the persistence of a conversion. He subjected a number of students to pressure to change their attitudes on a particular topic. Two weeks later, he tested them to see how many still help the new view and how many had reverted to the old. He found that those who had a high need to conform had the lower persistent ‘conversion’ scores than those who had personalities less prone to conforming. The author says, ‘Suggestive is the finding that the longer one resists altering his position under pressure conditions, the longer he retains the altered position in the post-pressure condition.’ It might also be said that the longer one resists changing his position, the more need he has to square his change of position with himself, by believing it all the more wholeheartedly.

Source: “Cognitive Dissonance,” from The Manipulated Mind: Brainwashing, Conditioning, and Indoctrination, by Denise Winn

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