Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance
The Fox and the Grapes by Aesop. When the fox fails to reach the grapes, he decides he does not want them after all. This is an example of adaptive preference formation, which serves to reduce cognitive dissonance.[1]

Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions.[2] Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying. The phrase was coined by Leon Festinger in his 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, which chronicled the followers of a UFO cult as reality clashed with their fervent beliefs.[3][4] It is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology. A closely related term, cognitive disequilibrium, was coined by Jean Piaget to refer to the experience of a discrepancy between something new and something already known or believed.

Experience can clash with expectations, as, for example, with buyer's remorse following the purchase of an expensive item. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise,[2] dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. People are biased to think of their choices as correct, despite any contrary evidence. This bias gives dissonance theory its predictive power, shedding light on otherwise puzzling irrational and destructive behavior.

A classical example of this idea (and the origin of the expression "sour grapes") is expressed in the fable The Fox and the Grapes by Aesop (ca. 620–564 BCE). In the story, a fox sees some high-hanging grapes and wishes to eat them. When the fox is unable to think of a way to reach them, he surmises that the grapes are probably not worth eating, as they must not be ripe or that they are sour. This example follows a pattern: one desires something, finds it unattainable, and reduces one's dissonance by criticizing it. Jon Elster calls this pattern "adaptive preference formation."[1]



Cognitive dissonance diagram

The most famous case in the early study of cognitive dissonance was described by Leon Festinger and others in the book When Prophecy Fails.[5] The authors infiltrated a group that was expecting the imminent end of the world on a certain date. When that prediction failed, the movement did not disintegrate, but grew instead. By sharing cult beliefs with others, they gained acceptance and thus reduced their own dissonance (see further discussion below).

Smoking is often postulated as an example of cognitive dissonance because it is widely accepted that cigarettes can cause lung cancer, yet most people want to live a long and healthy life. In terms of the theory, the desire to live a long life is dissonant with the activity of doing something that will most likely shorten one's life. The tension produced by these contradictory ideas can be reduced by quitting smoking, denying the evidence linking smoking to lung cancer, or justifying one's smoking.[6] For example, smokers could rationalize their behavior by concluding that only a few smokers become ill, that it only happens to very heavy smokers, or that if smoking does not kill them, something else will.[7] While chemical addiction may operate in addition to cognitive dissonance for existing smokers, new smokers may exhibit a simpler case of the latter.

This case of dissonance could also be interpreted in terms of a threat to the self-concept.[8] The thought, "I am increasing my risk of lung cancer" is dissonant with the self-related belief, "I am a smart, reasonable person who makes good decisions." Because it is often easier to make excuses than it is to change behavior, dissonance theory leads to the conclusion that humans are sometimes rationalizing and not always rational beings.

Other related phenomena

There are a number of phenomena that relate to cognitive dissonance theory[clarification needed]:

  • effort justification, where working for something causes someone to like it more;
  • Self-evaluation maintenance theory, in which the skills or interests that define us can cause dissonance when they appear superior in others close to us;
  • counter-attitudinal advocacy, where behaviours supporting a dissonant attitude cause one to adopt that attitude;
  • post-decision dissonance, causing one to justify an unalterable decision as the right one - similar to buyer's remorse;
  • insufficient punishment, the practice of punishing a person without doing it so harshly that they can tell themselves "I still like the behaviour, but I avoid it because of the devastating punishment";
  • overjustification effect, when an intrinsic (internal) motivation is shifted to extrinsic motivations through external reward;
  • balance theory, a general tendency to seek consonance between our views of others, and our views of their attitudes;
  • self-handicapping, avoiding effort in the hopes of keeping potential failure from hurting self-esteem;
  • Insufficient justification, when an insufficient punishment is threatened for an avoided behavior, the behavior is deemed to be less desirable

Ben Franklin effect

One situation that may create dissonance is when someone does a favor for a person he dislikes. Here, the dissonance is between those negative feelings for the other person, and the awareness of having expended effort to help them. Cognitive dissonance theory predicts that people will try to resolve this dissonance by adopting a more positive attitude towards the other person. Several experiments have borne out this prediction.[9][10] This has been named the Ben Franklin effect because it was anticipated by Franklin when he served in the Pennsylvania legislature in the 18th Century.[9] In his autobiography, he explains how he dealt with the animosity of a rival legislator:

Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return'd it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, "He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged."[11]

A counterpart to this effect is when someone's actions hurt another person, whom they regard positively or neutrally. In this case, one way to resolve the dissonance is to think more negatively about that person, so that they seem to deserve what happened to them.[9]


An overarching principle of cognitive dissonance is that it involves the formation of an idea or emotion in conflict with a fundamental element of the self-concept, such as "I am a successful/functional person", "I am a good person", or "I made the right decision." The anxiety that comes with the possibility of having made a bad decision can lead to rationalization, the tendency to create additional reasons or justifications to support one's choices. A person who just spent too much money on a new car might decide that the new vehicle is much less likely to break down than his or her old car. This belief may or may not be true, but it would reduce dissonance and make the person feel better. Dissonance can also lead to confirmation bias, the denial of dis-confirming evidence, and other ego defense mechanisms.

Within this overarching principle, there are two main forms of dissonance: hedonistic dissonance and moral dissonance (Holland, Meertens & Van-Vugt, 2002).

  • Hedonistic dissonance is elicited when people act in a way which results in negative consequences for themselves. For instance, a person is late for a meeting because of traffic but could have been on time had he taken the subway.
  • Moral dissonance is aroused when people act in a way that causes negative consequence for others. For instance, cheating and lying.

Theory and research

Most of the research on cognitive dissonance takes the form of one of four major paradigms. Important research generated by the theory has been concerned with the consequences of exposure to information inconsistent with a prior belief, what happens after individuals act in ways that are inconsistent with their prior attitudes, what happens after individuals make decisions, and the effects of effort expenditure.

The Belief Disconfirmation Paradigm

Dissonance is aroused when people are confronted with information that is inconsistent with their beliefs. If the dissonance is not reduced by changing one's belief, the dissonance can result in misperception or rejection or refutation of the information, seeking support from others who share the beliefs, and attempting to persuade others to restore consonance.

An early version of cognitive dissonance theory appeared in Leon Festinger's 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails. This book gave an inside account of the increasing belief which sometimes follows the failure of a cult's prophecy. The believers met at a pre-determined place and time, believing they alone would survive the Earth's destruction. The appointed time came and passed without incident. They faced acute cognitive dissonance: had they been the victim of a hoax? Had they donated their worldly possessions in vain? Most members chose to believe something less dissonant: the aliens had given earth a second chance, and the group was now empowered to spread the word: earth-spoiling must stop. The group dramatically increased their proselytism despite the failed prophecy.[12]

The Induced-Compliance Paradigm

In Festinger and Carlsmith's classic 1959 experiment, students were asked to spend an hour on boring and tedious tasks (e.g., turning pegs a quarter turn, over and over again). The tasks were designed to generate a strong, negative attitude. Once the subjects had done this, the experimenters asked some of them to do a simple favor. They were asked to talk to another subject (actually an actor) and persuade them that the tasks were interesting and engaging. Some participants were paid $20 (inflation adjusted to 2010, this equates to $150) for this favor, another group was paid $1 (or $7.50 in "2010 dollars"), and a control group was not asked to perform the favor.

When asked to rate the boring tasks at the conclusion of the study (not in the presence of the other "subject"), those in the $1 group rated them more positively than those in the $20 and control groups. This was explained by Festinger and Carlsmith as evidence for cognitive dissonance. The researchers theorized that people experienced dissonance between the conflicting cognitions, "I told someone that the task was interesting", and "I actually found it boring." When paid only $1, students were forced to internalize the attitude they were induced to express, because they had no other justification. Those in the $20 condition, however, had an obvious external justification for their behavior, and thus experienced less dissonance.[13]

In subsequent experiments, an alternative method of inducing dissonance has become common. In this research, experimenters use counter-attitudinal essay-writing, in which people are paid varying amounts of money (e.g. $1 or $10) for writing essays expressing opinions contrary to their own. People paid only a small amount of money have less external justification for their inconsistency and must produce internal justification in order to reduce the high degree of dissonance that they are experiencing.

A variant of the induced-compliance paradigm is the forbidden toy paradigm. An experiment by Aronson and Carlsmith in 1963 examined self-justification in children.[14] In this experiment, children were left in a room with a variety of toys, including a highly desirable toy steam-shovel (or other toy). Upon leaving the room, the experimenter told half the children that there would be a severe punishment if they played with that particular toy and told the other half that there would be a mild punishment. All of the children in the study refrained from playing with the toy. Later, when the children were told that they could freely play with whatever toy they wanted, the ones in the mild punishment condition were less likely to play with the toy, even though the threat had been removed. The children who were only mildly threatened had to justify to themselves why they did not play with the toy. The degree of punishment by itself was not strong enough, so the children had to convince themselves that the toy was not worth playing with in order to resolve their dissonance.[14]

The Free-Choice Paradigm

In a different type of experiment conducted by Jack Brehm, 225 female students rated a series of common appliances and were then allowed to choose one of two appliances to take home as a gift. A second round of ratings showed that the participants increased their ratings of the item they chose, and lowered their ratings of the rejected item.[15] This can be explained in terms of cognitive dissonance. When making a difficult decision, there are always aspects of the rejected choice that one finds appealing and these features are dissonant with choosing something else. In other words, the cognition, "I chose X" is dissonant with the cognition, "There are some things I like about Y." More recent research has found similar results in four-year-old children and capuchin monkeys.[16]

The Effort-Justification Paradigm

Dissonance is aroused whenever individuals voluntarily engage in an unpleasant activity to achieve some desired goal. Dissonance can be reduced by exaggerating the desirability of the goal. Aronson & Mills[17] had individuals undergo a severe or mild "initiation" in order to become a member of a group. In the severe-initiation condition, the individuals engaged in an embarrassing activity. The group turned out to be very dull and boring. The individuals in the severe-initiation condition evaluated the group as more interesting than the individuals in the mild-initiation condition.

All of the above paradigms continue to be used in fruitful research.

Washing one's hands has been shown to eliminate post-decisional dissonance, presumably because the dissonance is often caused by moral disgust (with oneself) which is related to disgust from unsanitary conditions.[18][19]

Challenges and qualifications

Daryl Bem was an early critic of cognitive dissonance theory. He proposed self-perception theory as a more parsimonious alternative explanation of the experimental results. According to Bem, people do not think much about their attitudes, let alone whether they are in conflict. Bem interpreted people in the Festinger and Carlsmith study or the induced-compliance paradigm as inferring their attitudes from their behavior. Thus, when asked "Did you find the task interesting?" they decided that they must have found it interesting because that is what they told someone. Bem suggested that people paid $20 had a salient, external incentive for their behavior and were likely to perceive the money as their reason for saying the task was interesting, rather than concluding that they actually found it interesting.[20][21]

In many experimental situations, Bem's theory and Festinger's dissonance theory make identical predictions, but only dissonance theory predicts the presence of unpleasant tension or arousal. Lab experiments have verified the presence of arousal in dissonance situations.[22][23] This provides support for cognitive dissonance theory and makes it unlikely that self-perception by itself can account for all the laboratory findings.

Elliot Aronson's 1968 restatement of the theory gave a central role to the self-concept.[24]

In 1969, Elliot Aronson reformulated the theory by linking it to the self-concept. According to this new interpretation, cognitive dissonance does not arise because people experience dissonance between conflicting cognitions. Instead, it occurs when people see their actions as conflicting with their normally positive view of themselves. Thus, about the original Festinger and Carlsmith study using the induced-compliance paradigm, Aronson stated that the dissonance was between the cognition, "I am an honest person" and the cognition, "I lied to someone about finding the task interesting."[8] Other psychologists have argued that maintaining cognitive consistency is a way to protect public self-image, rather than private self-concept.[25] However, a recent result [26] seems to rule out such an explanation by showing revaluation of items following a choice even when people have forgotten their choices.

During the 1980s, Cooper and Fazio argued that dissonance was caused by aversive consequences, rather than inconsistency. According to this interpretation, the fact that lying is wrong and hurtful, not the inconsistency between cognitions, is what makes people feel bad.[27] 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.[28]

Chen and colleagues have criticized the free-choice paradigm and have suggested that the "Rank, choice, rank" method of studying dissonance is invalid.[29] They argue that research design relies on the assumption that, if the subject rates options differently in the second survey, then the subject's attitudes towards the options have therefore changed. They show that there are other reasons one might get different rankings in the second survey—perhaps the subjects were largely indifferent between choices. Although some follow-up studies have found supportive evidence for Chen's concerns,[30] other studies that have controlled for Chen's concerns have not, instead suggesting that the mere act of making a choice can indeed change preferences.[16][31][32] Nevertheless, this issue remains under active investigation.[33]

Cognitive dissonance in the brain

Using fMRI, Van Veen and colleagues investigated the neural basis of cognitive dissonance in a modified version of the classic induced compliance paradigm. While in the scanner, participants "argued" that the uncomfortable MRI environment was nevertheless a pleasant experience. The researchers replicated the basic induced compliance findings; participants in an experimental group enjoyed the scanner more than participants in a control group who simply were paid to make their argument. Importantly, responding counter-attitudinally activated the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insular cortex; furthermore, the degree to which these regions were activated predicted individual participants' degree of attitude change. Van Veen and colleagues argue that these findings support the original dissonance theory by Festinger, and support the "conflict theory" of anterior cingulate functioning.[34]

Using the free choice paradigm, Sharot and colleagues have shown that after making a choice, activity in the striatum changes to reflect the new evaluation of the choice object, increasing if the object was chosen and decreasing if it was rejected.[35] Follow-up studies have largely confirmed these results.[31][36]

Modeling in neural networks

Neural network models of cognition have provided the necessary framework to integrate the empirical research done on cognitive dissonance and attitudes into one model of explanation of attitude formation and change.[37]

Various neural network models have been developed to predict how cognitive dissonance will influence an individual's attitude and behavior. These include:

  • Parallel Constraint Satisfaction Processes[37]
  • The Meta-Cognitive Model (MCM) of attitudes[38]
  • Adaptive connectionist model of cognitive dissonance[39]
  • Attitudes as constraint satisfaction model[40]

See also


  1. ^ a b Elster, Jon. Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality. Cambridge 1983, p. 123ff.
  2. ^ a b Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Festinger, L. (1956). When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of A Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World, by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter. Harper-Torchbooks, Jan. 1956. ISBN 0061311324
  6. ^ Aronson, E., Akert, R.D., & Wilson, T.D. (2006). Social psychology (6th Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  7. ^ Baron, R.A., & Byrne, D. (2004). Social Psychology (10th Ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.
  8. ^ a b Aronson, E. (1969). The theory of cognitive dissonance: A current perspective. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.). Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 4, pp. 1–34. New York: Academic Press.
  9. ^ a b c Tavris, Carol; Elliot Aronson (2008). Mistakes were made (but not by me). Pinter and Martin. pp. 26–29. ISBN 9781905177219. 
  10. ^ Jecker, John; David Landy (1969). "Liking a Person as a Function of Doing Him a Favor". Human Relations 22 (4): 371–378. doi:10.1177/001872676902200407. 
  11. ^ Franklin, Benjamin (1996). The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Courier Dover Publications. ISBN 0486290735, 9780486290737. Source: [1] (accessed: Wednesday April 21, 2010), p.80
  12. ^ Festinger, L., Riecken, H.W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When prophecy fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  13. ^ Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J.M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 203–210.
  14. ^ a b Aronson, E., & Carlsmith, J.M. (1963). Effect of the severity of threat on the devaluation of forbidden behavior. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66(6), 584–588.
  15. ^ Brehm, J. (1956). Post-decision changes in desirability of alternatives. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52(3), 384–389.
  16. ^ a b Egan, L.C., Bloom, P., & Santos, L.R. (2010). Choice-induced preferences in the absence of choice: Evidence from a blind two choice paradigm with young children and capuchin monkeys. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(1), 204-207.
  17. ^ Aronson, E. & Mills, J. (1956). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 177–181.
  18. ^ Lee, S.W.S., & Schwartz, N. (2010) Washing away postdecisional dissonance. Science, 328(5979), 709.
  19. ^ Zhong, C.B. & Liljenquist, K. (2006). Washing away your sins: Threatened morality and physical cleansing. Science, 313(5792), 1451-1452.
  20. ^ Bem, D.J. (1965). An experimental analysis of self-persuasion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1(3), 199–218.
  21. ^ Bem, D.J. (1967). Self-perception: An alternative interpretation of cognitive dissonance phenomena. Psychological Review, 74(3), 183–200.
  22. ^ Zanna, M., & Cooper, J. (1974). Dissonance and the pill: An attribution approach to studying the arousal properties of dissonance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29(5), 703–709.
  23. ^ Kiesler, C.A., & Pallak, M.S. (1976). Arousal properties of dissonance manipulations. Psychological Bulletin, 83(6), 1014–1025.
  24. ^ G. Greenwald, Anthony; David L. Ronis (1978). "Twenty Years of Cognitive Dissonance: Case Study of the Evolution of a Theory". Psychological Review (American Psychological Association) 85 (1): 53–57. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.85.1.53. ISSN 1939-1471. 
  25. ^ Tedeschi, J.T., Schlenker, B.R., & Bonoma, T.V. (1971). Cognitive dissonance: Private ratiocination or public spectacle? American Psychologist, 26(8), 685–695.
  26. ^ Coppin, G., Delplanque, S., Cayeux, I., Porcherot, C., & Sander, D. (2010). I’m no longer torn after choice: How explicit choices implicitly shape preferences of odors Psychological Science, 21(8), 489–493.
  27. ^ Cooper, J., & Fazio, R.H. (1984). A new look at dissonance theory. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 17, pp. 229–266). New York: Academic Press.
  28. ^ Harmon-Jones, E., Brehm, J.W., Greenberg, J., Simon, L., & Nelson, D.E. (1996). Evidence that the production of aversive consequences is not necessary to create cognitive dissonance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 5–16.
  29. ^ Chen, M.K., & Risen J.L. (2010) How choice affects and reflects preferences: Revisiting the free-choice paradigm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(4), 573-594.
  30. ^ Holden, S. (In press). Do choices affect preferences? Some doubts and new evidence.
  31. ^ a b Izuma, K., Matsumoto, M., Murayama, K., Samejima, K., Sadato, N., & Matsumoto, K. (2010). Neural correlates of cognitive dissonance and choice-induced preference change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A., 107(51), 22014-22019.
  32. ^ Sharot, T., Velasquez, C. M., & Dolan, R. J. (2010). Do decisions shape preference? Evidence from blind choice. Psychological Science, 21(9), 1231-1235.
  33. ^ Risen J.L. & Chen, M.K. (2010) How to study choice-induced attitude change: Strategies for fixing the free-choice paradigm. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(12), 1151–1164.
  34. ^ Van Veen, V., Krug, M.K., Schooler, J.W., & Carter, C.S. (2009). Neural activity predicts attitude change in cognitive dissonance. Nature Neuroscience, 12(11), 1469–1474.
  35. ^ Sharot, T., De Martino, B., & Dolan, R.J. (2009). How choice reveals and shapes expected hedonic outcome Journal of Neuroscience, 29(12), 3760–3765.
  36. ^ Qin, J., Kimel, S., Kitayama, S., Wang, X., Yang, X., & Han, S. (2011). How choice modifies preference: Neural correlates of choice justification Neuroimage, 55(1), 240–246.
  37. ^ a b Read, S.J., Vanman, E.J., & Miller L.C. (1997). Connectionism, parallel constraint satisfaction processes, and Gestalt principles: (Re)Introducing cognitive dynamics to social psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 1(1), 26–53.
  38. ^ Petty, R.E., Briñol, P., & DeMarree, K.G. (2007). The Meta-Cognitive Model (MCM) of attitudes: Implications for attitude measurement, change, and strength. Social Cognition, 25(5), 657–686.
  39. ^ Van Overwalle, F., & Jordens, K. (2002). An adaptive connectionist model of cognitive dissonance. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 6(3), 204–231.
  40. ^ Monroe, B.M., & Read, S.J. (2008). A general connectionist model of attitude structure and change: The ACS (Attitudes as Constraint Satisfaction) Model, Psychological Review, 115(3), 733–759.

Further reading

  • Cooper, J. (2007). Cognitive dissonance: 50 years of a classic theory. London: Sage publications.
  • Harmon-Jones, E., & J. Mills. (Eds.) (1999). Cognitive Dissonance: Progress on a Pivotal Theory in Social Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Tavris, C.; Aronson, E. (2007). Mistakes were made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts. Orlando, FL: Harcourt. ISBN 978-0-15-101098-1. 

External links

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