COGNITIVE DISSONANCE (Dissonance Theory)

A state of conflict occurring when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. Dissonance theory holds that the conflict produces feelings of discomfort which the individual seeks to relieve by reconciling the differences, by convincing himself they do not exist, or by adopting some other type of defensive maneuver.An example of dissonance is the conflict that occurs when a habitual smoker encounters evidence that smoking is dangerous to health. Many techniques might be used to reduce the tension arising from dissonant ideas in this case. The smoker might eliminate the conflict by giving up smoking. He might refuse to accept the evidence that smoking is dangerous to health, or continually demand more conclusive evidence. He might, as Brown (1965) suggests, “control his flow of information, seeking out reports of reassuring research and avoiding the lung-cancer statistics. He might also seek out other smokers who would give him social support.”The theory of cognitive dissonance was introduced by Festinger in 1957, and since then has inspired a large number of theoretical discussions and empirical studies. A thorough review of the field was made by Brehm and Cohen in 1962 in their book Studies in Cognitive Dissonance. Brown, a strong supporter of the theory, considers it one of the most important ideas in social psychology today; others have found it applicable to the field of abnormal psychology and psychiatry as well as to certain aspects of animal behavior. A review of a few major experiments and theoretical interpretations will show how widely it has been employed.Brown has applied the concept to the problem of revising social attitudes. He points out that we can accept a greater amount of dissonance when we do not act upon our beliefs than when we do. Our “pet hates,” for instance, do not cause us much discomfort if we keep them to ourselves, even though we know they are irrational and unjustified, but if we voice them in public or express them in action we are likely to feel somewhat embarrassed and uncomfortable. This leads Brown to suggest that we might be able to change people’s attitudes if we get them to change their actions first, for “if action cannot adequately be accounted for by factors other than a favorable judgment, then there is a very great need to make judgment favorable in order to motivate what has been done.” This leads him to suggest, as an example, that if we are to reduce discrimination against Negroes, we must not concentrate on generating favorable attitudes directly, but on inducing a prejudiced person to take favorable action toward them. He may then change his attitude to account for his action,and thereby reduce the discomfort caused by conflicting attitudes toward the Negro. This, of course, still leaves the problem of how to convince prejudiced individuals to become involved in such action.Another important point brought out by dissonance theory is the relation between commitment and attitude change. When we are committed to engage in behavior that arouses negative attitudes, a state of tension is set up, and we must make an effort to reduce the dissonance in one way or another. One way of doing this is to change our negative attitude and decide that the behavior is not so bad after all. Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) tested this hypothesis by having subjects perform a series of extremely tedious tasks and then paying some of them to lie and tell prospective subjects that they were a lot of fun. The investigators found that the subjects who committed themselves to making this false report, which required action dissonant with their beliefs, later rated the tasks more interesting than a control group who had not committed themselves to lie.In another experiment on commitment, Aronson and Mills (1959) found that when people voluntarily choose to join a group (in this case, a sex discussion group), and the experience proves disappointing, there is a tendency to think that it has turned out well. In other words, dissonance is reduced by distorting the facts. Moreover, if the members have been initiated into the group, the more severe the initiation, the greater the commitment, and the more favorable the attitude toward the group and its activities. This is probably one of the reasons behind the solemn and complex initiations of members into the Ku Klux Klan and other secret organizations.Research on cognitive dissonance has not been confined to the laboratory, but has also been carried out in actual social situations. In When Prophecy Fails (1956) Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter report a study of a group that awaited the end of the world on an appointed day. It might be expected that after the fateful day had passed they would resolve their dissonance by losing faith in the prophet who had made the prediction. However, dissonance theory holds that when many people share a belief, or when commitment is so great that a reversal will involve severe hardship or embarrassment, the disconfirmation of the prophecy will probably be followed by increased proselytizing. This is actually what happened. The group that made the prophecy attempted to bolster their threatened belief by winning others to their cause, thereby increasing social support. The mechanism can be duplicated in many other situations—for example, the smoker’s tendency to seek out others to support his view. These examples indicate that the concept of cognitive dissonance can be employed to explain much of our self- protective behavior. Human beings seem to have a basic psychological need to maintain consistency, stability, and order in their perception of the world. When new information threatens their previous views or assumptions, they feel uneasy and resort to defensive maneuvers of one kind or another. Many neurotic or semineurotic activities can be explained in this way—for instance, the tendency to “screen out” upsetting experiences, to deny obvious facts, or to reinforce beliefs by making aggressive, belligerent assertions, and by desperately looking for justifications (“consonant cognitions”) (Brehm and Cohen, 1962).Carl Rogers, as Coleman (1964) points out, believes these defensive measures are particularly likely to be undertaken when the dissonant cognition “thwarts the adequacy and worth of the self.” If that threat is great enough, “the individual’s self-image becomes less congruent with realities and more defenses, accordingly, must be brought into operation to maintain it. The self thereby loses contact with large segments of inner and outer experience, and the increasing opposition between reality and self leads to tension, anxiety, and a lowered sense of self-identity and self-direction.” As a consequence, the individual lives “in perpetual jeopardy” and resorts to greater and greater defensive maneuvers. In this way the concept of cognitive dissonance helps to account for the vicious circle that lies behind neurotic behavior. See CLIENT-CENTERED THERAPY,REJUDICE.

Cite this page: N., Pam M.S., "COGNITIVE DISSONANCE (Dissonance Theory)," in PsychologyDictionary.org, November 28, 2018, https://psychologydictionary.org/cognitive-dissonance-dissonance-theory/ (accessed September 22, 2019).
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