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Have you ever thought about how often people try to persuade you of something? A friend tries
to convince you that you would enjoy taking a dance class. Your boss suggests that you should add a
person to your work team with whom you have not worked before. Radio and television advertisements
try to convince you to use their products. Your doctor tells you that you should exercise more. Your
romantic partner argues with you about the benefits and costs of having children.
All of these persuasion situations, and many more, take place frequently in everyday life. Some
will succeed, and some will fail. Why do particular attempts work while others do not? What are the
psychological processes that underlie attitude change?
Chapter 7 addresses some of these questions. The chapter describes several theories that
delineate how persuasion occurs in certain situations. The theories include ones that focus on
motivational processes in attitude change, especially dissonance theory, and others that focus on
cognitive processes, such as the elaboration likelihood model. The chapter ends with a discussion of
propaganda, including recruitment strategies used by cults, but you should not lose sight of the fact that
most forms of everyday attitude change are more benign than propaganda.
File: Rationalizing Our Own Behaviour: Dissonance Theory
Rationalizing Our Own Behaviour: Dissonance Theory
Cognitive dissonance theory is so well-known that its concepts have entered everyday language.
People who have never studied social psychology may nevertheless state that they are feeling
dissonant over a difficult decision, by which they mean that they are feeling regretful or doubtful about
their decision. Dissonance theory has achieved a level of recognition that competes with such famous
psychological models as reinforcement theory and psychodynamic approaches.
Chapter 7 provides a thorough review of research by social psychologists on dissonance theory.
The presentation is relatively straightforward, so our goal here is simply to review a few main points.
First, the term cognitive dissonance refers to an aversive state that results from the awareness of
contradictory bits of knowledge, such as I eat a lot of candy and Candy is bad for one=s health.
Because dissonance is aversive, people are motivated to reduce it, usually by changing one of the
contradictory bits of knowledge (e.g., deciding to reduce candy consumption, in which case the cognition
I eat a lot of candy becomes I eat very little candy; or convincing oneself that candy will not influence
ones own health, in which case Candy is bad for one=s health becomes Candy is not bad for my
Second, cognitive dissonance theory has been applied to, or tested in, several domains, which are
referred to as paradigms in the textbook. Three paradigms are described: the induced compliance
paradigm, the effort justification paradigm, and the free choice paradigm. Let us summarize very briefly
what these paradigms represent.
The induced compliance paradigm (counterattitudinal behavior) involves getting people to behave
in a manner that is inconsistent with their attitudes. For example, someone might be coaxed to write an
essay that goes against his or her opinions (e.g., a student might be asked to write an essay supporting
tuition increases). Or someone might be enticed to sign a petition for a cause that he or she does not
really support (e.g., a student might be induced to sign a petition calling for higher tuition). In these
cases, the source of the dissonance is the inconsistency between the internal belief and the external
The effort justification paradigm capitalizes on the fact that people want to believe that their
efforts have been well justified. People feel badly if they think that they have exerted a lot of effort or
spent a lot of money uselessly or for poor reasons. If necessary, people rationalize their efforts by
deciding that their goals were important or that they benefited in unexpected ways from theirinvestment.
The free choice paradigm (postdecisional dissonance) relies on the fact that a choice between
alternatives almost always arouses some dissonance, especially when it is a difficult choice between two
items that are almost equally attractive. Why does making a decision typically arouse dissonance?
Because the item that is finally chosen usually has some negative features (not as many as the item that
was rejected, but some), and the item that is rejected usually has some positive features (not as many
as the item that was chosen, but some). The negative features of the chosen item, and the positive
features of the rejected item, are inconsistent with the choice and can make the individual feel badly
about his or her decision.
Dissonance occurs in many situations in everyday life. All of us experience dissonance quite
often. The text provides some real-life examples, but for additional examples of everyday situations that
arouse dissonance (as well as the possible results of the dissonance), which are organized in terms of the
three paradigms, click [Here].
The textbook section Recent Research on Dissonance Theory describes a fourth paradigm that has
been developed more recently: the hypocrisy paradigm. In this paradigm, people are asked to make a
public statement of support for a worthwhile cause or issue and are then reminded that they themselves
do not always follow their own advice. For example, someone might be asked to give a speech in front of
a camera about eating healthy foods. After the speech is completed, the individual will be asked to
complete a questionnaire that makes salient the fact that he or she does not always eat healthy foods.
This combination of having made a public statement and realizing ones imperfections makes people feel
like hypocrites, which is a form of dissonance. How do people reduce dissonance in the hypocrisy
paradigm? By deciding that they will start to behave consistently with their public statement from now
Dissonance theory is one of the most important theories in the history of social psychology. As
the textbook states, the theory is