PSY220H1 Chapter Notes - Chapter 7: Cognitive Dissonance, Leon Festinger, System On A Chip
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Chapter 7: Attitude Change
Rationalizing Our Own Behaviour: Cognitive Dissonance Theory
Dissonance theory has achieved a level of public recognition that rivals such famous psychological
models as reinforcement theory and Freudian psychoanalysis. Within soc. psych., dissonance theory has
had a fascinating history, which has included periods of intense interest, periods of virtual neglect, heated
disagreements between researchers, and numerous proposed alternative explanations for findings.
Feeling Bad About Irrational Behaviour: The Arousal of Dissonance
Cognition: a belief or piece of knowledge
People have thousands of cognitions stored in their memories, but will be aware of only a small number at
one time; most cognitions are irrelevant to each other, but some are logically connected (either positively
Consonant cognitions: consistent with one another; they imply that the other is valid or good
e.g. “I brush my teeth twice a day” and “Tooth brushing prevents cavities”
Dissonant cognitions: inconsistent with one another; they imply that the other is wrong or bad (logically
e.g. “I smoke” and “Smoking causes cancer”
Cognitive dissonance theory ( proposed by Leon Festinger in1957): states that awareness of consonant
cognitions makes us feel good, whereas awareness of dissonant cognitions makes us feel bad; the
unpleasant feelings produced by dissonant cognitions motivate us to do something to change our state
Festinger focused on inconsistencies that involved cognitions about one’s own behaviour – specifically,
he focused on dissonance between knowing that you behave or have behaved in a certain way and another
piece of knowledge implying that your behaviour was wrong or illogical or otherwise inappropriate.
In short, dissonance can be defined as the state of feeling bad or conflicted about one’s own irrational
Festinger also proposed that the importance of the cognitions influences the amount of dissonance – more
intense dissonance between very important cognitions causes more intense negative feelings than does
dissonance between less important cognitions.
Making Irrational Behaviour Rational: The Reduction of Dissonance
Dissonance = “aversive arousal” (Festinger)
How can we reduce cog. dissonance? Its reduction must involve rationalization – convincing ourselves
that our current or past behaviour made sense after all.
Dissonance theory, then, is a motivational model focusing on self-persuasion in the form of
E.g. “I smoke” and “Smoking causes cancer”
Festinger hypothesized that one way to reduce dissonance is to change one of the dissonant cognitions
directly (“I do not smoke” and “Smoking causes cancer” OR “I smoke” and “Smoking will not cause
cancer in me”).
If changing one of the dissonant cognitions is difficult, then another way that people can reduce
dissonance is by adding consonant cognitions that support the person’s behaviour and make it seem
reasonable (“Smoking is enjoyable”).
People often rationalize undesirable behaviour by arguing that it has some positive benefits.
Dissonance can also be reduced by reducing the importance of one of the dissonant cognitions and/or
increasing the importance of one of the consonant conditions (reduce the important of “Smoking causes
cancer” or increase the importance of “Smoking is enjoyable”).
Early Research on Dissonance Theory
Three major domains of the theory (studied using different experimental paradigms (research
Induced Compliance: Dissonance from Counterattitudinal Behaviour
o To capture dissonance in an exp., a researcher must elicit behaviour from participants that
they will perceive as irrational/inappropriate (not easy to do).
o Counterattitudinal behaviour: behaviour that is counter to/inconsistent with an
o Induced compliance paradigm: a research methodology used to test dissonance theory
that arouses dissonance by getting people to engage in counterattitudinal behaviour;
participants are induced to comply with an experimenter’s request that they behave in a
way that is inconsistent with their attitudes
o Results in justification of counterattitudinal behaviour to lessen dissonance
Effort Justification: Dissonance from Wasted Effort
o Suspecting that we have wasted time, effort, or money on something is upsetting (“I
worked hard” and “I gained nothing” – highly dissonant cognitions).
o Individuals who suspect they have wasted effort will be motivated to change one of the
dissonant cognitions or to add a consonant cognition (individuals might decide that they
didn`t really exert too much effort at all OR they might decide that their payoff was
worthwhile after all OR they might decide that they benefitted from the experience in
some other way).
o Effort justification paradigm: a research methodology used to test dissonance theory that
arouses dissonance by getting people to invest time or energy to achieve a goal that may
not be worthwhile
o Results in convincing self that the goal was actually worthwhile to lessen dissonance
Free Choice: Dissonance From Making a Decision
o Decisions always involve a chosen option and at least one rejected option.
o Festinger hypothesized that after making a decision, people almost always experience
some dissonance (postdecisional dissonance) – this is because the chosen option will
usually have some negative features, and the rejected option will usually have some
o Free choice paradigm: a research methodology used to test dissonance theory that arouses
dissonance by getting people to choose between two or more alternatives; used to study
postdecisional dissonance in the lab
o The tendency to rate the chosen item more favourably and the rejected item less
favourably after a decision has been termed spreading of the alternatives – the
evaluations of the chosen and rejected items are spread further apart, causing a reduction
of postdecisional dissonance.
Nature of Behaviour That
Induced compliance paradigm
Knowingly lie to another person
Write an essay supporting a
position that is discrepant with
Eat a disgusting food
Effort justification paradigm
Wasted effort or money
Endure a severe initiation to join
a group that turns out to be
Pay for admission to a movie that
turns to be unenjoyable
Free choice paradigm
Making a decision
Choose between two or more
alternatives (chosen option will
usually have some negative
features, and rejected options will
usually have some positive
Alternative Interpretations of Dissonance Findings
Three alternative interpretations of dissonance/attacks on the dissonance theory:
Self-Perception Theory (Daryl Bem)
o People sometimes infer their internal states, such as attitudes and emotions, from their
behaviour and the situation in which the behaviour occurred (this is presumed to occur
mainly when the internal states are weak or ambiguous).
o Bem suggested that the participants in the $1 condition (high dissonance) in Festinger &
Carlsmith’s study rated the tasks as somewhat interesting because they inferred this
attitude from the fact that they told someone the tasks were interesting without must
justification for doing so. Ptcs in the $20 cond. did not infer that they liked the tasks
because the large payment provided a very plausible expl. of their behaviour.