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.
Research Paradigm Nature of Behaviour That Examples
Induced compliance paradigm Counterattitudinal behaviour 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. o Dissonance researchers responded to Bem’s critique by arguing that ptcs knew perfectly
well that they were bored and felt bad after telling a lie; this aversive arousal motivated
the favourable eval. of the tasks in order to reduce the arousal.
o Assumed that no arousal was necessary for attitude change to occur (debunked)
Impression Management Theory
o Proposed that ptcs in dissonance studies did not want to appear inconsistent to the
experimenter and therefore falsely reported attitudes that were relatively consistent with
counterattitudinal behaviour that they had exhibited
o Ptcs in some studies reported attitudes that were consistent with their counterattitudinal
behaviour even though the person who took the attitude measure was not the same person
who observed the counterattitudinal behaviour.
o Also, attitudes consistent with counterattitudinal behaviour occurred in very private
settings that virtually eliminated any impression management motives.
o Thus, although impression management motives do influence public behaviour, the
attitude change that occurs in dissonance-arousing situations is almost certainly real.
Self-Affirmation Theory (Steele)
o Argues that people want to view themselves as moral, capable individuals
o Thus, counterattitudinal/irrational behaviour threatens ptcs’s views of themselves as
honest and intelligent.
o Steele showed that giving people an opportunity to demonstrate their self-worth after
counterattitudinal behaviour reduces/eliminates attitude change.
o Each alternative has a “kernel of truth”, but none provides a complete account of all
o Self-perception theory, impression management theory, and self-affirmation theory all
describe psychological processes that occur under certain conditions.
o But the full range of exp. paradigms used by dissonance researchers is still explained
most simply by dissonance theory itself.
Recent Research on Dissonance Theory
One issue that has received attention is whether the arousal of dissonance requires that bad consequences
result from the individual’s actions – recent research has indicated that no.
The Hypocrisy Paradigm (Aronson)
o A research methodology used to test dissonance theory that arouses dissonance by having
people publicly promote a socially desirable behaviour and then be made aware that they
have not always exhibited the behaviour themselves in the past
o Aronson hypothesized that dissonance aroused by hypocrisy would motivate individuals
to change their behaviour to be more consistent with what they publicly promoted.
Individual Differences in Preferences for Consistency
o Preference for consistency (PFC): a disposition that represents the extent to which people
desire predictability and consistency within their own responses and within others’
responses o High score – presumed to want actions and attitudes to be consistent with one another;
low score – presumed to be less concerned about such consistency
o Individuals with high scores are more bothered by ambivalent attitudes (attitudes that
include both positive and negative components).
Dissonance and Explicit Versus Implicit Attitudes
o Hypothesis : dissonance might not affect implicit attitudes
Why? Dissonance arousal and reduction rely on conscious mental inferences.
Counterattitudinal behaviour is assumed to motivate attitude change when people
consciously recognize that their behaviour has been inconsistent with their
Awareness of this inconsistency causes people to alter their conscious attitudes.
o Dissonance can change explicit, but not implicit, attitudes.
Information-Based Persuasion: Cognitive Response Theory
Another way that attitudes change – perhaps the most common way – is as a result of persuasive
communications, which are attempts (oral, written, face-to-face, media-based) by an individual/group to
convince another person/persons to adopt a particular position.
Common examples of persuasive communications directed at you:
2) Education – profs try to persuade you that their science is important
3) Family & friends – family tries to convince you to work hard at school, and friends try to
convince you to play hard after school
You also attempt to influence other people’s opinions.
Cognitive response theory: a model of persuasion that assumes that the impact of a message on attitudes
depends on the thoughts evoked by the message
If the message evokes mostly positive thoughts (proarguments), then the individual will be inclined to
adopt the position advocated in the message. If the message elicits mostly negative thoughts
(counterarguments), then the individual will be inclined to reject the position advocated in the message.
Strong Arguments, Strong Attitudes
The strength of the argument characterizes successful communications.
When a message contains strong arguments, it usually elicits positive thoughts about the communicator,
the issue, and the message.
Repeated exposure improves recall of arguments, whether strong or weak.
Are You Listening? Hypothesis (confirmed): if ptcs are inhibited from paying close attention to a message, then the strength
of the arguments would be less important – unless recipients have the opportunity to process a message
carefully, its content will make little difference.
Strong messages were somewhat less persuasive when ptcs were more distracted.
Weak messages were more persuasive in a high-distraction condition than in the low-distraction condition
because ptcs had fewer chances to generate criticisms of the arguments.
Hard sell: an advertising strategy that relies on presenting information about the positive features of a
If You Say So: Heuristic Persuasion
Heuristic persuasion: attitude change resulting from cues that indicate that the position advocated in a
message is valid; this perspective recognizes that people do not always exert a lot of effort to judge the
validity of a persuasive message, but may instead base their agreement/disagreement on rather superficial
cues, or informal rules, that are assumed to be instructive about the message’s validity
e.g. “Experts are reliable sources of information”, “Mom always knows best”
Source characteristics can serve as heuristic cues that lead people to agree with a message.
People may agree with a message based simply on the credibility of the source rather than on the strength
of the arguments.
We are also more likely to agree with likeable people, with attractive people, and with famous people,
compared to unlikeable, unattractive, and unknown people (heuristic model of persuasion explains this in
terms of assumptions that these pe