Cognitive Dissonance Theory
Elisa M. Jean
University of Colorado at Boulder
Leon Festinger shared his brilliance with the world when he, opposing all previous psychological behaviorist work, created the Cognitive Dissonance Theory. In his own words, he quickly sums up this quite complex theory: "If you change a personís behavior, his thoughts and feelings will change to minimize the dissonance" (Groenveld, 1999, p.1). In order to decode this dense statement, we must first be aware that Festinger held to be true that humans have a deep abiding need in their psyche to be consistent in our attitudes and behaviors; we want to feel in agreement and unified in thought and action. Inner harmony sounds good to everyone, and so it was Festingerís view that when we feel a disharmony, or dissonance, within ourselves, between two factors, we strive to decrease this tension by either changing our original thought, giving strength to the opposing thought, or letting go of the behavior. All three techniques are in the name of decreasing dissonance because it is threatening to experience such a large crack in our rationale that dissonance often creates. Say I realized the college I am attending is not offering me the classes Iím interested in. I am feeling a post-decision dissonance, now that Iíve chosen my school, within myself due to this logical inconsistency:
I value a college that offers classes interesting to me.
I am not attending a college that offers classes interesting to me.
I really want to work it out because otherwise I feel scattered like a "schizophrenic" as Festinger put it. Since my belief and behavior conflict, I seek to eliminate and reconcile the difference by choosing one of three paths (TIP:Theories, 1999):
1. I can devalue my belief and say, "Classes arenít supposed to be interesting anyway."
2. I can emphasize a new belief that supports my staying at the college. "Hmmm, I am getting a good education, having fun, and itís cheaper than most."
3. I can leave my college. "My value for interesting classes is more important than staying here."
The first two choices above involve the concept called selective exposure where I expose myself only to beliefs that make my behavior seem congruent; I avoid opposing thoughts in order to decrease dissonance. The third choice reaction to this inconsistency is halting the behavior and keeping my original attitudeís integrity. This is a result of post-decision dissonance, dissonance after-the-fact I decided I would attend. I looked at what Iíd chosen and decided I did not like it enough to stay with it.
Festingerís blanket statement of his theory still needs further explanation. When he says, "If you change a personís behavior, his thoughts and feelings will change to minimize the dissonance" (Groenveld, 1999), he is referring to not only selective exposure and post-decision dissonance but also to minimal justification. Minimal justification predicts that if a personís actions can be changed, with very little compensation, then the person, needing to eliminate the dissonance of behaving against her beliefs for something infinitesimal, will change her attitude about the situation. So, Festinger, through influential psychological experiments, has successfully proven that if a small incentive is offered for a behavior change, a significant attitudinal change is made whereas if a fairly large incentive is offered, a person will do it for the reward while maintaining their pre-existing attitude. These experiments, called the $1-$20 experiments, show us we do not like to behave illogically without some explanation, and that explanation is we really did see the logic; it just took a little work to get there!
Cognitive Dissonance Theory is applicable in many life situations. As long as the dissonance is strong enough to cause a threat to the status quo attitude, the tension of cognitive dissonance must be alleviated, and we do this by changing our behavior or our beliefs. I am moved to share a personal experience that shows this theory in action. I made a decision to get into a relationship with Seth because of several reasons. He really liked me and showed it. I liked him and felt I could trust his honest, direct, and sincere personality. He was attractive and mentioned that he was happy, goal-oriented, and financially sound. I was disappointed, however, with his intellectual ability, but I continued to stay in the relationship. A few weeks later, my feelings changed. I began avoiding him, telling him I was uncomfortable, and I felt he was a burden on my time. I also felt pressured to move faster in the relationship than I wanted. Thatís when I broke up with Seth. Now, after our relationship, I still miss him.
Our breakup can be understood through the "lens" of Festingerís Cognitive Dissonance Theory. First, the dissonance occurred in me at two different points in the process. The disturbing mental state first appeared when I was in the relationship and I saw an important quality he lacked which was important to me. The inconsistency was clear:
I value a man whose intellectual ability is similar to my own. (Belief)
I am in a relationship with Seth, whose intellectual ability is dissimilar to my own. (Behavior)
Because this inconsistency was important to me, it threatened me enough to where my wanting to change to avoid the conflict was almost automatic. I liked him considerably and enjoyed the relationship. So what I did about this illogical situation was engage in the process of reducing dissonance. I chose to reduce the importance I placed on intellectual ability by thinking he had so many other great qualities to make up for it. This example of selective exposure decreased my dissonance for some time; my need to be consistent was being met. Looking back at it, I realized I needed to undergo this change in attitude in order to feel like I didnít have multiple personalities evident by feeling one way and doing something to oppose it. Even though I actually was opposing an important attitude of mine, I did not see it because in the process of reducing the inconsistency, I had cleverly altered my attitude when I was in the "reducing dissonance" mode. My belief was now, "Heís not so bad, intellect is a small quality compared with love, respect, and a great personality." This way, my belief and behavior were consonant.
We got along really well after I eradicated my dissonance, but a few weeks later I began to feel myself loving his existing qualities as a sort of superficial compensation that replaced what I still felt to be missing. Deeper inside I did not like the status of his intellect, even with the other good qualities, and I explained the fact I was still in the relationship on the idea I was being "paid" with his other qualities. This sounds horrible, but it is the minimal justification concept coming into this scenario. I felt during our relationship that he put his positive characteristics, "incentives," out on display for me. He often talked about how well he was doing physically, mentally, and monetarily, and this felt somewhat unnatural to me. I took this to mean that he wanted me to like him, and offered me so much in return. I began to see his love, gifts, and loyalty as exchanges for his lack of intellect. My attitude of the value of intellect during the relationship had remained the same, and I looked toward the rewards he was giving me to justify my behavior of staying in the relationship. This is an example of Festingerís minimal justification concept stated earlier, that, if a big payment is given for a change of behavior, then the person being paid will not feel dissonant and not change her attitude to accommodate the behavior. I exhibited this reaction because I saw that he was giving me good things for altering my behavior (remaining in the relationship), which was all that was needed to allow me to feel consistent with my attitude of seeing a lack in him elsewhere. Seth did not understand how the minimal justification concept affected his interactions with me. If he would have given me a smaller incentive to be with him, such as presenting just his personality and not his resources, I am willing to bet I would have been in the relationship longer because my attitude of liking him wouldnít be based on any reward. I would have experienced much more dissonance and attitude changes as I sought a reason why I still wanted to be in the relationship despite his downfall. But instead, here I was in this situation, being rewarded and not feeling any shift in attitude to like him more. Iím sure he probably thought he was helping to change my attitude, but it did not.
In addition to his lack of intellect and overdoing the justification, I disliked how he was so pushy when it came to escalating the relationship. He wanted more time with me, he wanted more of my trust, and he began to take me for granted by stopping by late at night without telling me. He would tell me he was respecting me, and for awhile my dissonance reduction technique was rationalizing these actions away. I thought, "He says he respects me, and he is just acting like a boyfriend usually acts by wanting to see me. Heís still good." My cognitive dissonance was not eliminated, however, because of the lack of minimal justification and because the pressure got to be overwhelming. I had to face the truth: I did not feel his words of love and respect within his actions, and the relationship became stagnant. Inside, I felt strong opposition to continue the relationship. So, with his low intellectual ability, lack of minimal justification, and undesirable pressure that translated as disrespect, I broke up with him. It had been about a month. This was my way of ending the cognitive dissonance I felt in continuing with the relationship with which my attitudes directly contrasted. I honored my attitude and removed the conflicting behavior, #3 in the ways to eliminate cognitive dissonance.
After I separated with Seth, a second spell of dissonance, post-decision dissonance, overcame me when I realized he has all those great qualities, and here I am not being with him! I felt bad to be so picky, and I still periodically find myself saying, "Intellect isnít everything. Maybe it could still work because he is so caring, sensitive, and appreciative of me." Once again, I am describing one of Festingerís ways to cope with dissonance: selective exposure. Since I feel insecure with my decision because I still have favorable beliefs about him, I feel that being away from him now is somewhat counter-attitudinal. The attitude I felt which led me to break up with him does not feel as strong anymore, and since this belief is weaker, it is somewhat inconsistent with my behavior right now, not being in the relationship. I still have yet to completely solve my cognitive dissonance in this situation. All I have to do is remember what happened, and how schizophrenic I felt during the dissonance, in order to keep myself consistent with either behavior or attitude. This personal story seems to show a practical example of Festingerís Cognitive Dissonance Theory. It shows his basic principal that humans change either attitudes or behaviors in order to keep a general consistency within their worlds.
In contrast to Sethís situation, Iíd like to share some short reflections of another person I began a relationship with in order to emphasize how Festingerís minimal justification concept is so important when trying to change peopleís behavior on an attitudinal level. TJ and I have known each other for a year and a half, and all he offers me is his long standing friendship and his humorous and sincere personality. We often have heated discussions and he explains bluntly and stubbornly his views without worrying how I will react. This relationship can definitely be considered a $1 relationship because, like Festingerís experimental subjects who were paid $1, I often donít feel like I can sufficiently justify my behavior of staying in the friendship. To be friends with him sometimes is like an emotional roller coaster. TJ often does not follow through when we have plans, like just recently, and this frustrates and upsets me tremendously. I always tell him whatís bothering me, and he even argues with me!
When I ask myself why I remain his friend and care so much about him, itís hard for me to answer. So, my realization is that I have a positive attitude about TJ with minimal justification. The positive attitude is sometimes interrupted with disagreements with his actions, but I enjoy his fun personality and challenges I face with it. As I compare this to Seth, I see the power of minimal justification and the failure of its opposite. Seth tries to prove his worthiness to me with money, complete loyalty, and serious goals that would fit in with my lifestyle. Lighten up! He symbolically tries to change himself into money, trying to give me $20 so I will be his girlfriend. And my end attitude, just as Festingerís concept predicts, was the same as in the beginning, "he does not fit my picture of the ideal intellectual boyfriend I value." It is true I see the incentives that give me reason to accept Seth as a partner, but I feel no need to change my attitude because I feel no dissonance in accepting his incentives and remaining a relationship. Seth seems more artificial compared to TJ because he acts like he is selling a product, and that means less to me than knowing and enjoying something with no tangible reward; it means less than minimal justification, just as Festinger discovered.
Now that we understand how cognitive dissonance theory is applied to a real communication situation through this analysis, the effectiveness of this theory is called into question. No doubt that it has weaknesses, but as a scientific theory, it seeks to fulfill only specific characteristics important to its nature. They seek to discover the truth and objectivity; they use experiments for evidence that speaks for itself. The five scientific standards seem to hold up quite well in the eyes of Em Griffin, author of A First Look at Communication Theory (1997). The two he questions are ability to be tested and relative simplicity. To begin, it seems the cognitive dissonance theory has a hypothesis that never fails, and is therefore not testable. If a person experiences conflicting tendencies between his attitude and belief, the fact that he will try to work it out is proving cognitive dissonance theory. And if he does not proceed to eliminate the dissonance, then the theory explains that the dissonant information was not enough of a threat to the person to spur a change in thought or behavior. An example would be a white man believing blacks are just as respectable as whites, but he does not want any in his neighborhood. Since he does not feel any tension between his conflicting beliefs, this man is still under the rules of cognitive dissonance theory. I feel this criticism of testability to be valid because to feel cognitive dissonance theory is true without understanding clearly where it is false makes for ambiguous situations in its applications. Because we donít see where the theory can go wrong does not prove it right; this appeal to ignorance would be a fallacious argument.
The second unfavorable critique Griffin gives this theory is its lack of simplicity. Whatís cognitive dissonance? Some argue that this complex idea is just a ridiculous term for talking about self-perception and how, if we see two logically inconsistent pieces of information, itís due to an outer circumstance challenging our current self-perception. The components are not "two disparate, non-consonant cognitionsÖirrespective of the self-conceptís involvement," as Festingerís classical dissonance explains (Neilands, 1995, Ch. 6). Because of the fact that his original theory has been revised several times and made to incorporate the idea of self-perception shows that communication scholars felt this criticism to be serious. In fact, research results have found that high self-esteem people are better equipped to reduce dissonance than those with low self-esteem (Neilands, 1995, Ch. 7).
I have a different view, however, because I donít see why these two ideas cannot exist together. The components of cognitive dissonance are not specifically identified. It is more of a generalized "Hey, I feel some inconsistency in my attitude and action." He does not specify where the attitude is coming from, if it is deeply ingrained within the personís psyche, or why the attitude is creating logical conflict with the behavior. For Festinger, the cognitive dissonance could conceivably be between individual self-perception and a foreign attitude or behavior. It is up to the individual to decide which one is from the Self and the outside conditions. In addition, the many thoughts, feelings, and behaviors a person has is what makes up the self-conceptódefined as who we think we are and how we present ourselves to others (Trenholm & Jensen, 1996). So, we are in effect talking about the same entities; we are just using qualities to describe one (behaviors and attitudes in cognitive dissonance) and an umbrella term to describe another (self-concept). This argument invalidates the criticism of this theory being unnecessarily complex. The modifications made since its introduction have narrowed the focus of Festingerís broad theoretical statement, but they do not invalidate it.
To critique on a positive side, I see his explanation of the events and behavior of how people act in dissonant situations as making sound sense. Also, it is accurate at predicting the future of relationships, and it has very diverse uses, such as in therapy, group conflict mediation, and in personal relationships. It explains to us why things are happening and allows us a certain amount of control over the events, giving us liberty to choose how we want the information to affect us. I have learned much about myself in using this theory to decode my complicated feeling and conflicts with people.
One addition I could make to this theory is an idea my friend gave me, called the "Nice GuysíLose" concept, which gives an added spin to minimal justification. With a nice guy (Seth) who will treat you right and support you with gifts, and compliments, a woman can feel dissatisfied but still stay with him because sheís being "paid" to stay. This lessens the real attachment she feels with the nice guy, and so she feels no problem dumping him for someone else, thus making nice guys unpopular with many women. Conversely, if a woman finds a guy not that nice (TJ), thereís less to expect and a girl puts much work into reconciling the logical inconsistency. The more she works, with little incentive, the more attached she feels and selective exposure kicks in. This is why nice guys donít get much activity with women. And sometimes, it happens that women find they love guys that use or abuse them, which is an unhealthy extreme of the minimal justification theory. It happens very frequently in college.
Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Groenveld, J. (1999). Totalism & group dynamics [online]. Available: http://www.crl.com/~tzimon/General/cult_tot.html .
Kearsley, G.(1999). Cognitive dissonance. Theory into Practice (TIP) Database [online] Available: http://www.gwu.edu/~tip/festinge.htm.
Neilands, T. (1995 Dec). The time course of the self-concept threat reduction process among low and high self-esteem individuals (dissertation). [Online]. Available: http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/~neilands/psych/research/bigd/ch6.htm.
Trenholm, S. & Jensen, A. (1996). Interpersonal communication. New York: Wadworth Publishing Company.