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Cognitive Dissonance

Psychology (Year 12) - Social Psychology

Jessica Pratt

Cognitive dissonance is a term that refers to the presence of conflicting attitudes, behaviours or beliefs existing in one’s mind at a particular time. This conflict leads to discomfort due to challenging the self-concept.

Causes of Cognitive Dissonance

It has been found that cognitive dissonance increases with:

  • the personal importance of the subject

  • the strength of conflict between thoughts

  • our inability to rationalise and explain our thought processes

Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

Leon Festinger proposed that individuals attempt to reach internal consistency between their beliefs and behaviours, where disharmony results from inconsistency. He theorised that the motives for maintaining consistency can lead to irrational and maladaptive behaviour.

His methodology consisted of a participant observation of a cult that believed that Earth would be destroyed by a flood. He simply observed what happened to the cognition of the cult members, finding that fringe members were more inclined to recognise their faults and foolishness. However, committed cult members were more likely to reinterpret evidence to prove that they were correct.

Forced Compliance

This refers to when someone is forced to do something that they privately don’t want to do. In this way, dissonance is created between their cognition and their behaviour. Evaluation can then reduce dissonance.

An experiment conducted by Festinger & Carlsmith (1959) involved participants being asked to perform a series of dull tasks that produced negative attitudes. They were then paid $1, or $20 to tell the next participant that the tasks were interesting. When asked to evaluate this, those paid $1 rated the task as more enjoyable than those paid $20 to lie. Simply, $1 is not a sufficient incentive for lying and so those paid $1 experienced dissonance. They could only overcome the dissonance by lying to themselves - believing the tasks were fun.

Determinants of Cognitive Dissonance

There are three key factors that determine whether cognitive dissonance occurs:

  1. justification - whether individuals feel as though they have justification for inconsistency.

  2. choice - whether someone is forced to participate in something opposing their attitudes.

  3. investment - strength of investment in their point of view and their self-concept’s importance.

Methods of Reducing Cognitive Dissonance

To reduce cognitive dissonance, individuals can:

  • change their actions to align with their beliefs

  • change the conflicting belief so that it aligns with other beliefs or behaviours

  • change the action’s perception - justify and rationalise to ease discomfort

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