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Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Western Carolina University

Psychology 495

© 2001 Tim Robertson





Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive Dissonance is an inconsistency between two or more thoughts, opinions or behaviors. Every one has experienced cognitive dissonance. A cigarette smoker is a classic example of a dissonant individual. For example, a smoker might say, "I would quit smoking, but there is not enough evidence that smoking is dangerous."

Cognitive dissonance is powerful motivation for behavior or opinion change. Leon Festinger stated, "that the psychological opposition of irreconcilable ideas (cognitions), held simultaneously by one individual, created a motivating force that would lead, under proper conditions, to the adjustment of beliefs to fit prior behavior instead of changing behavior to express beliefs (the sequence conventionally assumed)"

Leon Festinger's research provides empirical evidence to support the accuracy of cognitive dissonance theory. People often change their opinions and behaviors to match various social situations. However, most people will not change their behavior, even when they are presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.




Cognitive Dissonance Theory


Leon Festinger was a social psychologist from New York City. He was born on 08 May, 1919 and became famous for his Cognitive Dissonance Theory. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree from City College of New York in 1939. After completing his studies at City College, he attended the University of Iowa where he received his Ph.D. in 1942.

Festinger chose the University of Iowa because famed psychologist Kurt Lewin was a faculty member. He was intrigued by Lewin's experimental psychology research, and believed it would be a great opportunity to study under Lewin. Festinger's main interest wasn't social psychology, but instead, Lewin's work on motivation and the Field Theory. Lewin's Field Theory declared that human behavior was the product of the individual and the environment. During Festinger's studies at the University of Iowa, Lewin would become his mentor, and a tremendous influence in his life.

Festinger received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1942, and traveled with Lewin to the Research Center for Group Dynamics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined the faculty of MIT, and became an assistant professor of psychology. It was during his time at MIT that Festinger married his first wife Mary Ballou, who was a concert pianist. Festinger and Ballou had three children, but later divorced.

After Lewin's death in 1947, Festinger left MIT for the University of Michigan to become the university's program director of the Group Dynamic Center. His stay at the university was not a long one. He left Michigan for the University of Minnesota and remained there until 1955, when he left that school and went to Stanford University. In 1968, Festinger returned to New York City to become Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research. He remained at the school until his death on February 11, 1989.

Festinger was among a group of behavioral era psychologists that paved the way in turning psychology into a strictly experimental area of study. For example, in 1953 he co-authored Research Methods in Behavioral Sciences with Daniel Katz. In the book, they stressed the "need for control in experimental variables by creating these variables in the laboratory during experiments, often misleading and misinforming the participants," (Festinger, 1957)

When Prophecy Fails

Festinger conducted his groundbreaking cognitive dissonance research at the University of Minnesota. In 1954, Festinger and two colleagues posed as cult members and infiltrated a cult group to test his cognitive dissonance theory. He had read a newspaper article concerning a Minneapolis woman that had supposedly received messages from superior alien beings. The aliens had warned the woman that a great flood would destroy the United States, and bring the end of the world.

Festinger and his confederates successfully assimilated into the cult and regularly attended meetings. Cognitive Dissonance Theory predicted that most cult members would not change their belief or opinion about the woman if the predicted flood did not occur. According to the theory, most cult members would continue to faithfully believe in the woman, even when she was proven wrong. That was exactly what happened. Many cult members sold their possessions and quit their jobs in anticipation of the end of the world.

Some members became disillusioned and quit the group when the predicted apocalypse did not occur. However, the majority of cult members remained loyal believers in the woman's prophecy. Festinger cited this study as the basis for his Cognitive Dissonance Theory. His hypothesis had accurately predicted the cult member's group behavior. Some members would abandon the woman and the cult, but the majority would grow stronger in their original belief even when the prophecy did not come true.

It's ironic that Festinger's 1957 "A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance" publication would bring him more fame and recognition than Lewin ever achieved. Social psychology was Lewin's expertise and Festinger was mostly disinterested in that field of psychology. Festinger's dissonance theory revolutionized social psychology. In fact, it not only revolutionized behavioral era psychology, but it conquered it. Cognitive Dissonance Theory earned Festinger a conquistador status among his colleagues, and though his theory doesn't dominate social psychology as it once did, it remains productive research theory for psychologists.




Cognitive Dissonance Theory


Do the actions or opinions of other people cause an opinion change in another individual if he or she is forced to act or say something contradictory to his or her personal beliefs? If so, how great will a behavioral change or a change of opinion be? Why do people continue to act in a certain way, or believe a certain opinion when they are presented with overwhelming contradictory evidence? Leon Festinger answered these questions with his Cognitive Dissonance Theory.

Cognitive Dissonance is a psychological discomfort that an individual feels when holding two or more ideas that are not consistent. For example, "this person really irritates me" but "I really depend on her for my survival". When ever there is dissonance, an individual tries to reduce the amount of discomfort they feel by justifying their belief or changing their opinion. For example, "this person is really very nice once you get to know her". If there is no conflict between an opinion and a behavior, then then consonance exists. Consonance, which is rare, is agreement between all components of a person's beliefs and actions.

These pages will explore Festinger's 1959 Cognitive Dissonance study that is considered a classic in social psychology. Examining the results of Festinger's study will help determine if there is a relationship between a person's covert opinions and beliefs, and their overt behaviors and actions.




Cognitive Dissonance Theory


Seventy-one participants were selected for the experiment. It was titled "Measures of Performance". A random sample was not used. The participants were chosen from the university's introductory psychology courses. Different psychology experiments were offered to the students to fulfill the experimental portion of the general psychology course requirement. Students who selected this study became the participants. No females participated. The sample is not representative and potentially could be a source of bias.

The students were told that the university was conducting an experiment to determine the usefulness of the experiments they were participating in. Some students would be asked to participate in follow-up research, and would be interviewed upon the experiment's conclusion. All students were encouraged to be as truthful and accurate as possible. Indeed, all students who selected the "Measures of Performance" experiment were chosen to be interviewed because it was part of the experiment.

Each participant in the "Measurement of Performance" experiment was instructed to place spools on to a tray, remove them, and place them back for a half-hour. They then had to turn the spool in various directions for another half-hour. Festinger timed their movements during the process. This was done to mislead the participants in to believing that timed movements were being tested. The real purpose of the exercise was to make the task mundane, boring and plain aggravating. Festinger believed that this would leave the participant with a negative opinion of the study.

The fake experiment included two groups of people. One group was not told about the experiment prior to the test. An interviewer told the other group that the test was interesting and fun. Festinger told each participant that the purpose of the experiment was to measure how each person's expectations of how interesting a task is would affect their performance on that task and that he was in the group who had been told nothing.

Festinger told the participant that his interviewer had failed to show up for and he needed each participants help to continue the experiment. Every participant in the whole group was asked to do the same thing as the experiment progressed. A salary was offered. Some subjects received one dollar and others received twenty dollars to lie to the interviewer before telling her that the task had been fun.

The actual interviewer was a woman, and she was posing as the next participant in the study to be interviewed. Festinger convinced the participants that the woman was the next participant and that they were interviewing her. They readily believed Festinger, because of what he had told them about the failure of his interviewee to show up to work.

Each participant would be paid one or twenty dollars to interview the woman. The participants then told the woman how enjoyable the task had been. However, since the test was purposely designed to be boring and mundane, the participants ostensibly had to lie to the woman when they told her to expect a fun and entertaining task. Lying about the test was expected to create cognitive dissonance in the participants.




Cognitive Dissonance Theory


It was necessary to determine if the size of the monetary reward had reduced the amount of the participant's dissonance when they had to convince the next participant that the task was enjoyable. One would expect those participants who received twenty dollars to more easily change their opinion than those receiving less money. Festinger predicted the opposite. Those who received twenty dollars would have less justification to change their opinions than those who received one dollar because they had been paid a larger sum and felt no internal conflict or dissonance. Those who received one dollar would feel more dissonance and justify their lie by changing their opinion to match the lie. The participants who were paid twenty dollars had no need to change their opinion. Festinger was right.

One explanation for the change in belief of the group who received one dollar is that they cognitively explored ways of justifying the lie more than those who received twenty dollars, which was all the justification those participants needed. Rehearsal may have been one component of this cognitive approach to resolving the dissonance. The participants who received a greater monetary reward had received a large monetary justification to resolve any dissonance they may have felt. Those who received less money had to look for ways to resolve their dissonance by altering their opinion of the task to match what they were telling the interviewer or next participant.




Cognitive Dissonance Theory


After 1957, Cognitive Dissonance quickly became the new buzzword in social psychology. Dissonance research dominated most psychology departments for nearly twenty years after Festinger published his work. Today, it is still being studied and applied to real life situations in order to offer a cognitive explanation to complex behavior. Festinger's theory added new life and vigor to the social psychology field. The main benefit of Cognitive Dissonance Theory was its practicability. Psychologists conducted hundreds of experiments on thought processes and applied the findings to social situations. "All we had to do was sit around, and we could generate ten good hypotheses in an evening. The kinds of hypotheses that no one would have dreamed of a few years earlier." (1993)

Fesinger's theory was not free of controversy and criticism. Many of his most vocal critics were hostile because of ethical considerations that were raised. Most researchers, including Festinger, had to manipulate their subjects in to doing things that they normally would not do, such as telling a lie for monetary reward. Other experiments placed participants in embarrassing social situations that could potentially cause psychological damage. Festinger's critics argued that manipulation and lying were unethical no matter what benefit it may provide in understanding human behavior.

Numerous studies have been undertaken in the years following Festinger's publication of Cognitive Dissonance Theory. His theory has been proven to be mostly accurate by experimentation. Cognitive Dissonance Theory has been able to explain a number of social behaviors that can not be explained by behaviorist theory. Behaviorist research was the dominant theme in psychology during the 1950's, and it had mostly ignored cognition and dismissed its' usefulness.

Behaviorist era research failed to explain why membership in social groups is highly valued, but difficult to attain. The more difficult it is to become a member of a socio-group, then the more the person will value membership if it is achieved. Another characteristic that behaviorism failed to explain was ethical values, or personal values. Repeating the example in the introduction, if a person smokes and believes that their behavior is dangerous, then they will change their attitudes to match their behavior. A smoker might say evidence that smoking is unhealthy isn't accurate or it needs to be studied more.

Conflicting opinions between two people is another example of Cognitive Dissonance Theory. For example, if two people watch the same news event, but have previously defined opinions, then they are likely to interpret the news story differently. All of these examples are cognitive and couldn't be answered by the behaviorism paradigm that dominated the era. In fact, most behaviorists did not care to answer them at all. A whole array of ideas and cognitive behaviors are now drawing attention, and being researched thanks to Festinger.

A classic example of Cognitive Dissonance Theory involves the city of Santa Cruz, California. In 1983, an earthquake struck the city, and caused catastrophic damage to the infrastructure. The city hired an engineer to examine the buildings and determine if they were in compliance with California's earthquake ordinances. The engineer concluded his report and delivered his recommendations to the city council.

Upon learning of the major renovations the city would have to finance to bring the buildings up to standards, they voted to suspend the study and ask the state to clarify the exact meaning of the law. The engineer was ridiculed and labeled an alarmist. One council member even called him a threat to the well being of the town.

Compassion and empathy for other human beings are other inferences in Cognitive Dissonance Theory. For example, individuals are some times placed in situations where they might harm others. Soldiers some times harm civilians during wartime. These soldiers are otherwise compassionate and gentle, but during wartime they might accidentally harm innocent people and try to reduce the dissonance by degrading the victim. They might use such mental statements as "they are aiding the enemy and would kill us if they could".

In conclusion, Cognitive Dissonance Theory has been beneficial in helping to explain human behavior. Since the 1950's it has filled a void in behaviorist era research which had largely ignored cognitive processes. Cognitive Dissonance Theory has helped shed light on how people interact with each other in group settings, and in one on one social interaction.

Several conclusions may be drawn from the Festinger study. If a person is forced to behave or speak something contrary to their opinion, then they become conflicted, and will seek ways to reduce the level of dissonance. Generally, most people will change their opinion to match what they have said or acted out as a way of resolving this internal dissonance. The greater the amount of pressure that is brought upon another individual to induce a change of opinion, then the tendency to change opinions is weakened. For example, the greater the pressure that employed to convince another person to change their opinion, then the less likely the person is to change their original opinion.




Works Cited

Hunt, M. (1993). The story of Psychology. New York, NY. Doubleday.

Festinger, Leon & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-210.


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Leon Festinger, Cognitive Dissonance Theory
When Prophecy Fails
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