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Cognitive Dissonance

Leon Festinger introduced cognitive dissonance theory in a 1957 book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Festinger's theory said that when a person holds contradictory elements in cognition (producing an unpleasant state called dissonance) the person will work to bring the elements back into agreement or congruence.

An experiment by Festinger and Carl­smith (1959) brought cognitive disso­nance theory to the attention of American social psychologists. Eliot Aronson, himself a famous social psychologist and former student of Festinger, called this "the most important experiment in the history of social psychology" ("Social Research­er", 1984).

At the beginning of the Festinger and Carlsmith experiment, student volunteers were asked to perform a simple and boring task. Before the subjects left the experiment, the experimenter comment­ed that his research assistant would be unavailable to help the following day.

Would the subject be willing to do a small favor for the experimenter? The favor was to take the place of the research assistant, who was supposed to prepare subjects for the experiment by giving them a positive attitude toward it.

Participants were asked, "Would you please tell the next subject in line that the experiment was fun and enjoyable?" Participants who agreed to do this were paid either $1 or $20.

$20 in the 1950s was equivalent to over $100 now. One group was being paid that amount to lie to the next subject about the boring experiment. The other group was paid 1/20th as much, the equivalent of about $5 now.

How did the Festinger and Carlson experiment work?

Subjects in both groups typically agreed to tell the next subject that the experiment was interesting. When experimenters asked later for the truth, the highly paid subjects said the experiment was actually boring. On the other hand, people paid only $1 were more likely to say, when asked later, that the experiment was "not bad" or that it was "interesting."

How do we explain this? Festinger observed that the subjects were put in a psychologically uncomfortable position. They had not enjoyed the experiment, but now they were asked to lie and say they had enjoyed it.

How could they explain their own behavior to themselves? Subjects who received $20 had no problem explaining their behavior to themselves. They were paid a lot of money to lie, and that explained why they lied. So they did not have to change their true attitudes.

The subjects who received $1 did not have a very good reason to lie. To reduce the feeling of discomfort about lying, they persuaded themselves they actually enjoyed the experiment. Their attitudes changed to fit their behavior, reducing the uncomfortable feeling of dissonance.

Festinger and Carlsmith had cleverly set up an opposition between behavioral theory, which was dominant in the 1950s, and Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory. Behaviorists would have predict that a reinforcement 20 times bigger would produce more change. Instead the opposite happened.

Festinger explained it this way in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957):

The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance. (p.3)

In other words, a contradiction (dissonance) between attitude and behavior is uncomfortable, so it motivates a person to change behavior or attitudes (whichever is easier to change) to eliminate the contradiction.

If you have a negative attitude toward something, but you behave like you enjoy it, this causes dissonance. That is uncomfortable, unless you have a good explanation for your behavior (such as being paid a lot of money). To achieve consonance, something has to give.

Typically the behavior is in the past, by the time the person feels dissonance, so the behavior cannot be changed. Therefore the person's attitude changes.

This subtle dynamic makes cognitive dissonance a powerful tool for changing attitudes. It implies that if you want to change attitudes, all you have to do is change behavior, and the attitudes will follow along.

As long as people are not paid a lot of money or given some other obvious inducement to perform the behavior, they will convince themselves it is enjoyable. They will decide they wanted to do it anyway, or that maybe it was a good idea, in retrospect.

A concrete example involves the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s in the United States. Many people resisted school desegregation, saying, "You can't change people's behavior before you change their attitudes."

Psychologists familiar with dissonance theory said just the opposite. Their research suggested to them that if the laws changed first, forcing a change in behavior, the attitudes would follow along later.

In a classic piece of cognitive disso­nance research, researchers assigned students to different sides of a debate about the merits of college football. One side argued that football was good for a university, the other side argued that it was harmful. After the debate, students expressed beliefs closer to their debate position than before (Scott, 1957).

Scott himself, in the tradition of old-time behaviorists, interpreted this result as "reinforcement of verbal behavior." Through the lens of cognitive dissonance theory, however, the explanation was a bit different.

What happens when students are asked to defend positions contrary to their beliefs?

The students presumably put some effort into building and defending their arguments. Doing so, they started to identify with the arguments and accept them as their own. To do otherwise would have been to create conflict or dissonance (lack of harmony) between their attitudes and their behavior.

Kenneth Boulding, an economist and past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, described a pattern that relates to cognitive dissonance. He called it the Sacrifice Trap:

If we once start making sacrifices for anything–a family, a religion, or a nation–we find that we cannot admit to ourselves that the sacrifices have been in vain without a threat to our personal identity.

Our identity is in part created by identifying ourselves with the organization or the community for which the sacrifices have been made. In these circumstances, the object of sacrifice becomes "sacred" and it is in a position to demand further sacrifices. (Boulding, 1969)

What is the Sacrifice Trap?

Ben Franklin gave some peculiar advice that makes sense in the context of cognitive dissonance theory. Franklin said if you want someone to like you, get that person to do you a favor.

How can you get someone to like you, according to Ben Franklin?

This works (according to cognitive dissonance theory) because, once the person has put out time and energy to help you, the person must develop an attitude consistent with the behavior. So, to avoid dissonance, the person likes you.

The opposite of Franklin's principle is described by Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer (1951). If you want to dislike someone, do them wrong.

There is perhaps no surer way of infecting ourselves with virulent hatred toward a person than by doing him a grave injustice. (p.47)

Hoffer pointed out that, after the Nazis had started persecuting the Jews, it became easier for the average German citizen to hate the Jews.

What similar but opposite statement appears in Hoffer's book The True Believer ?

As a rule, cognitive dissonance theory predicts that attitudes and behaviors will remain in synchrony. If you change your attitudes, then presumably your behavior will change. More surprisingly, if you change a person's behavior, attitudes change to match the behavior.

This has many practical implications. Some have already been discussed. If you want somebody to like you, induce the person to perform "liking behavior" such as doing you a favor.

If you want to keep people from hating each other, work on eliminating hateful behavior. "Fight acts, not feelings," is the banner of anti-racist social scientists. (Goleman, 1991)

The same logic applies to selfish concerns such as getting other people to respect you. Cognitive dissonance theory implies that if you demand respect, you will get it.

What are some practical implications of cognitive dissonance theory?

You should not put up with abuse, because people who treat you poorly will adopt negative beliefs about you, in order to be consistent with their behavior toward you. If you make people treat you with respect, they will respect you more, in order to reduce dissonance between their attitudes and their behaviors.


Social Researcher. (1984, August) Psychology Today, pp.40-45.

Boulding, K. E. (1969) The grants economy. Michigan Academician, 1, 3-12.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row & Peterson

Festinger, L. & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959) Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-210.

Goleman, D. (1991, July 16) New way to battle bias: fight acts, not feelings. New York Times, p.C1.

Hoffer, E. (1951) The True Believer. New York: Harper & Row.

Scott, W. A. (1957) Attitude change through reward of verbal behavior. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 55, 72-75.

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