Cognitive Dissonance Theory After 70 Years
Some common misunderstandings.
Posted Jul 03, 2019
I feel a bit of dissonance over writing this post.
My newly edited book on dissonance, Cognitive Dissonance: Re-examining a Pivotal Theory in Psychology, is an update of the book Jud Mills and I edited in 1999. The publisher, the American Psychological Association, requested that I do a second edition, because the first was out of print, and it had sold well. Unfortunately, Jud passed away about 10 years ago, so this new book was done without his expert collaboration.
So, why do I feel dissonance over writing a post promoting this new book? I guess it’s because my parents taught me to not act in a self-promoting way. I still value not acting in a self-promoting way, so I feel dissonance about promoting my new book. I will say more about this later.
The theory of cognitive dissonance was originally presented by Festinger at a very abstract level, and as such, it applies to a wide range of psychological situations. The new book reviews all the ways in which dissonance theory has been extended, from mathematical models to neuroscience and beyond.
In this post, I’ll address some of the most common misunderstandings of the theory. I hope to continue this discussion in future posts.
In my mind, the most common misunderstanding of dissonance theory is that it applies only to situations in which individuals say (or write) something counter to what they believe or value. I often see both psychology textbooks and reviewers of scholarly manuscripts making this claim.
I suspect this misunderstanding results in part from the fact that the majority of highly cited research on the theory used the forced compliance (or induced compliance) paradigm, which is based on the classic experiment by Festinger and Carlsmith (1959). In it, participants were paid $1 or $20 to “lie” to the next participant and say that boring tasks are in fact interesting. This paradigm is also referred to as the counter-attitudinal paradigm.
In this paradigm, participants are provided with few or many reasons for stating something that they do not believe or value, and participants who make the statement and are given few reasons for doing so often change their attitudes to be more consistent with their statement. The “reasons” have typically been operationalized by giving participants different amounts of money or perceived choice. So, for example, participants in Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) were paid either $1 or $20 to make the counter-attitudinal statement. Participants in Harmon-Jones et al. (1996) were given the sense that they chose or did not choose to make the counter-attitudinal statement. That is, in the perceived high choice condition, participants were subtly induced to write the statement, but reminded that it was their choice to do so, whereas participants in the perceived low choice condition were told that they were randomly assigned to write the statement.
Both of these types of manipulations vary the number of consonant cognitions for engaging in counter-attitudinal behavior. You have fewer consonant cognitions for engaging in the behavior when you are paid less money or subtly induced by the experiment to make the statement.
But dissonance occurs in several other ways. Dissonance results from making difficult decisions, being exposed to information that challenges your views, and from engaging in unpleasant effort. Research testing the theory has used each of these types of situations, although these situations have been used less often than the forced compliance paradigm.
Another common misconception about the theory is that dissonance must be reduced. That is, after persons engage in counter-attitudinal behavior (for few reasons), they must change their attitudes to be more consistent with their recent behavior. Again, I suspect part of the reason for this misconception is that the majority of published research has focused on this outcome of attitude change. But individuals can reduce dissonance in a wide variety of ways, or they can experience dissonance and never reduce it. I, for example, still feel dissonance over writing this blog post promoting my new edited book. I do hope you will read it, and if you have any suggestions for how I should go about reducing dissonance, please share them.
The new edition of Cognitive Dissonance: Re-examining a Pivotal Theory in Psychology contains 12 chapters and three appendices. Six chapters are new to this book; two are reprints of chapters published in the 1999 edition; and four are revisions of chapters published in the earlier edition. The appendices are reprinted from the 1999 book. One contains Leon Festinger’s (1954) first “Very Preliminary and Highly Tentative Draft” on dissonance theory (which had never been published prior to 1999). One contains the transcript from Leon Festinger’s (1987) last public speech about dissonance theory. And the final one contains Jud Mills’s historical note on the classic Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) forced compliance experiment, in which he corrects some misconceptions.
Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 203-210.
Harmon-Jones, E., Brehm, J. W., Greenberg, J., Simon, L., & Nelson, D. E. (1996). Evidence that the production of aversive consequences is not necessary to create cognitive dissonance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 5-16.