The theory of cognitive dissonance edited by GDS

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1 The theory of cognitive dissonance edited by GDS [ added comments in italics by GDS] With apologies to the author re acknowledgement because of uncertainty of its origin the text is not my own. Plagiarism not intended. Summary Cognitive dissonance theory links actions and attitudes. It holds that dissonance is experienced whenever one cognition that a person holds follows from the opposite of at least one other cognition that the person holds. The magnitude of dissonance is directly proportional to the number of discrepant cognitions and inversely proportional to the number of consonant cognitions that a person has. The relative weight of any discrepant or consonant element is a function of its Importance. That is to say, a person may have a set of cognitions concerning an object/issue/event and if these are at odds with each other the person will experience dissonance. This also introduces the notion that the strength of dissonance is related to the self-perceived importance of the cognition/attitude (that is, the thoughts defining the attitude). NOTE: According to the theory, dissonance is experienced as an uncomfortable, drive-like state. People are motivated to reduce any dissonance that they experience. Dissonance may be reduced by (1) changing cognitions (2) adding cognitions (3) altering the importance of the cognitions. Leon Festinger School: Cognitivist The theory of cognitive dissonance Cognitive dissonance theory, developed in 1957, is concerned with the relationships among cognitions. A cognition may be thought of as a "piece of knowledge." The knowledge may be about an attitude, an emotion, a behavior, a value, etc. People hold a multitude of cognitions simultaneously, and these cognitions form irrelevant, consonant, or dissonant relationships with one another. The Relationship of Cognitions The relationship of cognitions in Festinger's model is simple: Cognitive irrelevance describes how most cognitions relate to each other - they have little or no psychological bearing on each other. Cognitions are 1

2 Consonant if they logically relate, support or compliment each other and cognitions that clash or contradict each other are dissonant. Little anxiety exists when our salient cognitions are consonant (even, at times, when they are dissonant with socially proscribed cognitions of significant others.) Much anxiety can exist in cases where there is dissonance and where the cognitions are deemed personally and socially significant. The root cause for these feelings are probably both innate and socially mediated. What happens to a person when he discovers that he has dissonant cognitions? The answer to this question forms the basic postulate of Festinger's theory. A person who has dissonant or discrepant cognitions experiences the unpleasant sensation of dissonance as a psychological tension. Festinger viewed this tension state as a Freudian drive with the power of hunger and thirst. Reducing the psychological state of dissonance is not as simple as eating or drinking, however. The Magnitude of Dissonance. To understand the alternatives open to an individual in a state of dissonance, we must understand the factors that affect the magnitude of dissonance arousal. First, in its simplest form, dissonance increases as the degree of discrepancy among cognitions increases. Second, dissonance increases as the number of discrepant cognitions increases. Third, dissonance is inversely proportional to the number of consonant cognitions held by an individual. In most life situations, cognitions exist which support certain aspects of an otherwise discrepant situation. The greater the number of such consonant cognitions, the less the dissonance. Fourth, the importance or salience of the various cognitions must be taken into consideration. Glaring discrepancies among trivial cognitions does not lead to much dissonance. In summary, the magnitude of dissonance can be given by the following formula: # of discrepant cognitions = (Magnitude of x Importance dissonance)/(# of consonant cognitions x Importance) Most often the formula is used to make more global judgments as to whether the magnitude of dissonance will be high or low. Reducing the tension. If dissonance is experienced as an unpleasant drive state, the individual is motivated to reduce it. The problem as far as predicting behavior is that there are several ways to reduce this tension. Changing cognitions. If two cognitions are discrepant, it's a natural that we may simply change one to fit the other, or attempt to bring them both towards the middle. We may even synthesis the contradictions into a new and grander synthesis. 2

3 Adding cognitions. If two discrepant cognitions cause a certain magnitude of dissonance, that magnitude can be reduced by adding one or more consonant cognitions. This implies that we are able weight one cognition as more important than the other. Altering importance. Since the discrepant and consonant cognitions must be weighted by importance, it may be advantageous to alter the importance of the various cognitions to an even larger degree. When the new, altered importance weightings are placed in the formula, the magnitude of dissonance will be decreased. Paradigms used in studying the effects of dissonant cognitions Note: A paradigm may be thought of as pattern or model of how something is structured or how the parts function. A paradigm can be defined as "the basic way of perceiving, thinking, valuing, and doing associated with a particular vision of reality..." Here it refers to a situation and context There are, of course, a multitude of situations in which people find themselves with some inconsistency among their cognitions. Social psychologists have come to use a few familiar paradigms to study the effects of inconsistent or dissonant cognitions. Their studies have often been provocative and not always in line with everyday intuition about the topics studied. The paradigm of induced compliance. Setting up a scenario/situation [paradigm] to study cognitive dissonance. Psychologists devise experimental paradigms to test hypotheses concerning psychological processes here is an illustrative example. In the induced compliance paradigm, individuals are persuaded to behave in ways which are inconsistent with their private attitudes. Cognitive dissonance is established by a discrepancy between one's behavioral and attitudinal cognitions. Cognitions about attitudes are usually weaker than those about actual behaviors. Behavior is often public, the actor is identified with it, and it is extremely difficult to deny that one has behaved in a certain way. But private attitudes can be changed more easily. Therefore, in the psychology of induced compliance, researchers have generally looked for changes of attitudes as evidence of dissonance reduction. Although changing attitudes is easier than changing cognitions about public behavior, it takes work and effort. If a consonant cognition is available, it is more likely to be seized upon as the means of reducing dissonance. The best way to get a feel for the psychology of induced compliance is to put yourself in the situation of a college student who has walked into what has become a classic expertiment in dissonance research conducted by Festinger and Carlsmith (1959). As you enter the room, you are greeted by an experimenter who introduces the experiment, saying that it involves measures of performance. You are shown a large board on which there are several rows of square pegs, and you are asked to turn each peg a quarter turn to the left and then a quarter turn to the right. You continue with this task until you are thoroughly bored, and you begin to wonder whether the experimenter is simply teasing you or has a sadistic sense of humor. No, you decide, he is serious. Then, 3

4 just before you think you will fall asleep on the job, the experimenter stops you and instructs you about your next assignment. This time you have the responsibility of taking spools of thread off a large pegboard, after which you are to replace them on the pegboard. You continue this on-again, off-again project until you can barely stand it. When you are finished, the experimenter lets you in on a secret that you have probably already guessed. He admits that he has not told you the full design of the experiment and that you really served in a control condition. If you had been assigned to the experimental condition, a paid confederate of the experimenter would have joined you in the outer office as you were waiting for this study and would have tried to convince you that the experiment would be exciting, exhilarating, and fun. Then, the experimenter continues, the performance results of subjects in the experimental condition would have been compared with those of control subjects such as yourself. At this point you feel fully informed about the experiment, although you may still be scratching your head, wondering why anyone would be interested in the results. What you do not know is that the experimenter has been setting you up for the most important portion of the study, which is still to come. First, he laments that the person who usually plays the role of the confederate was not able to come to the lab and that there is another subject who is supposed to be in the experimental (that is, exciting and fun) condition in the waiting room. But all is not lost; the experimenter has a brainstorm. How would you like to play the role of the confederate? All you would have to do, he tells you, is enter the waiting room and convince the student that this experiment is going to be fun. If you do this, you will be paid $1. Would you be willing? If you agree, you have done what the experimenter was hoping you would do, for your role in the dissonance portion of the experiment is about to begin. You have formed the belief that certain experimental procedures are dull and boring. However, you are about to make a public statement to the effect that they are interesting and fun. Those cognitions do not follow from each other, so the psychological state of dissonance will ensue. What you say to the waiting subject is not very relevant, since it is this person who is really the confederate of the experimenter. She is instructed to listen to your information and to accept what you have to say. How will you reduce your dissonance in this situation? Can you deny that you stated that the tasks were interesting? That is not a likely possibility. If you really believed that they were interesting and not at all dull, however, your cognitions would be consistent and your dissonance would be reduced. Now suppose that you are in the identical experimental situation, except that instead of offering you $1 to make an attitude-discrepant statement, the experimenter offers you $20. How, then, would you reduce your dissonance? We noted earlier that attitude change requires work and effort and that, if there is a convenient cognition which is consistent with one of the cognitions creating the dissonance, it can be added to reduce the total magnitude of dissonance. Accepting $20 is a nice, juicy cognition that is consistent with performing the attitude-discrepant behavior. In this condition, it is likely that you will reduce your dissonance by recourse to the $20 incentive and that you will have less need to convince yourself that the task was really interesting. In all, Festinger and Carlsmith had three conditions in their study. In addition to the two incentive conditions ($1 and $20), a control group was run in which subjects performed the boring tasks but were not asked to tell the waiting subject that the task was enjoyable. After an appropriate explanation, all subjects were asked to tell a psychology department secretary how interesting the spool-sorting and peg-turning tasks had been. The subjects who served in the control condition 4

5 did indeed think that the tasks were boring, as did the subjects who participated in the experiment for $20. But the subjects who performed the counterattitudinal behavior for only $1 told the secretary that the task was fun and enjoyable. Thus, agreeing to make a counterattitudinal statement for a small incentive led to the greatest degree of attitude change in the Festinger and Carlsmith study. This study provided astounding support for predictions derived from cognitive dissonance theory. It showed, first, that attitudes could be affected by behavior, such that statements made contrary to one's attitude could produce changes in attitude (See also Janis and King's 1954 role-playing study). Second, it demonstrated that an inverse relationship exists between the incentive that is offered for the behavior and the degree of attitude change that will take place: As incentive increases, attitude change (and presumably the internal state of dissonance) decreases. The results of the Festinger and Carlsmith experiment may help us understand actual human reactions better than classical psychoanalytical theory. In summary, the major points to be abstracted from Festinger and Carlsmith's and Cohen's studies are (1) that behavior that is discrepant with one's attitudes can produce changes in those attitudes, and (2) that the amount of attitude change increases as the justification or the inducement for performing the behavior decreases. Money isn't everything. Rabbie, Brehm, and Cohen (1959) conducted a study similar to our hypothetical example. They asked students to deliver speeches contrary to their attitudes. Students in a high-justification condition were told how valuable the results would be for science and how much the experimenter would appreciate their cooperation. In a lowjustification condition, students were asked to deliver a speech, but were given no song and dance about the value of the study for science, and so on. The results indicated that the students who made their counterattitudinal statements with no special justification became more favorable to the position expressed in their speech than did the students who made their statements with the extra justifications provided by the experimenter. The research in dissonance theory indicates that attitudes will change in accordance with behavior, whether or not financial inducements are offered. As we shall see as more of the nuances of dissonance theory are unfolded, what is important is that the inducement be large enough to induce compliance, yet not so large that it serves as a dissonance-reducing justification. The free-choice paradigm. Dissonance is a pervasive phenomenon which occurs every time we make a free decision. And we make many free decisions. Your choices of which college to attend, which brand of butter to buy, which person to ask out to dinner all evoke a certain amount of dissonance. Consider a person who is prepared to purchase an automobile and has narrowed her choice down to a Honda or a Jaguar. She knows that there are certain features of each car that she likes and dislikes. Since she is ultraorganized, she decides to make a list of these features, such as the one below 5

6 Honda Good o Petrol mileage o Cost o Cute-looking Bad o Accident damage o Small capacity o Costly repair Jaguar Good o Fast o Big Capacity o Reliable Dealers o Sporty Look Bad o Petrol gobbler o Cost o Breaks down easily If she decides to purchase a Honda, then all of the good features of the rejected Jaguar and all of the bad features of the chosen Honda stand in a dissonant relationship with the decision to purchase the Honda. A decision to buy the Jaguar also creates dissonance, due to the good features of the Honda and the bad features of the Jaguar. In this example, assume that all elements are of equal importance. Then assume that the person makes a logical choice to purchase the Jaguar, since she could think of more desirable features for the Jaguar than for the Honda. What will she do with the dissonance that has been created? The same alternatives are open to her as in any reduction of dissonance: She can change her cognitions, alter their importance, or add new cognitions. In this case, the woman may decide that the Honda is really not cute-looking (a change Of an attitudinal cognition), that she really does not care about gas mileage (minimizing the importance of a discrepant cognition), or that there are six more good aspects of the Jaguar that she forgot to put on her list and now remembers (adding consonant elements) In general, a decision-making process is said to create dissonance in its postdecisional phase. Prior to making a decision, the individual is thought to be receptive to all information in an attempt to make the most rational decision (Festinger, 1964). But after a decision has been made, dissonance-reducing processes begin, and cognitions are distorted and added in order to minimize the magnitude of dissonance. Therefore, although a decision between two items (such as the Continental and the Honda) may be very difficult, with one item being thought of as only a hair better than the other, the postdecisional period marks an attempt to spread apart the 6

7 value of the two items. After the decision has been made, the chosen item is seen as increasingly attractive, whereas the nonchosen item is seen as increasingly unattractive. Some implications of dissonance and arousal: On the effect of alcohol and other agents Steele et al., speculate on the meaning of their research by raising the possibility that normal social psychological processes such as dissonance arousal may actually lead to substance abuse. Inconsistency among cognitions, as we have pointed out at various points throughout the present chapter, is a commonplace feature of daily lives. If the appropriate conditions for dissonance are present, the result may be the unpleasant tension state that Festinger (1957) originally proposed. Cognitive changes can reduce the tension; most of our laboratory research shows that to us. But so, too, may alcohol. By consuming alcohol, even in small quantities, we may experience the positively reinforcing phenomenon of having that unpleasant tension removed. Alcohol use that accomplishes this function, Steele et al. suggest, may become alcohol abuse. 7

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