Cognitive Dissonance

Leon Festinger's Model of Cognitive Dissonance

The Cognitive Dissonance theory was developed and published by Leon Festinger, a psychologist, in 1957. The theory originated in his quest to explain what all human beings do when ideas contradict each other, or when there is a mismatch between ideas and behavior.

Cognitive Dissonance theory, therefore, states that where there is a mismatch between your beliefs and your own behavior, you will experience a feeling of discomfort. The theory also goes on to state that people tend to change their beliefs rather than their behavior in attempt to resolve this tension.

Fundamentals

Leon Festinger introduced the concept of cognitive dissonance while exploring what motivates individuals to reduce inconsistencies in their lives. His formative work attempted not only to define dissonance but also to outline factors that impact the occurrence and magnitude of the experience.

Broadly, he proposed that dissonance occurs when people’s cognitive elements are not aligned. Cognitive elements refer to the knowledge people hold about what they do, how they feel, what they like, or what they desire.

Festinger also suggested that it is rare to never experience dissonance. First, new information from our surrounding environment continually challenges our existing knowledge of what we do, feel, like, or desire. Second, the choices we make are seldom black and white, and as a result, dissonance is a reality of decision making. Although dissonance cannot always be avoided, the magnitude with which we experience dissonance does vary.

Specifically, the magnitude of dissonance confronting us corresponds with the degree of discrepancy and the importance of the two competing cognitive elements. The greater the divergence and/or importance of the cognitive elements, the greater the likelihood that dissonance will be aroused. Based on this interpretation of dissonance, Festinger’s central argument was that people find dissonance highly aversive and strive to reduce the associated psychological discomfort. Ultimately, as the magnitude of dissonance increases, so does the urgency to reconcile the tension.

Resolving Cognitive Dissonance

According to Festinger, dissonance makes people feel psychological discomfort when it is aroused, and so they act to remove or reduce it in any of the following ways:

  1. Modifying cognitive elements
    One approach consists in modifying cognitive elements by making changes to either cognitions of behavior or cognitions of attitudes when they are not aligned. Consider the examples of a manager who lays off an employee whom he holds in high esteem.

    The manager likely faces a great deal of psychological discomfort since his cognitions of his attitude (holding the employee in high esteem) and behavior (laying off the employee) are at odds. One approach to reducing this dissonance is rehiring the employee. If he is successful in bringing the employee back to his team, the cognitions of his attitude and his behavior will be positively aligned, mitigating the experienced dissonance.

    Though such a behavioral change may effectively reduce dissonance, a manager might not be at liberty to rehire the employee. In this case, the manager could alter his attitude toward the employee by calling to mind negative examples of the employee’s job performance (e.g., when the employee was late to work, a time when the employee made an error in a report). This change in the manager’s attitude will bring greater consistency between his two cognitive elements and reduce the aroused dissonance.
  2. Introducing new cognitive elements
    Significantly altering our cognitive elements is not easy; rather, we are constrained by perceptions of our realities, particularly when our cognitions are highly important. Under such circumstances, another method for reducing dissonance is to introduce new cognitive elements by acquiring new information or beliefs.

    For example, the manager, if unable to change the cognitions of his behavior or attitude, might add the cognitions that the employee was likely going to quit soon or that the employee enjoys spending time with his family. These new cognitions have the power to offset the proportion of dissonant elements.

As theories of dissonance evolved, self-consistency became a key explanatory mechanism for cognitive dissonance. Elliot Aronson, one of Festinger’s students, proposed that the effects of dissonance are most powerful when a salient self-aspect is threatened.

In other words, dissonance is aroused not because cognitive elements do not logically align; rather, dissonance is the result of cognitive elements that challenge the consistency of one’s sense of self.

Based on these arguments, Aronson suggested that high self-involvement produces a greater need to justify our beliefs or behaviors. Ultimately, such justification enables individuals to maintain a positive and consistent self-concept.

To illustrate this point, imagine an individual who believes that being a loyal employee is core to her identity; however, she takes the day off from work to interview at a competing firm. Given the centrality of loyalty to the individual’s sense of self, a high level of dissonance is likely to be aroused, resulting in a need to justify the interview.

Statements of self-justification may include, “I need to take a job that pays me more so I can pay for my child’s college education,” or “If I get this new job, I plan to be there until I retire.” Such cognitions may enable the individual to maintain her sense of being a loyal employee and alleviate anxiety.