A Theory Of Cognitive Dissonance

Leon Festinger

Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance can account for the psychological consequences of disconfirmed expectations. One of the first published cases of dissonance was reported in the book, When Prophecy Fails (Festinger et al. 1956). Festinger and his associates read an interesting item in their local newspaper headlined 'Prophecy from planet clarion call to city: flee that flood.' Festinger and his colleagues saw this as a case that would lead to the arousal of dissonance when the prophecy failed. They infiltrated the group and reported the results, confirming their expectations. Cognitive dissonance is a motivational state caused because of a conflict between competing goals, beliefs, values, ideas, or desires. The tension can vary due to the importance of the issue in the person's life, and the change in inconsistency between competing beliefs/ideas, and desires/needs. The tension generates a 'drive state' in which the individual feels a need to settle the dissonance. In order to diminish the tension, the person must make a decision to either change their behavior or their beliefs in order to create consistency between the variables. According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. In the case of a discrepancy between attitudes and behavior, it is most likely that the attitude will change to accommodate the behavior. Two factors affect the strength of the dissonance: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the importance attached to each belief. There are three ways to eliminate dissonance: (1) reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs, (2) add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or (3) change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent. Dissonance occurs most often in situations where an individual must choose between two incompatible beliefs or actions. The greatest dissonance is created when the two alternatives are equally attractive. Furthermore, attitude change is more likely in the direction of less incentive since this results in lower dissonance. In this respect, dissonance theory is contradictory to most behavioral theories which would predict greater attitude change with increased incentive (i.e., reinforcement).

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