Cognitive dissonance

  • You are examining this topic in the context of a theoretical explanation of behavior change from the Cognitive Perspective. You will need to explain not only how underlying attitudes impact upon behavior and behavior change, but also how cognitive balance is restored and cognitive dissonance alleviated.
  • Give empirical examples to demonstrate knowledge of findings and conclusions
  • Evaluate validity and reliability of studies
  • Know ONE study well.


Festinger's (1957) cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance).

Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviours to reduce the discomfort and restore balance etc. For example, when people smoke (behaviour) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition).
Attitudes may change because of factors within the person. An important factor here is the principle of cognitive consistency, the focus of Festinger's (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance. This theory starts from the idea that we seek consistency in our beliefs and attitudes in any situation where two cognitions are inconsistent.

Leon Festinger (1957) proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behaviour. According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, a discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it, and achieve consonance (i.e. agreement).


Festinger (1957) - participant observation study

Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger, arising out of a participant observation study of a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen. While fringe members were more inclined to recognise that they had made fools of themselves and to "put it down to experience", committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members).

Putting the study into perspective

Festinger & Carlsmith (1959)

- Cognitive consequences of forced compliance
Recently, Festinger (1957) bas proposed a theory concerning cognitive dissonance. Two derivations from this theory are tested here. These are:
1. If a person is induced to do or say something which is contrary to his private opinion, there will be a tendency for him to change his opinion so as to bring it into correspondence with what he has done or said.
2. The larger the pressure used to elicit the [p. 210] overt behavior (beyond the minimum needed to elicit it) the weaker will be the above-mentioned tendency.
A laboratory experiment was designed to test these derivations. Subjects were subjected to a boring experience and then paid to tell someone that the experience had been interesting and enjoyable. The amount of money paid the subject was varied. The private opinions of the subjects concerning the experience were then determined.
The results strongly corroborate the theory that was tested.

Aronson and Mills, 1959

It also seems to be the case that we value most highly those goals or items which have required considerable effort to achieve. This is probably because dissonance would be caused if we spent great effort to achieve something and then evaluated it negatively. We could, of course, spend years of effort achieving something which turns out to be a load of rubbish and then, in order to avoid the dissonance that produces, try to convince ourselves that we didn't really spend years of effort, or that the effort was really quite enjoyable, or that it wasn't really a lot of effort; in fact, though, it seems we find it easier to persuade ourselves that what we have achieved is worthwhile and that's what most of us do, evaluating highly something whose achievement has cost us dear - whether other people think it's much cop or not! This method of reducing dissonance is known as 'effort justification'.
If we put effort into a task which we have chosen to carry out, and the task turns out badly, we
experience dissonance. To reduce this dissonance, we are motivated to try to think that the task turned out well. A classic dissonance experiment by Aronson and Mills (1959)
demonstrates the basic idea.
Aim: To investigate the relationship between dissonance and effort.
Method: Female students volunteered to take part in a discussion on the psychology of sex. In the 'mild embarrassment' condition, participants read aloud to a male experimenter a list of sex-related words like 'virgin' and 'prostitute'.
In the 'severe embarrassment' condition, they had to read aloud obscene words and a very explicit sexual passage. In the control condition, they went straight into the main study. In all conditions they then heard a very boring discussion about sex in lower animals. They were asked to rate how interesting they had found the discussion, and how interesting they had found the people involved in it.
Results: Participants in the 'severe embarrassment' condition gave the most positive rating.
Conclusion: If a voluntary experience which has cost a lot of effort turns out badly, dissonance is reduced by redefining the experience as interesting. This justifies the effort made.
This kind of outcome has been called the suffering-leads-to-liking effect. You can probably think of similar examples from your own experiences.