Cognitive Dissonance

sour grapes

Cognitive dissonance [dis-uh-nuhs] is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting thoughts or feelings at the same time. In this state, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. An example is the conflict between wanting to smoke and knowing that smoking is unhealthy. Reacting to this unpleasant state, people often change their feelings, thoughts or memories so they are less in conflict. For instance, a smoker might change their belief about the likelihood that smoking will make them ill, or they might introduce the idea that there are other benefits that make smoking worth it.

The phrase was coined by American psychologist Leon Festinger in his 1956 book ‘When Prophecy Fails,’ which chronicled the followers of a UFO cult as reality clashed with their fervent belief in an impending apocalypse. The believers met at a predetermined place and time, believing they alone would survive the Earth’s destruction. The appointed time came and passed without incident. They faced acute cognitive dissonance: had they been the victim of a hoax? Had they donated their worldly possessions in vain? Most members chose to believe something less dissonant: the aliens had given earth a second chance, and the group was now empowered to spread the word: earth-spoiling must stop. The group dramatically increased their proselytism despite the failed prophecy.

Cognitive dissonance is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology. Cognitive disequilibrium is a closely related concept in the cognitive developmental theory of Jean Piaget: the inevitable conflicts a child experiences between current beliefs and new information will lead to disequilibrium, which in turn motivates the child’s progress through the various stages of development.

Cognitive dissonance theory warns that people have a bias to seek consonance among their cognitions. This bias gives the theory its predictive power, shedding light on otherwise puzzling irrational and even destructive behavior. A classical illustration of cognitive dissonance is expressed in the fable ‘The Fox and the Grapes’ by Aesop. In the story, a fox sees some high-hanging grapes and wishes to eat them. When the fox is unable to think of a way to reach them, he decides that the grapes are probably not worth eating, with the justification the grapes probably are not ripe or that they are sour (hence ‘sour grapes’). This example follows a pattern: one desires something, finds it unattainable, and reduces one’s dissonance by criticizing it. Norwegian social theorist Jon Elster calls this pattern ‘adaptive preference formation.’ In Leon Festinger’s example, when the prophesized date passed without the world ending, the movement did not disband. Instead, the group came to believe that they had been spared in order to spread their teachings to others, a justification that resolved the conflict between their previous expectations and reality.

Smoking is a common example of cognitive dissonance because it is widely accepted that cigarettes can cause lung cancer, and smokers must reconcile their habit with the desire to live long and healthy lives. In terms of the theory, the desire to live a long life is dissonant with the activity of doing something that will most likely shorten one’s life. The tension produced by these contradictory ideas can be reduced by any number of changes in cognition and behavior, including quitting smoking, denying the evidence linking smoking to lung cancer, or justifying one’s smoking. For example, smokers could rationalize their behavior by concluding that only a few smokers become ill, that it only happens to very heavy smokers, or that if smoking does not kill them, something else will. This case of dissonance could also be interpreted in terms of a threat to the self-concept. The thought, ‘I am increasing my risk of lung cancer’ can be dissonant with the self-related belief, ‘I am a smart, reasonable person who makes good decisions.’

Cognitive dissonance has also been demonstrated to occur when people seek to: Explain unexplained feelings (when a disaster occurs in a community, irrationally fearful rumors spread in nearby communities not involved in the disaster because of the need of those who are not threatened to justify their anxieties); Minimize regret of irrevocable choices (bettors at a racetrack are more confident in their chosen horse just after placing the bet because they cannot change it, ‘post-decision dissonance’); Justify behavior that opposed their view (students judge cheating less harshly after being induced to cheat on a test); and Align one’s perceptions of a person with one’s behavior toward that person (the Ben Franklin effect refers to that statesman’s observation that the act of performing a favor for a rival leads to increased positive feelings for that individual).

Washing one’s hands has been shown to eliminate post-decisional dissonance, presumably because the dissonance is often caused by moral disgust (with oneself) which is related to disgust from unsanitary conditions.

There are other ways that cognitive dissonance is involved in shaping our views about people, as well as our own identities. For instance, Self-evaluation maintenance theory suggests that people feel dissonance when their cherished skills or traits are outmatched by close social ties (e.g. Jill the painter feels dissonance because she is friends with a master painter – Jill can either care less about painting, or justify her inferiority in some other way). Balance theory suggests people have a general tendency to seek consonance between their views, and the views or characteristics of others (e.g. the religious believer feels dissonance because his partner does not believe the same things – dissonance which the believer will be motivated to justify). People may self handicap so that any failures during an important task are easier to justify (e.g. the student who drinks the night before an important exam in response to his fear of performing poorly).

Creating and resolving cognitive dissonance can have a powerful impact on students’ motivation for learning. For example, researchers have used the effort justification paradigm to increase students’ enthusiasm for educational activities by offering no external reward for students’ efforts: preschoolers who completed puzzles with the promise of a reward were less interested in the puzzles later, as compared to preschoolers who were offered no reward in the first place. The researchers concluded that students who can attribute their work to an external reward stop working in the absence of that reward, while those who are forced to attribute their work to intrinsic motivation came to find the task genuinely enjoyable.

Psychologists have incorporated cognitive dissonance into models of basic processes of learning, notably constructivist models. Several educational interventions have been designed to foster dissonance in students by increasing their awareness of conflicts between prior beliefs and new information (e.g., by requiring students to defend prior beliefs) and then providing or guiding students to new, correct explanations that will resolve the conflicts.

The general effectiveness of psychotherapy and psychological intervention has been explained in part through cognitive dissonance theory. Some social psychologists have argued that the act of freely choosing a specific therapy, together with the effort and money invested by the client in order to continue to engage in the chosen therapy, positively influences the effectiveness of therapy. This phenomenon was demonstrated in a study with overweight children, in which causing the children to believe that they freely chose the type of therapy they received resulted in greater weight loss.

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