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The theory of cognitive dissonance

Have you ever experienced a conflict between your beliefs and your actions? For example, you might believe that smoking is bad for your health, but you still smoke occasionally. Or you might value honesty, but you lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. How do you cope with such situations? Do you change your behaviour, or do you rationalize your actions? These are some of the questions that the theory of cognitive dissonance tries to answer. cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a person holds two or more contradictory or incompatible cognitions, such as beliefs, attitudes, values, or behaviours. According to the theory, this creates an unpleasant mental state that motivates the person to reduce the inconsistency and restore harmony. In this article, we will explore the origins, principles, and applications of the theory of cognitive dissonance, as well as some of the criticisms and limitations of this influential concept.

History and background of the theory of cognitive dissonance

The theory of cognitive dissonance was first proposed by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. It is a psychological phenomenon that describes the discomfort that people feel when their beliefs, values, or attitudes are inconsistent with their actions. For example, a person who values health but smokes cigarettes may experience cognitive dissonance. To reduce this unpleasant feeling, people may try to change their behaviour, justify their actions, or modify their beliefs. cognitive dissonance can occur in various situations, such as forced compliance, decision-making, or effort justification. The theory of cognitive dissonance has been widely applied to understand social, political, and interpersonal phenomena.

cognitive dissonance theory has many practical applications in various domains, such as education, health, marketing, politics, and social psychology. Some examples of how the theory can be applied are:

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  • In education, teachers can use cognitive dissonance to motivate students to learn new information or skills that challenge their existing beliefs or assumptions. For example, a teacher may present a controversial topic or a counterintuitive problem that creates dissonance in students and then guide them to resolve it through critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning.
  • In health, practitioners can use cognitive dissonance to promote healthy behaviours or prevent unhealthy ones by highlighting the discrepancy between people’s actions and their desired outcomes. For example, a doctor may show a smoker the negative effects of smoking on their lungs or a dietician may show an obese person the benefits of losing weight.
  • In marketing, advertisers can use cognitive dissonance to influence consumers’ preferences or decisions by creating a sense of dissatisfaction with their current situation or product and then offering a solution that reduces the dissonance. For example, a car dealer may emphasize the drawbacks of driving an old car and then present a new car as a better alternative.
  • In politics, campaigners can use cognitive dissonance to persuade voters to support their cause or candidate by exposing the inconsistency between their opponents’ words and actions or between their own values and the status quo. For example, a political activist may point out the hypocrisy of a corrupt politician or the injustice of an unfair system.
  • In social psychology, researchers can use cognitive dissonance to study how people cope with moral dilemmas, interpersonal conflicts, or group pressures by observing how they justify or rationalize their choices or behaviours. For example, a social psychologist may examine how people who cheat on a test or harm another person explain their actions to themselves or others.
Criticisms and limitations of cognitive dissonance theory

The theory of cognitive dissonance has been applied widely; however, it has also faced several criticisms and limitations over the years. Some of these are:

The theory does not specify how dissonance is measured or how much dissonance is needed to motivate change. Different people may have different thresholds or sensitivities to dissonance, and different situations may elicit different levels of dissonance. Therefore, it is difficult to test the theory empirically and compare the results across studies.

The theory does not account for individual differences or contextual factors that may influence how people react to dissonance. For example, some people may have a higher need for consistency than others, or some cultures may value consistency more than others. Moreover, some factors, such as self-esteem, mood, or social norms, may moderate the effects of dissonance on attitude or behaviour change.

The theory does not explain why some forms of dissonance reduction are more likely than others. For instance, why do some people change their attitudes to align with their behaviours, while others change their behaviours to align with their attitudes? Or why do some people seek consonant information, while others avoid it? The theory does not provide clear criteria or mechanisms for choosing among different dissonance reduction strategies.

The theory has limited applicability and generalizability outside the laboratory settings. Most of the evidence for the theory comes from artificial and contrived experiments that may not reflect the real-life situations where dissonance occurs. Furthermore, the theory relies on indirect measures of dissonance, such as self-reports or behavioural indicators, that may not capture the actual psychological state of dissonance. Additionally, the theory may be confounded by other factors, such as rationalization, self-perception, or social influence, that can also account for the observed changes in attitudes or behaviours.

In conclusion, the theory of cognitive dissonance is a classic and influential theory in social psychology that has generated a lot of research and debate. However, it also has several shortcomings and challenges that need to be addressed and overcome. Future research should aim to clarify the definition and measurement of dissonance, incorporate individual and contextual variables, identify the determinants and mechanisms of dissonance reduction, and examine the validity and relevance of the theory in natural settings.

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Further reading

If you are interested in learning more about the theory of cognitive dissonance, here are some weblinks that you can check out:

cognitive dissonance Theory: A review – Newcastle University
This is a comprehensive overview of the theory, its concepts, applications and references. It explains how the theory revolutionised thinking about human psychological processes and how it can be used to understand various phenomena such as attitude change, decision-making, persuasion and conformity.

An Introduction to cognitive dissonance Theory and an Overview of Current Perspectives on the Theory
This is a chapter from a book that provides an introduction to the theory and its history, as well as a summary of the current research and perspectives on the theory. It discusses the different types of dissonance, the factors that influence dissonance reduction, the neural and physiological correlates of dissonance, and the implications of the theory for social issues such as prejudice, health and morality.

Disconfirmed expectancy – Wikipedia
This is an article that illustrates an example of cognitive dissonance in action. It describes a case study of a cult that predicted the end of the world, and how they reacted when their prophecy failed. It shows how the theory can explain why people sometimes persist in their beliefs even when they are contradicted by evidence.

The Advances in the History of cognitive dissonance Theory – ResearchGate
This is a paper that traces the historical development of cognitive dissonance theory from its inception to its recent advancements. It reviews the major theoretical revisions, empirical findings and criticisms of the theory, and highlights the future directions and challenges for the theory.

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