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An Examination of Festingers Cognitive Dissonance Theory and Notable Modifactions


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An Examination of Festingers Cognitive Dissonance Theory and Notable Modifications

Sometimes the greatest test of a theory is its longevity. Over time, some theories will be disproved, some will be modified, and some will become the basis for a whole new group of theories. Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance has stood up to challenge for over forty years, and is considered by many to be the single most important theory of social psychology. Though there have been modifications to the theory after many recreations and simulations of the original 1957 experiment, few have been able to really disqualify Festinger’s findings. It would be safe to say that many people don’t even have a full grasp of the incredible implications that Festinger’s research and experiments have towards the self-concept and behavior, myself not excluded. The actual definition of cognitive dissonance is almost too simple: an unpleasant feeling that arises from the contradiction of belief and action. Festinger, however, went on to find that dissonance would in fact change attitudes over time, helping people to justify their behavior when they know it is clearly wrong.

Festinger’s original experiment was a simple procedure. Have someone perform a tedious task for a while, then inform the subject that the experiment is finished, but that they could be of assistance with the rest of the experiment as a research assistant. Festinger explained that his regular assistant was unable help that day, and that the experiment was an investigation of preconceptions on task performance. In other words, how will the performance differ when the subject has been told that the task is boring, as opposed to being told that the task is very enjoyable. Festinger offered the “assistant” either one or twenty dollars to tell the next subject in line for the boring task that it was highly enjoyable, and to be on call to act as an assistant in future experiments. In conclusion, Festinger found that the subjects who were paid one dollar actually came to believe that the experiment was enjoyable, as opposed to those who were paid twenty dollars. Incredible? Simple. The subjects who were paid twenty dollars have all the justification in the world for their actions, but the subjects who were only paid one dollar have reacted to the dissonance created by telling the lie for such a small price, and have actually led themselves to believe that the task was enjoyable to improve their self-esteem in regards to the lie.

Festinger concluded that over time dissonance would change attitudes. For example, cigarette smokers know that it is unhealthy to smoke, but they created an attitude to justify why they continue to smoke. If I quit smoking now, I will gain weight. I only smoke when I am drinking. I only smoke after a meal. But the dissonance theory is applicable to much bigger social opinions than smoking, for example: Aronson and Mills (1959) conducted an experiment in which some subjects were put through a harsh period of hazing during initiation into a group while other subjects had to endure only mild hazing. The end result was that the people who went through the sever initiation ended up liking that group a lot better than those who went through mild hazing. Going against the reinforcement theory (Aronson, 1997), the psychologists showed that the subjects came to favor things that they had to suffer to achieve. In other words, to go through a harsh initiation creates dissonance with the bad things about the group, and therefore the subjects reinvent their feelings about the group to be more positive, and make the whole process seem worthwhile. The subjects who only went through the mild initiation had no strong feelings for the group one way or another.

Dissonance theorists were able to apply their knowledge to a major social change when desegregation was being introduced into the schools in the 1950’s. The majority of psychologists involved felt strongly that desegregation should not be introduced in the south until the attitudes of prejudice and discrimination had been changed in the mainstream thinking, to do anything else would have created social turmoil and chaos, they believed. Dissonance theory researchers believed just the opposite, however. They argued that the only way to change the attitudes of prejudice was to desegregate immediately, and the change would follow (Brehm & Cohen, 1962). Specifically, once people started to social interact with those they had previously felt prejudice towards, they would create new attitudes to correspond with their new behavior, and decrease cognitive dissonance. Obviously the dissonance theorists were correct in their predictions, as prejudice diminished over the next decades (save for a few ignorant and resistant exceptions).

Since the 50’s, several modifications and additions have been made to Festinger’s original dissonance theory. Also, there have been several challenges to the theory, most of which are dismissed by the old school for having insufficient evidence or lack of experimental realism. Elliot Aronson was one of the major contributors to the theory, constantly updating and re-working his findings through the 90’s. His first major modification came in 1960. Aronson argued that dissonance was highest when rather than simply two cognitions were involved, but cognition about our self-concept and a behavior that contradicts the self-concept (Aronson, 1960). Aronson teamed up with Merrill Carlsmith two years later to make yet another modification to the theory, which stated that people would be likely to behave and make statements that contradicted their beliefs and values in order to gain or maintain acceptance into a valued group, such as the harsh initiation mentioned earlier (Aronson & Carlsmith, 1962). Hooked on dissonance, Aronson was quick to return to the experiments, this time concluding that in order to reduce dissonance and maintain the valued self-concept, people would strive for three main goals: (a) to preserve a consistent and stable sense of self, (b) to preserve and competent and able sense of self, and (c) to maintain a morally sound (according to the individual) sense of self (Aronson, 1968; Aronson, Chase, Helmreich & Ruhnke, 1974). In other words, doing something that surprises the individual, or makes the individual feel stupid or guilty (Aronson, 1997). This three way system of measuring dissonance helped to find which situations would be more likely to create ways to reduce dissonance. For example: if I were to spend months training rigorously in an effort to lose 100 pounds in order to make the football team, only to find that everyone else on the team was out of shape and at least 100 pounds overweight, I would feel that I had wasted my time trying to get in shape, therefore I would convince myself that I feel and look great off the field as well in an effort to reduce the amount of dissonance that I am experiencing for not knowing that football players at my university were fat and slow.

Another modification to Festinger’s original theory came from Joel Cooper and Russell Fazio, who elaborated on the concept that dissonance would lead to attitude change by creating a four-step process to display the patterns that lead to that change:

1. The individual must realize that the attitude-discrepant action has negative consequences.

2. The individual must take personal responsibility for the action.

3. The individual must experience physiological arousal.

4. The individual must attribute the arousal to the action.

(Cooper & Fazio, 1984)

The two scientists argued that all four of these steps must occur for true dissonance to be present. An example would be if I was an animal rights supporter and I was to take a job as the head of advertising at McDonald’s. I would quickly come to the realization that I would be trying to lure customers towards eating meat, which I am opposed to. Knowing that I could have turned down the job and finished my degree in Spanish at the local university, I begin to stay awake at night wondering what I took this job for, and it makes me sick to my stomach. That nausea must be coming from the fact that I am working a job that goes against everything I believe in as far as animal rights and multi-national corporations. Do I quit the job and go back to the university, tail between my legs? No way! The money at McDonalds is more in one year than I could earn in ten years as a Spanish professor, so I begin to adjust my attitude to cut down on the sleepless nights. Okay, McDonalds is killing off animals and rainforest at a quicker rate than anyone would care to know about, and maybe they are ripping off the minimum wage employees and getting rich quick off of the public indifference towards their operational standards, but that’s the way of the corporate American world, which is going to end eventually anyway (we are all going to end someday…) and I will be retired in Australia living off all the investments I made with the money from my job at McDonalds, and hey- they really do have better French fries. Once I have been through Cooper and Fazio’s four steps, I feel much better.

More recently (1996), French psychologists Jean-Leon Beauvois and Robert-Vincent Joule have published a book entitled A Radical Dissonance Theory, which discusses some of the most recent additions to Festinger’s original theory of dissonance. A specific focus of the book is the mathematical process of dissonance ratio, which the authors feel much of the post-Festinger research has overlooked. The ratio is defined as number of dissonant cognitions divided by the number of dissonant and consonant cognitions (Stone, 1988). One of the insights made by the psychologists is that if a person changes certain cognitions in order to minimize dissonance, even more behavioral and emotional inconsistencies will arise, therefore attitude change can never really restore

consonance, and any form of dissonance reduction attempted will merely be a rationalization (Stone, 1998). Cooper and Fazio’s 1984 experiments regarding the causal attribution process comes under fire when Beauvois and Joule argued that causal explanation of dissonance is separate from the dissonance ratio. The psychologists tested this by having subjects perform a boring task under high and low choice conditions and then answer a survey that would determine whether attributions for the action were internal or external. The outcome was that justification became less and less across the three conditions (no-attribution, internal attribution, and external attribution) respectively. This data corresponded with the idea that dissonance could be reduced by attributions that would produce consistent cognitions (Stone, 1998).

Beauvois and Joule also present two paradigms for testing predictions based on their radical theory. The first is the double-forced compliance procedure. This comes from Festinger and Carlsmith’s original experiment, where the subjects performed the boring task and then reported that it was enjoyable. Beauvois and Joule theorize that the boring task was enough to produce dissonance on it’s own, but that by lying about the enjoyment of the experiment, the subjects will feel an increased dissonance (Stone, 1998). The psychologists use this theory to predict that when the second dissonance inducing behavior is consistent with the first, there will be less of an attitude change over time than if only the first action is accomplished. Their experiments proved the hypothesis, and the results showed that subjects felt more favorably towards the task when they told the truth- that it was boring, as opposed to the subjects who only read a description of the boring task and then said it was boring, or just performing the task (Stone, 1998). The second paradigm was derived from the hypothesis that people will rationalize negative behavior by replacing that behavior with something more consistent to the first behavior. In other words, if the opportunity arises to correct one behavior with another, people will be more likely to do that than to wait for the attitude change to take place, which will result in less desirability to replace the negative act with a positive since the attitude has changed.

Joule also teamed up with Fabien Girandola to recreate Festinger’s 1959 experiment, and the results were very confusing even for the psychologists conducting the experiment. Setting out to prove a hypothesis that double compliance will produce a greater attitude change than single compliance. As was expected, subjects who said that the boring task was, in fact, boring evaluated the task as more enjoyable than those who only performed the task. Perhaps when forced to describe the task as tedious and boring, the subjects felt that it was really not that bad after all, and changed their attitude accordingly. Girandola felt that hypothesis would be disqualified because the role play of telling the confederate the task was boring would set up a self-persuasive effect (Girandola, 1997). In the end, the results showed that people who performed the task and then described it as boring, turned out enjoying the task more than people who simply performed the task without describing it at all (Girandola, 1997).

Thomas Shultz and Mark Lepper also have contributed to the dissonance theory recently by presenting a constraint satisfaction model of cognitive dissonance called the consonance model. Their model not only confirms results from previous studies, but also opens up new possibilities of predicting consequences. It bases itself on the concept that dissonance reduction can also be viewed as a problem with constraint satisfaction. In other words, the need to increase cognitive consistency can sometimes impose a constraint on an attitude that a person holds (Abelson & Rosenberg, 1958; Feldman, 1966). The consonance model was used in a simulation of Brehm’s 1954 free-choice experiment and was able to contradict predictions made using the dissonance theory, by showing added levels of dissonance when being forced to make a choice (Shultz & Lepper, 1999). The psychologists believe that their model is applicable to much more complex situations than simple cognitions, and there was little evidence available to challenge the model, unlike most other additions and modifications to the original dissonance theory.

I don’t feel stupid in saying that I don’t completely understand all of the concepts that go along with dissonance, and plenty of the aforementioned modifications did little to set me straight. I don’t think that I would be alone in my lack of knowledge, however. After researching the theory of cognitive dissonance, it is amazing to think that so little has been done to challenge the original theory, and the challengers that be seem to get knocked down pretty quickly by the likes of Shultz and Aronson. Indeed, sometimes the truest test of a theory is longevity, and in social psychology, I think you will be hard pressed to find another theory go undisputed for so long a time.

Aronson, E., (1997) Back to the future: Retrospective review of Leon

Festinger’s—A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. American Journal of Psychology,

v110n1. 121-137

Girandola, F., (1997) Double forced compliance and cognitive dissonance theory.

Journal of Social Psychology, v137n5. 594-605

Shultz, T.R., Leveille, E., & Lepper, M.R., (1999) Free choice and cognitive

dissonance revisited: Choosing “lesser evils” versus “greater goods” Personality & Social

Psychology Bulletin, v25n1, 40-48

Shultz, T.R. & Lepper, M.R. (1995) Cognitive Dissonance Reduction as

Constraint Satisfaction. Psychological Review technical report # 2195

Smith, E.R & Mackie, D.M.(1995) Social Psychology textbook, 318-328

Stone, J. (1988) A Radical New Look at Cognitive Dissonance. American Journal

of Psychology v111n2, 319-326

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