Cognitive dissonance

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In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress (discomfort) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values; when performing an action that contradicts one of those beliefs, ideas, or values; or when confronted with new information that contradicts one of the beliefs, ideas, and values.[1][2]

In A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), Leon Festinger proposed that human beings strive for internal consistency. That a person who experiences inconsistency tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and so is motivated to try to reduce the cognitive dissonance occurring, to justify behavior by changing parts or by adding new parts of the cognition causing the psychological dissonance, and by actively avoiding situations and information likely to increase the psychological discomfort.[1]

Relations among cognitions

To function in the reality of a modern society, human beings continually adjust the correspondence of their attitudes and actions; which adjustments result in one of three relationships among cognition and action.[1]

  1. Consonant relationship: Two cognitions or actions consistent with each other (e.g. not wanting to become drunk when out to dinner, and ordering water rather than wine)
  2. Irrelevant relationship: Two cognitions or actions unrelated to each other (e.g. not wanting to become drunk when out, and wearing a shirt)
  3. Dissonant relationship: Two cognitions or actions inconsistent with each other (e.g. not wanting to become drunk when out, then drinking more wine)

Magnitude of dissonance

Two factors determine the degree of dissonance caused by two conflicting cognitions or by two conflicting actions, and the consequent psychological distress:

  1. The importance of cognitions: The greater the personal value of the elements, the greater the magnitude of the dissonance in the relation.
  2. Ratio of cognitions: The proportion of dissonant-to-consonant elements.

The psychological pressure to reduce cognitive dissonance is a function of the magnitude of the dissonance.[1] The distressing mental state caused by inconsistency between a person's two beliefs or a belief and an action.[3]

Reducing dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance Theory is founded upon the presumption that people seek psychological consistency between their expectations and the reality of life. To function by that expectation of existential consistency, people practice the process of dissonance reduction in order to continually align their cognitions with the actions of functioning in the real world. The creation and establishment of psychological consistency allows the lessening of mental stress and consequent psychological distress; therefore, a person can act to reduce cognitive dissonance by change with, justification against, or indifference to the contradiction inducing the mental stress.[1] As such, people reduce their cognitive dissonance in four ways:

  1. Change the behavior or the cognition ("I'll eat no more of this doughnut.")
  2. Justify the behavior or the cognition, by changing the conflicting cognition ("I'm allowed to cheat my diet every once in a while.")
  3. Justify the behavior or the cognition by adding new cognitions ("I'll spend thirty extra minutes at the gymnasium to work off the doughnut.")
  4. Ignore or deny information that conflicts with existing beliefs ("This doughnut is not a high-sugar food.")

A clear example of using justification to reduce dissonance can be found in a study published in 2013, longitudinal research that was conducted to analyze patterns of cognitive dissonance and reducing belief patterns among smokers. This study, Patters of cognitive dissonance-reducing beliefs among smokers: a longitudinal analysis from the International Tobacco Control (ITS) Four Country Survey,[4] was conducted in three waves: wave 1 from October to December 2002, wave 2 from May to September 2003, and wave 3 from August to December 2004. Responses were then gathered across the three surveys and participants were divided into three categories.

  1. Continuing Smokers (Smoking and no attempt to quit since the previous wave.)
  2. Successful Quitters (Quit during the study and remained quit from time of previous wave.)
  3. Failed Quitters (Quit during the survey but relapsed back to smoking at the time of this study.)

In the scope of reducing dissonance, participants in all three categories adjusted their beliefs to match their current actions. The justifications were split into 2 main categories.

  1. Functional beliefs ("Smoking calms you down when you are stressed or upset", "Smoking helps you concentrate better", "Smoking is an important part of your life", "Smoking makes it easier for you to socialize")
  2. Risk-minimizing beliefs ("The medical evidence that smoking is harmful is exaggerated", "You've got to die of something, so why not enjoy yourself and smoke", "Smoking is no more risky than lots of other things that people do")

The research finds that the use of functional beliefs rationalization is much higher than risk-minimizing beliefs rationalization. Looking back to the three participant categories, 'Continuing Smokers' were found to use the highest level of rationalizations for smoking. 'Successful Quitters' reported fewer rationalizations when compared to their previous responses, but when looking at 'Failed Quitters', respondents again reverted to a higher level of justification use.

In The Psychology of Prejudice (2006), the results indicated that people facilitate their functioning in the real world by employing human categories (i.e. sex and gender, age and race, etc.) with which to manage their social interactions with other people. The employment of categories is integral to a scheme of stereotypes (social attitudes) about each category of person. These include prejudices in a given social interaction—generalized, negative beliefs, ideals, and values held about the category of a person causing the cognitive dissonance.[5]


There are four theoretic paradigms of cognitive dissonance, the mental stress people suffer when exposed to contradictory information that is inconsistent with their prior beliefs, ideas, or values; (i) Belief Disconfirmation, (ii) Induced Compliance, (iii) Free Choice, and (iv) Effort Justification; which respectively explain: what happens after a person acts inconsistently, relative to his or her prior intellectual perspectives; what happens after a person makes decisions; and what are the effects upon a person who has expended much effort to achieve a goal. Common to each paradigm of cognitive-dissonance theory is the tenet: People invested to a given perspective shall—when confronted with disconfirming evidence—expend great effort to justify retaining their challenged perspective.

Belief Disconfirmation

The disconfirmation (contradiction) of a belief, an ideal, or a system of values causes cognitive dissonance that can be resolved by changing the belief under contradiction; yet, instead of effecting change, the resultant mental stress restores psychological consonance to the person, either by mis-perception, by rejection, or by refutation of the contradiction; by seeking moral support from people who share the contradicted beliefs; and acting to persuade other people that the contradiction is unreal.[6][7]

The early hypothesis of belief disconfirmation presented in When Prophecy Fails (1956) reported that faith deepened among the members of an apocalyptic religious cult, despite the failed prophecy of an alien spaceship soon to land on Earth, to rescue them from earthly corruption. At the determined place and time, the cult assembled; they believed that only they would survive planetary destruction; yet the spaceship did not arrive to Earth. The disconfirmed prophecy caused them acute cognitive-dissonance: Had they been victims of a hoax? Had they vainly donated away their material possessions? To resolve the dissonance, between apocalyptic, end-of-the-world religious beliefs and earthly, material reality, most of the cult restored their psychological consonance by choosing to hold a less mentally-stressful idea to explain the missed landing. That the aliens had given planet Earth a second chance at existence, which, in turn, empowered them to re-direct their religious cult to environmentalism; social advocacy to end human damage to planet Earth. Moreover, upon overcoming the disconfirmed belief by changing to global environmentalism, the cult increased in numbers, by successful proselytism.[8]

The study of The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (2008) reported the belief disconfirmation occurred to the Chabad Orthodox Jewish congregation who believed that their Rebbe (Menachem Mendel Schneerson) was the Messiah. Yet, when he died of a stroke in 1994, instead of accepting that their Rebbe was not the Messiah, some of the congregants proved indifferent to that contradictory fact, and chose to continue believing that Schneerson was the Messiah, and soon would return from the dead.[9]

Induced Compliance

In the Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance (1959), the investigators Festinger and Merrill Carlsmith asked students to spend an hour doing tedious tasks; e.g. turning pegs a quarter-turn, at fixed intervals. The tasks were designed to induce a strong, negative, mental attitude in the subjects. Once the subjects had done the tasks, the experimenters asked one group of subjects to speak with another subject (an actor), and persuade that impostor-subject that the tedious tasks were interesting and engaging. One group of subjects were paid twenty dollars ($20); a second group were paid one dollar ($1); and the control group were not asked to speak with the imposter-subject.

File:Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment.png
After performing dissonant behavior (lying) a person might find external, consonant elements. Therefore, a snake oil salesman might find a psychological self-justification (great profit) for promoting medical falsehoods, but otherwise, might need to change his beliefs about the falsehoods as product.

At the conclusion of the study, when asked to rate the tedious tasks, the subjects of the second group (paid $1) rated the tasks more positively than did the subjects in the first group (paid $20) and than did the subjects of the control group; the responses of the paid subjects were evidence of cognitive dissonance. The researchers, Festinger and Carlsmith, proposed that the subjects experienced dissonance, between the conflicting cognitions: "I told someone that the task was interesting." and "I actually found it boring." Moreover, the subjects paid one-dollar were induced to comply; compelled to internalize the "interesting task" mental attitude, because they had no other justification. The subjects paid twenty dollars were induced to comply by way of an obvious, external justification for internalizing the "interesting task" mental attitude, thus, they experienced a lesser degree of cognitive dissonance.[10]

Forbidden Behaviour paradigm

In the Effect of the Severity of Threat on the Devaluation of Forbidden Behavior (1963), a variant of the induced-compliance paradigm, by Elliot Aronson and Carlsmith, examined self-justification in children.[11] In the experiment, children were left in a room with a variety of toys, including a greatly desirable steam shovel, the forbidden toy. Upon leaving the room, the experimenter told one-half of the group of children that there would be severe punishment if they played with the steam-shovel toy; and told the second half of the group that there would be a mild punishment for playing with the forbidden toy. All of the children refrained from playing with the forbidden toy (the steam shovel).[11]

Later, when the children were told that they could freely play with any toy they wanted, the children in the mild-punishment group were less likely to play with the steam shovel (the forbidden toy), despite removal of the threat of severe punishment. The children threatened with mild punishment had to justify, to themselves, why they did not play with the forbidden toy. The degree of punishment, in itself, was insufficiently strong to resolve their cognitive dissonance; the children had to convince themselves that playing with the forbidden toy was not worth the effort.[11]

In The Efficacy of Musical Emotions Provoked by Mozart's Music for the Reconciliation of Cognitive Dissonance (2012), a variant of the forbidden-toy paradigm, indicated that listening to music reduces the development of cognitive dissonance.[12] Without music in the background, the control group of four-year-old children were told to avoid playing with a forbidden toy. After playing alone, the control-group children later devalued the importance of the forbidden toy; however, in the variable group, classical music played in the background, while the children played alone. In that group, the children did not later devalue the forbidden toy. The researchers, Nobuo Masataka and Leonid Perlovsky, concluded that music might inhibit cognitions that reduce cognitive dissonance.[12]

Moreover, music is one of several outside forces that can diminish post-decisional dissonance; in an earlier experiment, Washing Away Postdecisional Dissonance (2010), the researchers, Spike W.S. Lee and Norbert Schwarz, indicated that the actions of hand-washing might inhibit cognitions that reduce cognitive dissonance.[13]

Free Choice

In an experiment conducted by Jack Brehm, 225 female students rated a series of common, domestic appliances, and then were allowed to choose one of two appliances as gifts to take home. A second round of ratings indicated that the participants increased their ratings of the domestic appliance they chose, and lowered their ratings of the appliances they rejected.[14]

This can be explained in terms of cognitive dissonance. When making a difficult decision, there are always aspects of the rejected choice that one finds appealing and these features are dissonant with choosing something else. In other words, the cognition, "I chose X" is dissonant with the cognition, "There are some things I like about Y." More recent research has found similar results in four-year-old children and capuchin monkeys.[15]

In addition to internal deliberations, the structuring of decisions among other individuals may play a role in how an individual acts. Researchers in a 2013 study examined social preferences and norms as related, in a linear manner, to wage giving among three individuals. The first participant's actions influenced[clarification needed] the second's own wage giving. The researchers argue that inequity aversion is the paramount concern of the participants.[16]

Effort Justification

Cognitive dissonance occurs to a person when he or she voluntarily engages in (physically or ethically) unpleasant activities in effort to achieve a desired goal. The mental stress caused by the dissonance can be reduced by the person's exaggerating the desirability of the goal. In The Effect of Severity of Initiation on Liking for a Group (1956), to qualify for admission to a discussion group, two groups of people underwent an embarrassing initiation, of varied psychologic severity. The first group were asked to read aloud twelve sexual words considered obscene. The second group also were to read aloud twelve sexual words not considered obscene.

Both groups then were given headphones to unknowingly listen to a recorded discussion about animal sexual behaviour, which the researchers "designed to be as dull and banal as possible". As the subjects of the experiment, the groups of people were told that the animal-sexuality discussion actually was occurring in the next room. The subjects whose strong initiation required reading aloud obscene words evaluated the people of their group as more-interesting persons than the people of the group who underwent the mild initiation.[17]

Moreover, in Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing (2006), the results indicated that a person washing his or her hands is an action that helps resolve post-decisional cognitive dissonance, because the mental stress usually was caused by the person's ethical–moral self-disgust, which emotion is related to the physical disgust caused by a dirty environment.[18][19]

In a study done at UCLA in 2011, participants in an experiment were asked to rate 80 names and 80 paintings on a scale from 1-100 based on how much they liked the name or painting. In order to make this a more meaningful decision, participants were asked to choose names that they would consider naming their future children. For rating the paintings, subjects were asked to base the rating on whether or not they would hang the art in their home. The study showed that when the decision has more meaning to the person are more likely to make a decision based on their attitudes. The subjects were also asked to rate some of the objects twice, and believed that at the end of their session they would receive two of the paintings they had given positive ratings to. The results of the survey found that the participant’s attitudes towards pairs they liked significantly increased during the rating period, while the attitudes towards pairs which they disliked also had an increase. Pairs which were rated twice and had an attitude in which the participant didn’t like or dislike the pair showed no changes during the rating period. The results also showed that existing attitudes were reinforced during the rating period, and that subjects felt dissonance when they discovered pairs with a name they liked and a painting which they did not like. [20]


File:The Fox and the Grapes.jpg
In the fable of “The Fox and the Grapes”, by Aesop, on failing to reach the desired bunch of grapes, the fox then decides he does not truly want the fruit, because it is sour. The fox's act of rationalization (justification) reduced his anxiety about the cognitive dissonance occurred because of a desire he cannot realise.

The Fox and the Grapes

The fable of "The Fox and the Grapes", by Aesop, is an exemplar of cognitive dissonance by the subversion of rationality. A fox spies high-hanging grapes and wishes to eat them. When unable to reach the grapes, the fox decides the fruit are not worth eating, and justified his decision, claiming to himself, that the grapes likely are sour, for being unripe.

The moral of the fable is that "Any fool can despise what he cannot get"; hence the popular phrase about dismissing a thwarted goal as "unimportant" is mere expression of sour grapes. The pattern of psychological behaviour illustrated in the fable of "The Fox and the Grapes" indicates that: When a person desires something and finds that it is unattainable, he or she diminishes the resultant cognitive dissonance by criticizing the object of desire as worthless; said pattern of behaviour is an "adaptive preference formation" that allows the person to subvert rationality.[21]

The Dark Knight

In the 2008 film The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne is faced with cognitive dissonance after deciding that he was not the hero that Gotham City needed, but rather, Harvey Dent was the hero the city needed. He emphasized his decision by choosing to place the blame on himself for all of the misdeeds that Dent had committed as the criminal “Two-Face.” He chose to be the villain in order to save the reputation of Harvey Dent, and to uphold all the ideals that he had previously stood for. Bruce Wayne is choosing to rationalize being the villain so that Gotham City could have the hero it truly deserved, a hero who did not have to hide behind a mask. He had dedicated his life to fighting the criminals in Gotham City, but went against his beliefs by taking the blame for Dent’s death, and rationalized his decision by deciding it was for the greater good of the city.

Related phenomena

Cognitive dissonance also occurs when people seek to:

  • Explain inexplicable feelings: When an earthquake disaster occurs to a community, irrational rumours, based upon fear, quickly reach the adjoining communities unaffected by the disaster, because those people, not in physical danger, must psychologically justify their anxieties about the earthquake.[22]
  • Minimize regret of irrevocable choices: At a hippodrome, bettors have more confidence after betting on horses they chose just before the post-time, because that disallows a change of heart; the bettors felt post-decision cognitive dissonance.[23]
  • Justify behavior that opposed their views: After being induced to cheat in an academic examination, students judged cheating less harshly.[24]
  • Align one’s perceptions of a person with one’s behaviour towards that person: the Ben Franklin effect refers to the appearance of magnanimity, by being seen doing a favour for a rival, he increased the public store of positive feelings towards himself.
  • Reaffirm held beliefs: The confirmation bias identifies how people readily read information that confirms their established opinions, and readily avoid reading information that contradicts their opinions.[25] For example, a right-wing person usually only listens to political commentary from conservative news sources, just as a left-wing person only listens to political commentary from liberal news sources. The confirmation bias is apparent when a person confronts deeply-held political beliefs, i.e. when a person is greatly committed to his or her beliefs, values, and ideas.[25]

Balance theory proposes that people seek cognitive consonance, between their views and the views of other people; thus, a religious person will suffer cognitive dissonance if his or her mate is not religious, thus motivating the religious person to rationalize (justify) that existential incongruence. In that vein, a person can self-handicap to justify failure by rationalization; e.g. the university student who drinks the night before an examination, in response to their fear of poor academic performance.


In addition to explaining certain counter-intuitive human behaviour, the theory of cognitive dissonance has practical applications.


Creating and resolving cognitive dissonance can have a powerful impact on students' motivation for learning.[26] 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.[27] 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. 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 resolve the conflicts.[28]

For example, researchers have developed educational software that uses these principles to facilitate student questioning of complex subject matter.[29] Meta-analytic methods suggest that interventions which provoke cognitive dissonance to achieve directed conceptual change, have been demonstrated across numerous studies to significantly increase learning in science and reading.[28]


The general effectiveness of psychotherapy and psychological intervention has been explained in part through Cognitive Dissonance Theory.[30] Some social psychologists have argued that the act of freely choosing a specific therapy, together with the effort and money the client invests to continue the chosen therapy, positively influences the effectiveness of therapy.[31] 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.[32]

In another example, individuals with ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) who invested significant effort to engage in activities without therapeutic value for their condition, but were framed as legitimate and relevant therapy, showed significant improvement in phobic symptoms.[33] In these cases, and perhaps in many similar situations, patients came to feel better as a way to justify their efforts and ratify their choices. Beyond these observed short-term effects, effort expenditure in therapy also predicts long-term therapeutic change.[34]

Social behavior

It has also been demonstrated that cognitive dissonance can be used to promote behaviours such as increased condom use.[35] Other studies suggest that cognitive dissonance can also be used to encourage individuals to engage in prosocial behaviour under various contexts such as campaigning against littering,[36] reducing prejudice to racial minorities,[37] and compliance with anti-speeding campaigns.[38] The theory can also be used to explain reasons for donating to charity.[39][40] Cognitive dissonance can be applied in social areas such as racism and racial hatred. Acharya of Stanford, Blackwell and Sen of Harvard state CD increases when an individual commits an act of violence toward someone from a different ethnic or racial group and decreases when the individual does not commit any such act of violence. Research from Acharya, Blackwell and Sen shows that individuals committing violence against members of another group will develop hostile attitudes towards their victims as a way of minimizing CD. Importantly, the hostile attitudes may persist even after the violence itself declines (Acharya, Blackwell, Sen 2015). The application provides a social psychological basis for the constructivist viewpoint that ethnic and racial divisions can be socially or individually constructed, possibly from acts of violence (Fearon and Laitin, 2000). Their framework speaks to this possibility by showing how violent actions by individuals can affect individual attitudes, either ethnic or racial animosity (Acharya, Blackwell, Sen 2015).

Consumer behavior

Three main conditions exist for provoking cognitive dissonance when buying: (i) The decision to purchase must be important, such as the sum of money to spend; (ii) The psychological cost; and (iii) The purchase is personally relevant to the consumer. The consumer is free to select from the alternatives, and the decision to buy is irreversible.[41]

The study Beyond Reference Pricing: Understanding Consumers’ Encounters with Unexpected Prices (2003), indicated that when consumers experience an unexpected price encounter, they adopt three methods to reduce cognitive dissonance: (i) Employ a strategy of continual information; (ii) Employ a change in attitude; and (iii) Engage in minimisation. Consumers employ the strategy of continual information by engaging in bias and searching for information that supports prior beliefs. Consumers might search for information about other retailers and substitute products consistent with their beliefs. Alternatively, consumers might change attitude, such as re-evaluating price in relation to external reference-prices or associating high prices and low prices with quality. Minimisation reduces the importance of the elements of the dissonance; consumers tend to minimise the importance of money, and thus of shopping around, saving, and finding a better deal.[42]

Alternative paradigms

A lawyer can experience cognitive dissonance if he must defend as innocent a client he thinks is guilty. From the perspective of Aronson, the lawyer might experience cognitive dissonance if his false statement that his client is innocent, conflicts with the lawyer's identity as an honest man.

The use of cognitive-dissonance theory in explaining the results of experiments is generally accepted in the field of psychology; yet, other theories propose different explanations of the attitudes and behaviors of human beings.

Self-perception theory

The social psychologist Daryl Bem proposed the self-perception theory that people do not think much about their attitudes, even when engaged in a conflict. The Theory of Self-perception proposes that people develop attitudes by observing their own behaviour, and conclude that their attitudes caused the observed behaviour; especially true when internal cues either are ambiguous or weak. Therefore, the person is in the same position as an observer who must rely upon external cues to infer his or her inner-state of mind. Self-perception theory proposes that people adopt attitudes without access to their states of mood and cognition.[43]

As such, the experimental subjects in the Festinger and Carlsmith study of the induced-compliance paradigm, inferred their attitudes from their behaviour. When the subject-participants were asked: "Did you find the task interesting?", the participants decided they must have found the task interesting, because that is what they told the questioner. Bem suggested that the participants who were paid twenty dollars had an external incentive to adopt that attitude, and likely perceived the twenty dollars as the reason for saying the task was interesting, rather than saying the task actually was interesting.[44][45]

The theory of self-perception (Bem) and the theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger) make identical predictions, but only the theory of cognitive dissonance predicts the presence of unpleasant arousal, of psychological distress, verified in laboratory experiments.[46][47]

In The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance: A Current Perspective (1969), Elliot Aronson linked cognitive dissonance to the self-concept: that mental stress arises when the conflicts between cognitions threaten the positive self-image. This reinterpretation of the original Festinger and Carlsmith study, using the induced-compliance paradigm, proposed that the dissonance was between the cognitions "I am an honest person." and "I lied about finding the task interesting."[48]

The study Cognitive Dissonance: Private Ratiocination or Public Spectacle? (1971) reported that maintaining cognitive consistency is how a person protects his or her public self-image, rather than protecting a private self-concept.[49] Moreover, the results reported in I’m No Longer Torn After Choice: How Explicit Choices Implicitly Shape Preferences of Odors (2010) ostensibly contradict such an explanation, by showing the revaluation of material items after the person chose and decided, even after having forgotten the choice.[50]

Balance theory

Fritz Heider proposed a motivational theory of attitude change that functions on the idea that humans are driven to establish and maintain psychological balance. This drive is known as the consistency motive—the urge to maintain one's values and beliefs over time. According to balance theory there are three things interacting: (1) you (P), (2) another person (O), and (3) an element (X). These are each positioned at one point of a triangle and share two relations:[43]

  1. Unit relations – things and people that belong together based on similarity, proximity, fate, etc.
  2. Sentiment relations – evaluations of people and things (liking, disliking)

As people, human beings seek a balanced state of relations among three positions; 3 positives or 2 negatives, 1 positive:

P = you
O = John
X = John's dog
"I don't like John"
"John has a dog"
"I don't like the dog either"

People also avoid unbalanced states of relations; 3 negatives or 2 positives, 1 negative)

P = you
O = your child
X = picture your child drew
"I love my child"
"She drew me this picture"
"I love this picture"

Cost-benefit analysis

Jules Dupuit claims behaviors and cognitions can be understood from an economic standpoint such that individuals engage in the systematic processing and comparison of the costs and benefits of a decision. This process helps justify and assess the feasibility of a decision and provides a basis for comparison (determining if the benefits outweigh the costs and to what extent). Although this analysis works well in economic situations, humans are inefficient when it comes to comparing costs and benefits.[51]

Self-discrepancy theory

E. Tory Higgins proposed that people have three selves, to which they compare themselves:

  1. Actual self — representation of the attributes the person believes him- or herself to possess (basic self-concept)
  2. Ideal self — ideal attributes the person would like to possess (hopes, aspiration, motivations to change)
  3. Ought self — ideal attributes the person believes he or she should possess (duties, obligations, responsibilities)

When these self-guides are contradictory psychological distress (cognitive dissonance) results. People are motivated to reduce self-discrepancy (the gap between two self-guides).[52]

Averse consequences vs. inconsistency

During the 1980s, Cooper and Fazio argued that dissonance was caused by aversive consequences, rather than inconsistency. According to this interpretation, the belief that lying is wrong and hurtful, not the inconsistency between cognitions, is what makes people feel bad.[53] Subsequent research, however, found that people experience dissonance even when they feel they have not done anything wrong. For example, Harmon-Jones and colleagues showed that people experience dissonance even when the consequences of their statements are beneficial—as when they convince sexually active students to use condoms, when they, themselves are not using condoms.[54]

Free-choice paradigm criticism

Chen and colleagues have criticized the free-choice paradigm and have suggested that the "Rank, choice, rank" method of studying dissonance is invalid.[55] They argue that research design relies on the assumption that if the subject rates options differently in the second survey, then the subject's attitudes towards the options have therefore changed. They show that there are other reasons one might get different rankings in the second survey — perhaps the subjects were largely indifferent between choices. Although some follow-up studies have found supportive evidence for Chen's concerns,[56] other studies that have controlled for Chen's concerns have not, instead suggesting that the mere act of making a choice can indeed change preferences.[15][57][58] Nevertheless, this issue remains under active investigation.[59]

Action–motivation model

The Action and Motivation model proposes that inconsistencies in a person's cognition cause mental stress, because psychologic inconsistency interferes with the person's functioning in the real world. Among the ways for coping, the person can choose to exercise a behavior that is inconsistent with his or her current attitude (a belief, an ideal, a value system), but later try to alter that belief to be consonant with a current behaviour; the cognitive dissonance occurs when the person's cognition does not match the action taken. If the person changes the current attitude, after the dissonance occurs, he or she then is obligated to commit to that course of behaviour.

The occurrence of cognitive dissonance produces a state of negative affect, which motivates the person to reconsider the causative behaviour, in order to resolve the psychologic inconsistency that caused the mental stress.[60] As the afflicted person works towards a behavioural commitment, the motivational process then is activated in the left frontal cortex of the brain.[61][62][63][64][65]

Neuroscience findings

There is evidence suggesting that the more the anterior cingulate cortex signals conflict, the more dissonance a person experiences and the more their attitudes may change

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Van Veen and colleagues investigated the neural basis of cognitive dissonance in a modified version of the classic induced compliance paradigm. While in the scanner, participants "argued" that the uncomfortable MRI environment was nevertheless a pleasant experience. The researchers replicated the basic induced compliance findings; participants in an experimental group enjoyed the scanner more than participants in a control group who simply were paid to make their argument.[66]

Importantly, responding counter-attitudinally activated the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insular cortex; furthermore, the degree to which these regions were activated predicted individual participants' degree of attitude change. Van Veen and colleagues argue that these findings support the original dissonance theory by Festinger, and support the "conflict theory" of anterior cingulate functioning.[66]

Using the free choice paradigm, Sharot and colleagues have shown that after making a choice, activity in the striatum changes to reflect the new evaluation of the choice object, increasing if the object was chosen and decreasing if it was rejected.[67] Follow-up studies have largely confirmed these results.[57][68][69]

Subsequent fMRI studies, also using the free choice paradigm, have examined the decision-making process in the brain. A 2010 study showed that during decision-making processes where the participant is trying to reduce dissonance, activity increased in the right-inferior frontal gyrus, medial fronto-parietal region and ventral striatum, whereas activity decreased in the anterior insula.[69] Researchers concluded that rationalization activity may take place quickly (within seconds) without conscious deliberation. In addition, the researchers stated that the brain may engage emotional responses in the decision-making process.[69]

Cognitive dissonance has been associated with left frontal activity in the cortex (Harmon-Jones, 1999 and Harmon-Jones and Harmon-Jones, 2002). In addition, the left frontal cortex has been associated with anger, with anger supporting a motivational purpose behind its anger showing the left frontal activity being active. Together, cognitive dissonance and anger are supported with the motivational directional model. Approach motivation is associated with the left frontal cortex when it can be detected that a person may able to take control of a situation that may have made them angry. Conversely, if a person does not have control of changing the situation, then there is no motivation involved and other emotions may arise.[62][70][71]

The anterior cingulate cortex activity increases when errors occur and are being monitored as well as having behavioral conflicts with the self-concept as a form of higher-level thinking (Amodio et al., 2004). A study was done to test the prediction that the left frontal cortex would have increased activity. University students had to write a paper depending on if they were assigned to a high-choice or low-choice condition. The low-choice condition required student to write about supporting a 10% increase in tuition at their university. The point of this condition was to see how significant the counterchoice may affect a person's ability to cope. The high-choice condition asked students to write in favor of tuition increase as if it was their choice and that it was completely voluntary. EEG was used to analyze students before writing the essay as dissonance is at its highest during this time (Beauvois and Joule, 1996). High-choice condition participants showed a higher level of the left frontal cortex than the low-choice participants. Results have shown that the initial experience of dissonance can be apparent in the anterior cingulate cortex, then the left frontal cortex is activated, which also activates the approach motivational system to reduce anger.[72][73]

There may be evolutionary forces behind cognitive dissonance reduction. Researchers in a 2007 study examined how preschool children and capuchin monkeys reacted when offered the choice between two similar options. The researchers had the two subject groups choose between two different kinds of stickers and candies. After choosing, the two groups were offered a new choice between the item not chosen and a similarly attractive option as the first. In line with cognitive dissonance theory, the children and the monkeys chose the "novel" option over their originally unchosen option, even though all had similar values. The researchers concluded that there were possible development and evolutionary forces behind cognitive dissonance reduction.[74]

Nicholas Levy and colleagues theorized an action-based model of cognitive dissonance that hypothesizes that dissonance is caused by the stimulation of thoughts that interfere with goal-driven behavior. Using a simple experiment, researchers were able to map the results of simple tasks that caused conflict between behaviors. For example, a participant was asked to read aloud the printed word of a color. To test the cognitive dissonance, the word was printed in an alternate color than what was actually read. The studies found that the participants experienced an increase in anterior cingulate cortex activity when such simple cognitive exercises caused even such minor conflicts. A similar experiment looked at individuals who scored low in racial prejudice. The participants were informed that a response they had supplied suggested they were racist. Again, anterior cingulate cortex activity was measured to increase. These studies suggest that the anterior cingulate cortex monitors action tendencies and that the brain is attempting to alter the undesired response and change it to a desired result.

Levy and colleagues also studied a set of electroencephalography experiments that revealed that participants that were allowed to remain committed to a chosen course of action showed greater relative left prefrontal cortical activation than participants that were prohibited in their efforts. The left prefrontal region is said to be involved in approach-motivational processes and thus in the application of desired actions.[75]

Kathryn Jankowski and Hidehiko Takahashi examined the neural correlates of certain specific social emotions. Among the many emotions that were studied, a few stand out as noteworthy when discussing cognitive dissonance. Specifically, the emotion of envy is a valuable measure of cognitive dissonance. Envy, representing the displeasure in others’ fortunes, was found to recruit increased dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. One study that Jankowski and Takahashi examined found that dorsal anterior cingulate cortex activity increased when one’s self-concept was threatened or when a participant suffered social pain caused by salient upward social comparison. Jankowski and Takahashi found that the numerous studies offered evidence that social emotions such as envy are correlated with reduced insular activity and increased striatal activity, which are associated with a reduced sense of empathy and an increase in antisocial behaviors.[76]

Modeling in neural networks

Neural network models of cognition have provided the necessary framework to integrate the empirical research done on cognitive dissonance and attitudes into one model of explanation of attitude formation and change.[77]

Various neural network models have been developed to predict how cognitive dissonance influence an individual's attitude and behavior. These include:

See also


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Further reading

External links