Cognitive Consistency

The term cognitive consistency is used to label our need for a consistent, coherent world where things fit together and make sense. The need to experience a coherent world is present even in babyhood. Lewis (1974) showed that a 2-month-old baby became distressed if its mother looked through glass and moved her mouth while another woman's voice was played from a recording. The babies seemed upset to hear a voice that did not go with the face.

What is the need for cognitive consistency? How did Lewis test for it in babies?

McHunt (1963) argued that inability to make sense of a situation was frustrating. We humans wish to achieve congruity or coherence in interpreting our world, according to McHunt. When faced with something incongruous, we are motivated to restore congruity by developing an interpretation, rationalization, or understanding of it. People do this, McHunt said, even if it results in a false or incorrect explanation. Any understanding is better than none.

In The Construction of Life and Death (1981), Dorothy Rowe argued that each person lives in a reality structure fashioned by family, self, and society. This personal view of reality she calls a "cirque" (from the Old English word for "circus" or "a circular structure with a stage in the middle"). It is a philosophy, belief system, or world view, populated with the major characters of your life. You are the protagonist or main character of your cirque. . Rowe pointed out that people have a strong motivation to keep their cirque coherent and consistent.

What is Rowe's notion of a "cirque" and how does it relate to the idea of cognitive consistency or congruence?

Rowe observed that we expect consistency in the characters of our personal reality or cirque, just as we expect consistency in good fiction. To be inconsistent, to do something unexpected, is to act "out of character." In real life or in literature (or other forms of fiction such as TV shows and movies), people are expected to stay in character. If they act out of character, it is a hint that something is wrong. Perhaps the person is ill, or being threatened and forced to act unusual. When the problem is resolved, the person usually acts in character again. This shows how strongly we expect consistency in other human beings.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey