Festinger's Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance is the best-known variation of consistency or congruence theory. (It is most often treated as a social psychology theory, so it is discussed more in Chapter 15, Social Psychology.) Festinger assumed that, because people value consistency in their attitudes and behavior, they seek to avoid tension and contradiction. One form of dissonance or contradiction is doing something you do not really want to do. People want to avoid feeling that way. Therefore, if asked to perform some behavior, people will usually rationalize doing it, say they enjoyed it, or describe it as worthwhile. They change their attitudes to be consistent with their behavior.

What was Festinger's theory? What happens when students are asked to defend positions contrary to their own beliefs?

In a classic piece of research supporting cognitive dissonance theory, researchers assigned students to different sides of a debate about the merits of college football. One side argued that football was good for a university, the other side argued that it was harmful. After the debate, students expressed beliefs closer to their debate position than before (Scott, 1957). Presumably they put so much effort into building and defending their arguments that they started to identify with the arguments and accept them as their own. To do otherwise would have been to create conflict or dissonance (lack of harmony) in their minds.

Kenneth Boulding, an economist and past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, described a pattern that relates to cognitive dissonance. He called it the Sacrifice Trap:

What is the Sacrifice Trap?

If we once start making sacrifices for anything-a family, a religion, or a nation-we find that we cannot admit to ourselves that the sacrifices have been in vain without a threat to our personal identity. Our identity is in part created by identifying ourselves with the organization or the community for which the sacrifices have been made. In these circumstances, the object of sacrifice becomes "sacred" and it is in a position to demand further sacrifices. (Boulding, 1969)

What did Ben Franklin say?

Ben Franklin gave some peculiar advice that makes sense in the context of cognitive dissonance theory. Franklin said if you want someone to like you, get that person to do you a favor. This works because, once the person has put out time and energy to help you, the person must develop an attitude consistent with the behavior. So, to avoid dissonance, the person likes you.

The opposite of Franklin's principle is described by Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer (1951). If you want to dislike someone, do them wrong.

What similar but opposite statement appears in Hoffer's book The True Believer ?

There is perhaps no surer way of infecting ourselves with virulent hatred toward a person than by doing him a grave injustice. (p.47)

Hoffer pointed out that, after the Nazis had started persecuting the Jews, it became easier for the average German citizen to hate the Jews.

As a rule, cognitive dissonance theory predicts that attitudes and behaviors will remain "in synch." If you change your attitudes, then presumably your behavior will change. More surprisingly, if you change a person's behavior, the person will often change attitudes to match the behavior.

What are some "practical implications" of cognitive dissonance theory?

This has many practical implications. Some have already been discussed. If you want somebody to like you, induce the person to perform "liking behavior" such as doing you a favor. If you want to keep people from hating each other, work on eliminating hateful behavior. Change the behavior and the attitudes will follow. In studies of prejudice, for example, researchers find that simply speaking out against prejudice has a big effect on both speakers and listeners. "Fight acts, not feelings," is the banner of anti-racist social scientists. (Goleman, 1991) To change attitudes that are negative, speak out against (and try to prevent) bad behaviors.

The same logic applies to selfish concerns such as getting other people to respect you. Cognitive dissonance theory implies that if you demand respect, you will get it. You should not put up with abuse, because people will adopt negative beliefs about you to be consistent with their behavior toward you.


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