Cognitive Dissonance

One of the most powerful influences on attitude change is the motivation of people to maintain consistency between their attitudes and behaviors. Leon Festinger, who wrote A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance in 1957, originated cognitive dissonance theory.

What experiment did Aronson call the most important in social psychology? What happened in the experiment?

Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) brought cognitive dissonance theory to the attention of American social psychologists. Eliot Aronson, himself a famous social psychologist and a former student of Festinger, later commented in an interview that the Festinger and Carlsmith experiment was "the most important experiment in the history of social psychology" ("A missionary for social psychology," 1984).

At the beginning of the Festinger and Carlsmith experiment, student volunteers were asked to perform a simple and boring task. Before the subjects left the experiment, the experimenter commented that his research assistant would be unavailable to help out the following day. Would the subject be willing to do a small favor for the experimenter? The favor was to take the place of the research assistant, who was supposed to prepare subjects for the experiment by giving them a positive attitude toward it. "Would you please tell the next subject in line that the experiment was fun and enjoyable?" Subjects who agreed to do this were paid either $1 or $20.

Keep in mind that $20 was a lot of money in the 1950s, equivalent to over $100 now. So one group was being paid a lot of money to lie to the next subject about the boring experiment. The other group was being paid much less. Subjects in both groups typically agreed to tell the next subject that the experiment was interesting.

How did the $20 and $1 subjects differ, in attitude change?

Festinger and Carlsmith were curious about whether the subjects would change their own attitudes, making them more like the attitudes they were expressing (as a lie) to the next subject. The results were surprising. People who were paid $20 to lie showed less change in their own attitudes. When the experimenters asked them later for the truth, the highly paid subjects said the experiment was actually boring. On the other hand, people who were paid only $1 were more likely to say, when asked later, that the experiment was "not bad" or that it was "interesting."

How do we explain this? Festinger observed that the subjects were put in a psychologically uncomfortable position. They had not enjoyed the experiment, but now they were asked to lie and say they had enjoyed it. How could they explain their own behavior to themselves? Subjects who received $20 had no problem explaining their behavior to themselves. They were paid a lot of money to lie, and that explained why they lied. So they did not have to change their true attitudes.

How did Festinger explain the results?

However, the subjects who received $1 did not really have a good reason to lie. To reduce the feeling of discomfort they might have felt about lying, they had to persuade themselves they actually enjoyed the experiment. Their attitudes changed to fit their behavior, reducing the uncomfortable feeling of dissonance.

As Festinger put it in A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957):

The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance. (p.3)

In other words, a contradiction (dissonance) between attitude and behavior is uncomfortable, so it motivates a person to change behavior or attitudes (whichever is easier to change) to eliminate the contradiction. If you have a negative attitude toward something, but you behave like you enjoy it, this causes dissonance. That is uncomfortable, unless you have a good explanation for your behavior (such as being paid a lot of money). To achieve consonance, something has to give. Typically the behavior is in the past, by the time the person feels dissonance, so the behavior cannot be changed. Therefore the person's attitude changes.

What does cognitive dissonance theory imply about how to change attitudes?

This subtle dynamic makes cognitive dissonance a powerful tool for changing attitudes. It implies that if you want to change attitudes, all you have to do is change behavior, and the attitudes will follow along. As long as people are not paid a lot of money or given some other obvious inducement to perform the behavior, they will convince themselves it is enjoyable or that they wanted to do it anyway.

A concrete example involves the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s in the United States. Many people resisted school desegregation, saying, "You can't change people's behavior before you change their attitudes." The argument of segregationists was that society had to wait until people's attitudes about race-mixing changed, before integrating the schools.

Psychologists familiar with dissonance theory said just the opposite. Their research suggested to them that if the laws changed first, forcing a change in behavior, the attitudes would follow along later. Sure enough, after desegregation was enforced by law, most people who had formerly opposed it decided it was a good thing, on the whole.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey