Cognitive Dissonance

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Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.

People engage in a process called dissonance reduction to bring their cognitions and actions in line with one another. Dissonance reduction can be achieved in four ways. In an example case could be a situation where someone has decided that he will avoid eating sweets, but has found himself eating a dessert. The four methods of reduction would be:

  • Change behavior or cognition
    • "I will not eat any more of this dessert"
  • Justify behavior or cognition by changing the conflicting cognition
    • "I'm allowed to cheat every once in a while"
  • Justify behavior or cognition by adding new cognitions
    • "I'll spend 30 extra minutes at the gym to work this off"
  • Ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs
    • "This dessert does not contain that much sugar"

Festinger L (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.

Belief Disconfirmation Paradigm

If the dissonance is not reduced by a change in one's belief, the dissonance can result in restoring consonance through:

  1. Misperception
  2. Rejection or refutation of the information
  3. Seeking support from others who share the beliefs
  4. Attempting to persuade others

Harmon-Jones E (2002), A Cognitive Dissonance Theory Perspective on Persuasion, in The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice, James Price Dillard, Michael Pfau, eds. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 101.

Induced-compliance Paradigm

Individuals rated unpleasant tasks more positively when they were provided a lesser external incentive to argue that tasks were actually interesting and engaging, as compared to those who were provided a greater external incentive to make the same argument. However, those who had been compensated a greater external incentive for their contradictory argument were theorized to have less cognitive dissonance since they received an obvious compensation, a justification for their behavior.

Festinger L, Carlsmith J (1959). "Cognitive consequences of forced compliance". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 58 (2): 203–210.

Forbidden Toy Paradigm

Individuals are more likely to reengage in behaviors that were previously forbidden, if the risk of punishment (or consequences) had been more severe. Those who had been faced with less severe deterrents were less likely to reengage in previously forbidden behaviors if offered the opportunity free of consequences. The consequences were not a strong enough deterrent, so subjects with only a mild deterrent were more likely to have convinced themselves that the behavior was not worth their efforts in order to resolve their dissonance.

Aronson E, Carlsmith J (1963). "Effect of the severity of threat on the devaluation of forbidden behavior". Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 66 (6): 584–588.

Free-choice Paradigm

After an individual makes a choice, the desirability of the perceived benefits associated with their choice is increased, while the perceived benefits associated with other options they surrendered is decreased.

When making a difficult decision, there will be aspects of the rejected choice that one finds appealing and these features are dissonant with the alternative choice. In other words, the choice of choosing X is dissonant with the cognition, since there are also desirable attributes with choosing Y.

Individuals tend to minimize the regret of irrevocable choices. Those who placed a bet at the racetrack were found to be more confident in their chosen horse, just after placing the bet because they cannot change it. The reportedly felt "post-decision dissonance".

The ability to freely choose a specific therapy can enhance the effectiveness of therapy. Mendoca & Brehm (1983) reported that overweight subjects lost more weight when they believed that they freely chose the type of therapy they received.

In addition to internal deliberations, the structuring of decisions among other individuals may influence an individual's decision. See Anchoring.

Egan LC, Bloom P, Santos R (2010). "Choice-induced preferences in the absence of choice: Evidence from a blind two choice paradigm with young children and capuchin monkeys". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46 (1): 204–207.

Knox RE, Inkster JA (1968). Postdecision dissonance at post time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4), 319-323.

Mendonca PJ, Brehm, SS (1983). "Effects of choice on behavioral treatment of overweight children". Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 1: 343–358.

Effort Justification Paradigm

Effort justification is an individual's tendency to attribute a greater value to an outcome which demands a great effort in acquiring or achieving. In effort justification, there is a dissonance between the amount of effort exerted into engaging into an activity (high effort) and the subjective reward (potentially lower than expected) for that effort. Dissonance can be resolved by increasing one's subjective value for the reward.

Lepper & Greene (1975) describe how effort Justification Paradigm has been used in education to increase students' intrinsic motivation to engage in puzzles by offering no extrinsic reward. Students who were offered rewards were less interested in puzzles later, as compared to students who were offered no reward from the beginning.

Dissonance occurs whenever individuals voluntarily engage in an unpleasant (ie: embarrassing) activities in effort to achieve a desired goal. Aronson & Mills (1959) reported that subjects who had to endure a more severe embarrassment initiation in order to join a group found the group more interesting than those subjects who were required to only experience a mild embarrassment initiation.

The effort invested by a client may enhance the effectiveness of therapy. Axsom & Cooper (1985) conducted a weight loss study examining the effects of effort justification by subjecting subjects to series of cognitive tasks that were unrelated to known weight loss therapies. One of the therapies required a series of high effort cognitive tasks while the second therapy required low effort cognitive tasks. A no-treatment control group was also included. Over an initial 3-week period, high-effort subjects lost slightly more weight than low-effort subjects or controls. Significant differences were observed during a 6-month follow-up. Reliable differences remained even 1 year after the initial experimental sessions. It was theorized that the effort involved in therapy in addition to the conscious decision to undergo that effort, leads to positive therapeutic changes through the reduction of cognitive dissonance.

Aronson E, Mills J (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 177-181.

Axsom D, Cooper J (1985). "Cognitive dissonance and psychotherapy: The role of effort justification in inducing weight loss". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 21: 149–160.

Lepper MR, Greene D (1975). "Turning play into work: Effects of adult surveillance and extrinsic rewards on children's intrinsic motivation" . Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 31: 479–486.

Also see Phenomena Related to Cognitive Dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory teaches us how we resolve internal-conflicts and how we might best instill new exercise, nutrition, and health behaviors.


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