The theory of cognitive dissonance has been the subject of interest and study of social psychologists in particular. Leon Festinger, one such noted social psychologist, explained that people, in the course of their daily lives, hold a myriad of cognitions simultaneously. Many of these cognitions are irrelevant to each other and are not problematic for the individual. Sometimes, cognitions are complementary and are in consonance with each other, again, not causing any conflict for the individual.
If cognitions support the attitude and the behaviour, the individual’s chances of repeating and maintaining the behavior are high. It is thus very likely that the individual will continue to eat hotdogs because his notion that eating hotdogs can provide him with protein that his body needs reinforces his desire for smoking. The link between the attitude and the behaviour, therefore is strengthened by the compatible cognition.
There are other times, however, when an individual’s cognitions contradict each other and are in dissonance with each other, thereby creating conflict within the individual. Cognitive dissonance, as presented by Festinger, is a state of psychological tension or discomfort that occurs when an individual experiences an inconsistency between an attitude and a behaviour or some novel piece of information, causing the individual to hold conflicting beliefs, values or emotions simultaneously. This dissonance, as generated by inconsistencies and discrepancies in cognitions, is similar to the experience of anxiety. As a result, the individual may feel embarrassment, guilt, anger, and a variety of other usually unpleasant emotions. Cognitive dissonance drives the individual to change any one of the components that are responsible for the discrepancy, be it the attitude, the behavior or the individual’s perception of the information, with the objective of eliminating the discrepancy and the tension that accompanies it.
The theory of cognitive dissonance is therefore an example of a drive-reduction theory in which a change in attitude is reinforced or strengthened by the reduction of an unpleasant emotional stimulus or drive. Festinger further discussed “dissonance reduction” which is the process people go through in order to establish consonance among the elements.
As mentioned, if the individual holds cognitions that are contrary to his attitude and behavior, he will experience a state of tension or cognitive dissonance. The theory of cognitive dissonance predicts that due to this state of cognitive dissonance experienced by the individual, the individual will strive to reduce such dissonance through one or a combination of the following strategies:
Dissonance Reduction Techniques
Individual may modify any of the elements, e.g. change his ideas about the subject.
Example: I don’t eat hotdogs that often anyway so I guess it’s not that unhealthy.
Individual may attempt to modify the degree of importance of the cognition.
Example: There are not that many studies that support the notion that hotdogs are unhealthy, so I could be wrong.
Individual may introduce or add novel cognitions that are in consonance with the attitude or behavior.
Example: I work out regularly. The negative effects of eating hotdogs frequently will be counteracted by the exercise.
Concepts presented in the theory of cognitive dissonance have many useful applications in the field of education, in motivating students to engage in educational activities and in designing educational educational intervention models. Festinger’s concept of cognitive dissonance is quite similar to Jean Piaget’s concept of cognitive disequilibrium, as exemplified by a child’s unavoidable experience of a state of conflict when he encounters a novel stimulus that does not fit in with his current repertoire of experiences. This state of disequilibrium proves useful in motivating the child to learn about his world as he moves through the different stages of development.
The theory also predicts that individuals who are offered greater reward for the performance of a task which they find intrinsically rewarding tend to attribute their enjoyment to the reward rather than the intrinsic appeal of the task. They are also less likely to engage in the same task in the absence of a reward. In contrast, individuals who are not offered a reward for the performance of a task attribute their performance of the task to genuine enjoyment of the activity.
Knowledge of these dynamics would be beneficial not only in the fields of motivation, persuasive psychology, and psychotherapy, but perhaps, more importantly, in many real life situations as well.