Cognative Dissonance Essay Research Paper Your best

Cognative Dissonance Essay, Research Paper

Your best friend is having a beer bash tonight. Everyone you talk to indicated his or her positive intentions of going to the best beer bash of the millennium. However, you have a Psyc 101 final next morning that you haven’t studied for. Your midterm scores have been low going into the final, but everyone claims that the final is easy every semester. Should you stay home and study for the final or go to this millennium beer bash and merrily consume alcohol?

Above stated scenario raises several questions in one s mind and may lead to a state of psychological tension. Having a choice of attending a social event or studying for the final exam puts one in a dilemma as to what to do next. Deciding to stay home and study for a test may very well anger one s friends, but may also cause a terrible sense of well being of missing out on a social event. While deciding to go to the party instead, it leads them in a state of tension as the party time can be well spent on studying for the final exam next morning. This state of uneasiness or tension is easily understood as Cognitive Dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory, developed by Leon Festinger (1957), is concerned with the relationships among cognitions (Festinger, 1957). In this context, cognition can be perceived as a piece of knowledge that may inscribe an element of an attitude, an emotion, a behavior, a value, and so on (Festinger, 1957). For example, the knowledge that you like the color blue is cognition. People hold a multitude of cognitions simultaneously, and these cognitions form irrelevant, consonant or dissonant relationships with one another.

Cognitive Irrelevance probably describes the bulk of the relationships among a person s cognitions. Irrelevance simply means that the two cognitions have nothing to do with each other. Two cognitions are consonant if one cognition fits with or is consistent with the other. People like consonance among their cognitions. We do not know whether this aspect is innate or is learned, but people do prefer cognitions that fit together to those that do not. It is this simple observation that gives the theory of cognitive dissonance its interesting form. And, two cognitions are said to be dissonant or incompatible if one cognition follows from the opposite of another (Festinger, 1957).

Continuing on with the scenario, having decided to attend the beer bash, it positions one in another unfortunate dissonant situation. With the increased peer pressure of alcohol consumption on one hand, and on the other, knowing the harmful effects that it may bring upon one s exams performance, an important decision needs to be made. One decision is to stay abstinent from alcohol the other is to follow in the footsteps of beer bashing friends. Prescribing to any of the alternatives may lead to dissonance as drinking may deteriorate health and cause lower grades, while not attending the beer bash may give one s peers a sense of their rejection.

What happens to people when they discover dissonant cognitions? The answer to this question forms the postulation of Festinger s theory. Festinger’s theory of Cognitive Dissonance postulates that individuals, when presented with evidence contrary to their worldview or situations in which they must behave contrary to their worldview, experience cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). Dissonance can be simply understood as an unpleasant state of tension. A person who has dissonant or discrepant cognitions is said to be in a state of psychological dissonance, which is experienced as unpleasant psychological tension (Berkowitz & Cotton, 1984). This tension state has drive-like properties that are much like those of hunger and thirst. When an individual has been deprived of food for several hours, he/she experiences unpleasant tension and is driven to reduce the unpleasant tension state that results (Berkowitz & Cotton, 1984).

The general sequence of a psychological tension is as follows, (a) conflict, (b) decision, (c) dissonance, and (d) dissonance reduction (O Keefe, 1990). O’Keefe provides with some suggestions of reducing dissonance. One way of reducing dissonance felt after a choice is made, is to reevaluate the alternatives. By evaluating the chosen alternative more positively than one did before, and by evaluating the left out alternative less positively than before, the amount of dissonance felt can be reduced drastically. (O Keefe, 1990) In essence, by re-evaluating the alternatives, one may decide to spend some time at the beer bash to socialize and enjoy non-alcoholic beer. This in turn will help me alleviate my dissonance, as I will have plenty of time to devote it for the Psyc 101 final the next morning.

O Keefe explains cognitive dissonance as a relationship between two or more cognitive elements. Dissonance occurs when two cognitions are in a dissonant relationship. Dissonance is not something that people want in their lives. People try to avoid dissonance if they do come across. For example, Smoking cigarettes may taste good and look professional, but in fact it is known to cause smoking ailments like lung cancer, emphysema and bronchitis. With this in mind, the greater the importance of health to the smoker, the greater amount of dissonance is produced when he / she smokes.

To understand the alternatives open to an individual in a state of dissonance, we must first understand the factors that affect the magnitude of dissonance arousal (Festinger, 1957). First, in its simplest form, dissonance increases as the degree of discrepancy among cognitions increases. Second, dissonance increases as the number of discrepant cognitions increases. Third, dissonance is inversely proportional to the number of consonant cognitions held by an individual. And, finally, the relative weights given to the consonant and dissonant cognitions may be adjusted by their importance in the mind of the individual (Festinger, 1957).

Festinger proposed three hypotheses to elaborate upon Cognitive Dissonance theory (Berkowitz & Cotton, 1984). One of the hypotheses states that dissonance is associated with the post-decisions and requires reassurance. To decipher as to what Festinger proposes in the first hypotheses, the cigarette-smoking example is employed here. Smokers often reassure themselves with the taste of the nicely rolled cigarettes, after a heavy meal. Another hypothesis indicates that selective exposure prevents dissonance (Berkowitz & Cotton, 1984). This can be explained by a smoker s determination to avoid the ill effects that smoking induces. And, the final hypothesis states that minimal justification is needed for the smoker s action to induce a shift in their attitude (Berkowitz & Cotton, 1984). Knowing the harm that smoking may cause to not only the smokers but also to the second-hand smokers, smokers continually outweigh the rewards (relaxation, increased confidence, decreased anxiety level, etc) they receive than the guilt they feel.

Many ideas exist that may be employed in the reduction of dissonance in one s environment. In an instance, if two cognitions are discrepant, we can simply change one to make it consistent with the other (O Keefe, 1990). In addition, if two cognitions cause a certain magnitude of dissonance, adding one or more consonant cognitions, thereby abating the dissonance, can reduce that magnitude. This often involves rationalizing or reassurance, which reinforces an existing worldview. This is called “rationalizing” because the individual seeks out semi-logical conclusions using existing cognitions and newly created consistent cognitions in order to find a way to invalidate the inconsistent cognitions (O Keefe, 1990). Also, it may be advantageous to alter the importance of the various cognitions to reduce the level of dissonance, since the discrepant and consonant cognitions must be weighed by importance.


Berkowitz, L. & Cotton, J. (1984). Cognitive Dissonance in Selective Exposure. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology.

O Keefe, Daniel J. (1990). Persuasion: Theory and Research. Newbury Park, California: Sage Press.

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



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