The theory of cognitive dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance Theory, developed by Leon Festinger (1957), is concerned with the relationships among cognitions. A cognition, for the purpose of this theory, may be thought of as a ³piece of knowledge.² The knowledge may be about an attitude, an emotion, a behavior, a value, and so on. For example, the knowledge that you like the color red is a cognition; the knowledge that you caught a touchdown pass is a cognition; the knowledge that the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation is a 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 person¹s cognitions. Irrelevance simply means that the two cognitions have nothing to do with each other. Two cognitions are consonant if one cognition follows from, or fits with, the other. People like consonance among their cognitions. We do not know whether this stems from the nature of the human organism or whether it is learned during the process of socialization, but people appear to 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.

Two cognitions are said to be dissonant if one cognition follows from the opposite of another. What happens to people when they discover dissonant cognitions? The answer to this question forms the basic postulate of Festinger¹s theory. 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. This tension state has drivelike properties that are much like those of hunger and thirst. When a person has been deprived of food for several hours, he/she experiences unpleasant tension and is driven to reduce the unpleasant tension state that results. Reducing the psychological sate of dissonance is not as simple as eating or drinking however.

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. 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. Fourth, the relative weights given to the consonant and dissonant cognitions may be adjusted by their importance in the mind of the individual.

If dissonance is experienced as an unpleasant drive state,the individual is motivated to reduce it. Now that the factors that affect the magnitude of this unpleasantness have been identified, it should be possible to predict what we can do to reduce it:

  • Changing CognitionsIf two cognitions ar discrepant, we can simply change one to make it consistent with the other. Or we can change each cognition in the direction of the other.
  • Adding CognitionsIf two cognitions cause a certain magnitude of dissonance, that magnitude can be reduced by adding one or more consonant cognition.



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