Persuasion header image
The Nature of Attitudes and Persuasion

The Yale Approach

Congruity Theory

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Social Judgment/ Involvement Theory

Information Integration Theory

Theory of Reasoned Action

Elaboration Likelihood Model


Congruity Theory

Congruity Theory - Overview 
Heider's Balance Theory
Osgood and Tannenbaum's Congruity Theory
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Congruity Theory
Figure 1

Heider's Balance Theory

Heider (1946) depicts relationships among our thoughts -- like Michael Jordan and Nike shoes -- in a triangle, with the Person (or perceiver) at the top, the Other person on the bottom left, and the attitude object (X) on the bottom right. Heider represents the relationships between these three elements with plus or minus signs. He declares that balanced triads have an odd number of plus signs and are more pleasant; imbalanced triads have an odd number of minus signs and are unpleasant, encouraging us to change one of our thoughts to make the triad balanced. In Figure 1, the top row of triads (1-4) are balanced, while the bottom row (5-8) are imbalanced.

For example, if I didnít like Nike shoes, but I like Michael Jordan and I know that he endorses Nike shoes, those relationships fit triad number 6. I am P, Jordan is O, and Nike shoes are the X. The thought or cognition ďI like JordanĒ is represented by a plus sign between P and O. Jordanís endorsement of Nike shoes is shown by the plus sign between O and X. My current attitude toward Nike shoes (ďI donít like Nike shoesĒ) is represented by a minus sign between me (P) and Nike (X). Heiderís theory predicts that I would feel uncomfortable when I realized the imbalance between these three elements: If I like Jordan so much (P + O), and he thinks Nike shoes are great (O + X), then why donít I like Nike shoes (P - X)?  Balance theory predicts that I would change one of my attitudes to restore the imbalance. If I change my attitude toward Nike shoes from a minus (unfavorable attitude: P - X) to a plus (favorable attitude: P + X), then my new set of relations conform to triad 1, which is (now) balanced.

There are other changes I could make to restore balance. For example, I could decide that I was wrong to like Michael Jordan (changing P + O to P - O), which would place me into triad 4, a different balanced triad. Of course, Nike hopes that isnít the reaction I will have. Or, I could decide (perhaps fooling myself) that Jordan doesnít really like Nike shoes, perhaps thinking he only made the commercial for money (changing O + X to O - X, which would be triad 2, another, different, balanced triad).

The Jordan/Nike example is about a message (a commercial endorsement). However, Heiderís Balance Theory is not limited to imbalance caused by persuasive messages like commercials. For example, a person who experienced these thoughts would probably experience imbalance: I love my wife (P + O), My wife wants to live in
Minneapolis (O + X), I donít want to live in Minneapolis because it is too cold (P - X). So, Heiderís theory concerns any cognitions that appear relevant to the Perceiver.

One simple advantage is that Balance Theory recognizes that people sometimes notice inconsistent cognitions and that this inconsistency can lead to attitude change. We donít compare every thought we have to every other thought, so at times we can have inconsistent cognitions and not realize it. However, when we are aware of inconsistency, that imbalance can lead to attitude change. Heider was the first scholar to realize this and develop a theory to help explain it.

Research has investigated Balance Theory (see
Cacioppo & Petty, 1981; Insko, 1981, 1984; Jordan, 1953; and Zajonc, 1968). This research provides mixed support for this theory. In general, it does a fairly good job predicting how people will react to imbalanced and balanced situations. However, one consistent problem is that the predictions donít work very well when P doesnít like O (triads 3, 4, 7, and 8). Apparently, if I donít like Jordan, I donít really care whether he likes Nike or not. So, this theory was a simple starting point, but most theorists and researchers were not satisfied with it.

One very important limitation is that Balance theory makes no prediction about how imbalance will be resolved. Nike, of course, wants me to change my attitude toward their shoes from negative to positive. This would change triad 6 to triad 1. However, as noted earlier, there are at least two other changes I could make to restore balance. I could decide that I donít like Michael Jordan, which would change triad 6 into triad 4, another balanced triad. Or, I could decide that
Jordan doesnít really like Nike shoes, which would create triad 2, yet another balanced triad. Balance theory predicts that imbalance is unpleasant and that I probably will do something to restore balance -- but it canít predict which thoughts or cognitions I will change. Congruity Theory was designed to correct some of these limitations (no consistency theory considers message content, or strength of endorsement).

A third limitation of Balance Theory is that it ignores message content (like every consistency theory). For example we could predict that if Michael Jordan gave some evidence or arguments about the advantages of Nike shoes, his endorsement might be even more effective. He could also vary the strength of the endorsement, from something like ďI guess Nike shoes are pretty good, and I wear them sometimesĒ to ďNike shoes are the greatest!  I only wear Nike.Ē  But Balance Theory doesnít acknowledge that some endorsements might be more effective than others. In other words, it ignores content of the persuasive message.

A fourth limitation is that Balance Theory does not quantify any of the three relationships (
PO, OX, PX). The only options are plus (favorable attitude or liking) and minus (unfavorable attitude or dislike). It stands to reason that if I like Michael Jordan a lot there will be more imbalance than if I only like him a little. More imbalance should translate into more pressure for me to change my attitude toward Nike shoes. However, Balance Theory does not include degree of liking, only direction (plus or minus, favorable or unfavorable, like or dislike).

Finally, people are not equally persuasive on all topics. For example, Michael Jordan would probably be more effective endorsing athletic shoes than computers. Cindy Crawford might have more persuasive effects when we believe she likes a certain brand of make-up or clothes than if she comments favorably on a mutual fund. However, Balance Theory assumes that all people will create the same amount of imbalance.

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