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


Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive Dissonance Theory - Overview
Dissonance After Decision-Making
Selective Exposure To Information
Induced Compliance
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Dissonance Theory


Cognitive Dissonance Theory
Another form of consistency theory is Cognitive Dissonance Theory, developed by
Leon Festinger (1957). Festinger argues that there are three possible relationships among cognitions (thoughts, ideas): consonance, dissonance, and irrelevance. Two ideas that are consistent, like “I like Michael Jordan” and “Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever,” are consonant. Two thoughts that are inconsistent, like “I smoke cigarettes,” and “Cigarettes can kill smokers,” are dissonant. Two cognitions that are unconnected, like “Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever” and “Cigarettes can kill smokers,” are irrelevant. Dissonance Theory declares that dissonance is an unpleasant motivating state (a feeling) that encourages attitude change to achieve or restore consonance. So far, Dissonance Theory is similar to Balance Theory. It is somewhat like the assumptions of Congruity Theory, except that Dissonance is not limited to situations in which a Source makes an Assertion about an attitude Object. Dissonance theory has been refined in later work (Aronson, 1969; Brehm & Cohen, 1962; Festinger, 1964; Wicklund & Brehm, 1976).

One of the advantages of Dissonance Theory is that it can consider more than two cognitions at a time. Another advantage is that it acknowledges that some cognitions are more important than others, and that the importance of cognitions influences the amount of dissonance. Specifically, Dissonance Theory predicts that the amount of dissonance is influenced by two factors: (1) the proportion of dissonant and consonant cognitions and (2) the importance of the cognitions.

For example, if I know four bad things and six good things about my friend Bob, I should experience more dissonance than if I know one bad thing and six good things. In the example below, think about how much dissonance would exist if I had all four of the dissonant thoughts versus if I only had one of these cognitions. It makes sense that the more inconsistent thoughts I have, the more dissonance I should experience.

Cognitions about Bob

Consonant Thoughts:
C1 Bob is funny.
C2 Bob likes basketball (like me).
C3 Bob likes rock and roll music (like me).
C4 Bob is a loyal friend.
C5 Bob likes the action/adventure movies (like me).
C6 Bob helped me with algebra in High School.

Dissonant Thoughts:
D1 Bob doesn’t like my brother.
D2 Bob likes those stupid horror movies (unlike me).
D3 Bob is really messy.
D4 Bob sometimes goes too far in making fun of people.
Furthermore, the importance of these good and bad thoughts makes a difference. If my brother is really important to me, the first dissonant thought, that Bob doesn’t like my brother (D1), could create a lot of dissonance. On the other hand, if I am not close to my brother, this cognition won’t bother me as much. Thus, dissonance theory considers all of the relevant thoughts at once, considering both the proportion of consistent (consonant) and inconsistent (dissonant) thoughts and the importance of those thoughts. Balance Theory and Congruity Theory can consider only one idea and neither theory accounts for the importance of ideas.

Dissonance theory suggests that there are three ways to restore consonance. First, one may change a cognition to reduce dissonance. If I had new information which suggested that Bob really liked my brother, then my idea that Bob doesn’t like my brother (D1) could change (into C7, Bob likes my brother). This should reduce my dissonance about Bob. Second, a person who experiences dissonance can add a new cognition. For example, I could decide that Bob just doesn’t know my brother very well, and that if Bob got to know him, Bob’s feeling toward my brother would almost certainly change. The third way to reduce dissonance is to change the importance of cognitions. I could decide that because Bob hardly ever sees my brother, I could reduce the importance of Bob’s feeling toward my brother, which would reduce my dissonance. One important limitation of Dissonance Theory (unlike Congruity Theory, for example) is that Cognitive Dissonance does not predict how dissonance will be reduced in any situation.

An obvious implication of Cognitive Dissonance Theory is that if you want to change someone’s attitude, you could try to create dissonance concerning that person’s attitude and hope that desired attitude change would result. However, there are other implications of Cognitive Dissonance as well. Much of the research on dissonance has focused on decision-making, counter-attitudinal advocacy, forced compliance, and selective exposure to information.

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