Life is full of choices. Should I go to college?
If so, where should I go to college?
What major shall I choose?
Should I join a fraternity or sorority, and, if so,
which one? Should
I study for tomorrow’s test or go to a movie tonight?
Who should I ask to the dance on Friday?
Do I want to buy a paperback?
If so, should it be a new book by Stephen King (or by
someone else)? Rarely
do we face a situation in which one option is without a doubt
the only reasonable choice. Most choices have both pros
and cons, advantages and disadvantages, benefits as well as
costs. Once we make a choice, however, we accept the
disadvantages of that option and give up the advantages of
other, unchosen, options. Realization of these consequences
leads to dissonance that arises after we make a decision: I
chose option A, which has drawbacks; I rejected Option B,
which had its own benefits. Thus, post-decisional dissonance
is a form of regret, a worry that perhaps we didn’t make the
Cognitive Dissonance theory predicts that the dissonance will
be related to (1) the net desirability of the chosen and
unchosen options and (2) the importance of the decision (Festinger,
1964). Specifically, the closer the choices are in their
attractiveness (if the unchosen option is almost as good as
the chosen option), the more the dissonance. If two
Universities look equally attractive (good reputation,
affordable, etc.), choosing to attend one instead of the other
should create dissonance. On the other hand, if the College we
picked is clearly better than the one we rejected, we should
experience little dissonance. If the choice is between staying
home and watching a boring television show and going out to
hear a concert featuring a great band, there will be little
dissonance from the decision to attend the concert.
Second, the more important the decision, the more dissonance
we should experience. Important decisions usually have more
serious consequences than trivial decisions. This means we
should experience more dissonance after an important decision,
like which college to attend, than after a minor decision,
like deciding whether to stay home or go to a concert tonight.
There are four ways to reduce the dissonance that comes from
making a decision: revoke the decision, increase the
attractiveness of the chosen alternative, decrease the
attractiveness of the unchosen option, or reduce the
importance of the decision. One common way to reduce the
dissonance is do both the second and third options: make the
chosen alternative look better and the unchosen option look
worse (White & Gerard,
1981): “I am so glad I decided to
attend this College; it is even better than I thought it would
be” and “I’m really glad I didn’t go to school there,
it’s not a very good college.”
This is called the “spreading effect,” because
after the dissonance and the attitude change occur, the two
alternatives appear further apart (less similar) than before.
If the chosen alternate looks much better than the unchosen
alternative, there should be little dissonance.
In the automobile industry, some customers who order new cars
that are not in stock change their minds between the time they
order a new car and the time it is delivered to them. This is
an example of how post-decisional dissonance (regret) can
change attitudes. Donnelly and Ivancevish (1980)
when buyers were given information that is consistent
(consonant) with their decision (reasons why the decision to
buy that car was a good choice), fewer customers backed out of
their purchase decision.
Thus, making a decision can cause dissonance, especially if
the chosen and unchosen alternates have similar net benefits
and if the decision is important. Dissonance can be reduced by
revoking the decision, dwelling on the benefits of the chosen
alternative, stressing the drawbacks of the unchosen option
(frequently people do both of the last two possibilities), or
reducing the importance of the decision. It is possible to
influence a decision by providing consonant (or dissonant)