Cognitive Dissonance Theory

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Leon Festinger created the cognitive dissonance theory as an attempt to explain why people desire to have consistency between their behaviors and actions. Cognitive dissonance is the distressing mental state people feel when they find themselves doing things that don’t fit with what they know, or having opinions that do not fit with other opinions they hold (Festinger, 1957; as cited in Griffin, 2009). Thus, people are motivated to change either their behavior or their belief when feelings of dissonance arise.

Dissonance is reduced using three mental strategies. Selective exposure is the strategy used before a decision is made. The premise of this strategy is to avoid information that is likely to increase dissonance. The second strategy deals with postdecision dissonance. According to Abrams (2010), there are three factors that have the potential to increase postdecision dissonance. Dissonance may increase when the person is dealing with an important decision. Also, the more time and energy invested, the higher the possibility for increased dissonance. Lastly, dissonance is likely to increase when the decision is irreversible. Therefore, postdecision dissonance is reduced by reassurance that the person made the right decision. Festinger’s minimal justification hypothesis is the last strategy used to reduce dissonance. The hypothesis suggests that people need only minimal justification to change their attitude or belief. If a person is offered just enough reward or punishment, they are likely to reduce their dissonance.

Social psychologist Elliot Aronson is credited with producing the self-consistency interpretation of dissonance, a modification of Festinger’s theory. Though Aronson’s interpretation includes Festinger’s idea that behavior and cognitive change is motivational in nature and derives from psychological discomfort, self-consistency or self-concept asserts that cognitive dissonance occurs when there is a discrepancy between a person’s self-concept and behavior. The basic premise of Aronson’s self-concept interpretation is that, in general, most people strive to maintain a sense of self that is (1) predictable, consistent and stable; (2) competent; and (3) morally good.

It is Festinger’s notion of social group acting as an important source of cognitive dissonance that guides Matz and Wood (2005) in their research. Their first study aims to determine if a diversity of attitudes in a group is experienced as dissonance. Based on prior research, Matz and Wood conclude that disagreement from other group members is experienced as inconsistency and elicits a negative tension state. Therefore, they predict participants in a group with others who disagree would report more psychological discomfort than those in a group with others who agree. Participants did in fact experience a greater amount of discomfort when others disagreed, which demonstrates that being grouped with others who hold opinions opposed to one’s own induces feelings of dissonance discomfort (Matz & Wood, 2005). Though the results support their hypothesis, there are several doubts that need to be clarified. Specifically, does the dissonance occur because of the inconsistency of other group members’ disagreeing views, or could it be that the participants were worried about the confrontation that would occur in a face-to-face interaction. It is because of these unanswered questions that Matz and Wood conduct their second study.
As previously mentioned, there are flaws in Matz and Woods first study. As a result, they designed their second study so that all participants experience disagreement from others and all expect to interact with one another to reach an agreement (Matz & Wood, 2005). The participants were given one of three conditions. The first condition allowed participants to freely choose their verdict before finding out that their judgment disagreed with the other group members. In the second condition, participants were assigned a...
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