The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in Decision Making

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The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in Decision Making
When making decisions humans commonly fall victim to errors in logic and reasoning. Since the inception of the study of the mind, psychologists have endeavored to isolate the characteristics and causes of errors in human thinking. Researchers and theorists have developed categories of such errors: representativeness heuristics, availability heuristics, memory and hindsight biases, etc. . . . In other words, to err is human. In 1957, Festinger identified another phenomenon in human cognition--cognitive dissonance. Festinger theorized that humans experience negative emotions when performing behaviors that are contrary to their attitudes. These negative emotions, collectively called "cognitive dissonance," have been shown to influence people's attitudes and behaviors in myriad situations. Is it possible that cognitive dissonance plays an important role in directing the illogical or irrational decisions that people often make? More specifically, can cognitive dissonance be partially responsible for the many common flaws in human thinking? As evidenced by his research, Festinger found that cognitive dissonance can provide a serious hindrance to proper decision making, and reducing dissonance may significantly improve decision making skills. Characteristics and effects of cognitive dissonance

Festinger & Carlsmith's 1959 experiment explored the effects of dissonance on the subjects' subsequent attitudes concerning an unpleasant task. First, Festinger & Carlsmith required the subjects to complete a tedious and unexciting task. Following completion of the task, the subjects were given the option of convincing a confederate to participate in the task. The subjects were also offered a reward of varying values. Following the completion of this second task, the subjects were given a questionnaire to elicit their opinion of the first task. Festinger & Carlsmith found that those subjects that, for a small reward, convinced the confederate to complete the tedious task enjoyed the task more than those who received a greater reward. The subjects' negative attitude toward the original task conflicted with their persuasive behavior with the confederate. The subjects were thus forced to choose between changing their attitude about the task and changing their behavior. Since their persuasive behavior was only moderately rewarded, they could not blame money as the cause for their conflicting behavior. As a result, the subjects changed their attitude toward the original tedious task. This phenomenon was termed cognitive dissonance--a result of effort justification. In short, cognitive dissonance is a negative emotion that results when a person's behavior conflicts with their attitudes. Cognitive dissonance as a cause of common errors in human thinking It may be reasonable to attribute many errors in human thinking to cognitive dissonance. I will discuss, in purely theoretical terms, three common errors in decision making that can be directly or indirectly caused by cognitive dissonance. First, the representativeness heuristic is defined as the error in which people conjure up generalizations about a population or about the outcome of a scenario based on a small "representative" sample or stimulus (Plous, 1993). People develop attitudes about other groups of people based on individual encounters with members of that group. These attitudes are often difficult to change when negative or emotionally charged. The representativeness heuristic can help people avoid encountering situations that cause cognitive dissonance, and, thus, this "error" in human thinking persists. For example, if a Minnesotan is insulted by a person from New York, the Minnesotan uses the representativeness heuristic--all New Yorkers are jerks--to avoid further injury when encountering another unfriendly New Yorker. To see how cognitive dissonance can give rise to this error in human thinking, consider...
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