Up until 1957, a lot of psychological research had been done on why and how people make decisions. Much work had looked at decision making, but little had been done on the mind after decisions were carried out. Leon Festinger took an interest in this, with a special curiosity for why some people acted in ways that didn't seem exactly logical. How did they rationalize those decisions? That year, he formally introduced the theory of cognitive dissonance.
Any bit of knowledge a person has about self or environment is a "cognition" or "cognitive element." This can be a known fact or a vague concept, and everything in between.
When you have two of these cognitive elements, the relationship between the two is "consonant" if they agree with each other. Hugging someone is consonant if you are fond of that person.
But if one cognition would imply another, but the opposite is what is actually believed, if there is a contradiction, then the two elements are "dissonant" (the scholarly way of saying they're out of whack). Slapping someone you are fond of, or voting for someone you don't really believe is qualified, are examples.
Cognitions that are neither consonant nor dissonant are "irrelevant." That's important, since getting rid of dissonance doesn't necessarily mean making the ideas agree. It only means they don't disagree.
Whenever someone has any cognitions that disagree with each other, she or he experiences cognitive dissonance. This is a tension, and it motivates action. Most people try to seek relief from this instability in their thoughts. They may or may not succeed in reducing it, but most commonly, they will try. There will be some attempt to get rid of the problem by changing one element or the other to make the two either consonant or irrelevant.
Strategies for dealing with cognitive dissonance vary from person to person. But this dissonance is a strain, and people do try to get relief from it. When theorists assumed it to be a type of stress, the research seemed to confirm it.
Human beings seem to have a basic psychological need to have consistency, stability, and order in the way they see the world. When new information threatens their previous views or assumptions, they feel uneasy and resort to defensive maneuvers of one kind or another. They may "screen out" upsetting experiences. They may deny obvious facts. They may try to reinforce beliefs by making aggressive and belligerent declarations.
WHEN PROPHECY FAILS
One of the puzzles that the theory of cognitive dissonance explained was the people who set a specific date for some predicted event. When that date came and went and the event didn't happen, instead of concluding they must have been wrong, they did the opposite and preached their idea all the harder. The following is a true story and a classic in the field, but the names are fictitious.
Marian Keech had begun to receive messages in "automatic writing" from beings who said they existed in outer space and were instructing her to act as their representative to warn the people of earth of the coming cataclysm, floods on December 21. Mrs. Keech told many and by September had attracted a small following of believers. Throughout the fall months the groups held a series of meetings to discuss the lessons from outer space and to prepare themselves for salvation from cataclysm. As December 21 drew nearer some members gave up their jobs, others gave away their possessions, and nearly all made public declarations of their conviction.
Except for one interview, Mrs. Keech had confined her proselytizing to friends. During October and November, a policy of increasingly strict secrecy about the beliefs and activities of the believers had been developing. Had the group been interested in carrying their message to the world and securing new converts, they would have been presented with a priceless opportunity on December 16 when representatives of the nation's major news-reporting services converged on the Keech home. But the press received a cold, almost hostile reception.
Late on the morning of December 20, Mrs. Keech had received a message instructing the group to be ready to receive a visitor who would arrive at midnight and escort them to a parked flying saucer that would whisk them away from the flood. The group drilled carefully on the ritual responses they would make to the specific challenges of their unearthly visitor, and the passwords they would have to give in boarding the saucer.
The last ten minutes before midnight were tense ones for the group assembled in Mrs. Keech's living room. The clock chimed twelve, each stroke painfully clear in the expectant hush. The believers sat motionless.
One might have expected some visible reaction, as the minutes passed. Midnight had come and gone, and nothing had happened. The cataclysm itself was less than seven hours away. But there was no talk, nor sound of any sort. Gradually, painfully, an atmosphere of despair and confusion settled over the group. They re-examined the prediction and the accompanying messages. At one point, toward 4 A.M., Mrs. Keech broke down and cried bitterly. She knew, she sobbed, that there were some who were beginning to doubt but that the group must beam light to those who needed it most. The group seemed near dissolution.
But this atmosphere did not continue long. At about 4:45 Mrs. Keech summoned everyone to attention, announcing that she had just received a message. This message was received with enthusiasm. It was an adequate, even an elegant, explanation of the disconfirmation. The cataclysm had been called off. The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.
The atmosphere in the group changed abruptly and so did their behavior. Within minutes after she had read the message explaining the disconfirmation, Mrs. Keech received another message instructing her to publicize the explanation. She reached for the telephone. "Yes, this is the first time I have ever called the media. I have never had anything to tell them before, but now I feel it is urgent." The whole group could have echoed her feelings; the other members took turns telephoning. During the rest of December 21, the believers thrust themselves willingly before microphones, talked freely to reporters, and enthusiastically proselytized. In the ensuing days they made new bids for attention. Mrs. Keech made further prediction of visits by spacemen and invited newspapermen to witness the event.
Like the millennial groups of history, this one, too, reacted to disconfirmation by standing firm in their beliefs and doubling their efforts to win converts. The believers in Lake City clearly displayed the reaction to disconfirmation that the theory predicted.
FACTORS IN HOW PEOPLE REACT
IMPORTANCE: Everybody holds some contradictory ideas at some times. But if the bits of knowledge that are in discord don't really matter that much, then the efforts to deal with them won't be very great either. The information that a glass of apple juice is spoiled and doesn't taste good, for example, might be dissonant with going ahead and drinking the apple juice anyway, but the tension introduced because of this may not last five minutes. Life-changing matters like buying a house or changing a job would bring in much more struggle to reduce any dissonance, and life and death matters would make the strain especially tough.
RESISTANCE TO CHANGE: How fixed the relevant ideas might be will be important in figuring out strategies for dissonance reduction. There are three sources of resistance to change:
1. How clear-cut the facts are. That the sky is blue and grass is green is pretty definite and unlikely to change. The idea that a steak tastes remarkably good is less definite. If someone spends years thinking so, but then changes an element by becoming vegetarian, it would be fairly easy to change the perception of the idea that steak tastes good.
2. How difficult it would be to change the events in question. Historical events are quite fixed, but if the air conditioner is too noisy to allow sleep, it can be turned off. Deciding that your work place is a real bummer is easier to do if you can go work somewhere else, and much harder to do if you really don't have anywhere else to go.
People will tend to focus on those things that are easiest to change. Opinions already have some ambiguity in them and are often obvious targets. Those cognitive elements that resist change the most will stay, and the efforts at reducing dissonance are usually organized around them.
3. Timing. Experiments show that attitudes tend to shift in the direction of the more recent commitment. The more recent commitment tends to have the higher resistance to change.
This resistance-to-change concept is the most important part of the theory. It's what makes the unique predictions of the theory possible. It provides an organizing point for figuring out how big the dissonance is and how it will most likely be reduced.
RESPONSIBILITY: If people have no hint that commitments might have negative consequences, then they don't cause the inconsistency, and are less likely to feel a need to explain it. But if people are responsible for deliberately doing something that has foreseeable negative consequences, then the strain to explain will be greater. If people aren't responsible for the problem, then they can merely claim they aren't accountable for its effects. But if someone is able to foresee the consequences, chooses the consequences, and brings them about anyway, personal responsibility is certainly established. The struggle to reduce dissonance rises accordingly.
SELF-ESTEEM: For a lot of people, basic self-respect is one of the cognitive elements that is most highly resistant to change. Any idea that boosts their self-esteem is more likely to be accepted and any idea that threatens it is more likely to be rejected.
SOCIAL SUPPORT: Those trying to reduce dissonance, by any strategy, are going to be able to do it better if they can find other people who agree with them. The more people that can be found who see it as reasonable to ignore the point, or find the alternative explanations plausible, the more it makes sense to the individual. An isolated believer can't withstand contrary evidence as well as a group of convinced persons can. In the absence of such support, the most determined efforts to reduce dissonance are likely to fail. But any disappointed believer can turn to others in the same movement, who have the same dissonance and the same pressures to reduce it.
STRATEGIES FOR HOW PEOPLE REACT
Cognitive dissonance is a state of conflict occurring when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. Dissonance theory holds that the conflict produces feelings of discomfort which people try to relieve by reconciling the differences, by convincing themselves they don't really exist, or by using some other defensive maneuver.
1. Dissonant ideas can be eliminated or ignored.
2. The importance of those ideas can be diminished.
3. Ideas that are agreeable can be added.
4. The importance of agreeable ideas can be magnified.
The most important factor in selecting the strategy is to figure out which idea is more resistant to change, and change the one that isn't.
If you've taken action on a belief, then the belief is more resistant than if you haven't. The more important the action, the more resistant the change. An opinion that you've expressed in a letter to the editor is harder to change than one that you've kept to yourself. An opinion you've based a career on is even less changeable.
It could also be decided that the problem is really someone else's fault, not yours. This is called scapegoating.
Finally, any belief that has support of others is going to be more convincing, and therefore resistant to change. The story of Mrs. Keech's flying saucer shows this. The reaction of that group may seem irrational, but it is well explained by this theory. When many people share a belief, or when commitment is so great that a reversal will involve severe hardship or embarrassment, the disconfirmation of the prophecy will probably be followed by increased proselytizing. People try to bolster their threatened beliefs by winning others to their cause, which increases their social support.
Some of the actions of abortion personnel may be explained by this theory. This involves their jobs, their livelihoods, and major portions of their time, so the importance of believing in the necessity of abortion availability is clear. They will have put enough of their energies into it to be resistant to change.
Since there currently is no blatant coercion to become employed in the abortion field, it is a chosen action and people will feel a certain amount of responsibility for it. Their own self-respect will be involved in any event. They have social support from other people in the clinic and from a large social movement which lobbies and rallies on their behalf.
But before we can even think of whether many actions of abortion workers are explained by this theory, we must first establish whether they do have the needed conflict in ideas.
The theme of cognitive dissonance will keep popping up for more than just the abortion providers themselves. They have many supportive groups, the pro-choice movement, the media, the medical community, courts, politicians, and their own clientele. Each group has its own viewpoints that can be analyzed with the use of this theory.Return to Table of Contents