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Cognitive Dissonance

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How do human beings make decisions? What triggers a person to take action at any

given point? These are allquestions that I will attempt to answer with my theoretical

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research into Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, as well as many of the

other related theories. We often do not realize the psychological events that take place in

our everyday lives. It is important to take notice of theories, such as the balance theory,

the congruency theory and the cognitive dissonance theory so that one’s self-persuasion

occurs knowingly. As psychologist and theorist gain a better understanding of

Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory manipulation could occur more easily than it

already does in today’s society. Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory is very

closely related to many of the consistency theories. The first of the major consistency

theories, the balance theory, was proposed by Fritz Heider (1946, 1958) and was later

revised by Theodore Newcomb (1953) (Larson, 1995). Heider and Newcomb’s theory

was mostly looking at the interaction between two people (interpersonally) and the

conflicts that arose between them.

When two people have conflicting opinions or tension

is felt between another person, it is more likely persuasion will occur. Because if no

tension was felt between the two parties, or there were no conflicting opinions there

would be no need to persuade each other. If you think about it persuasion occurs only

because there is tension between two facts, ideas or people. Charles Larson writes in his

book, Persuasion, Reception and Responsibility, “another approach to the consistency

theory is congruency theory, by Charles Osgood and Percy Tennenbaum (1955)” (p.82).

This theory suggest that we want to have balance in our lives and there is a systematic

way to numerically figure it out. When two attitudes collide we must strive to strike a

balance between the two attitudes. The balance varies depending on the intensity we feel

about each attitude and our pre-disposed positions concerning the attitude. We either

have a favorable , neutral or unfavorable opinion concerning ideas. When two attitudes

collide we will attempt to downgrade the favorable position and upgrade the unfavorable

position so that we feel a balance. For example, suppose someone thought of Mel Gibson

as a good role model. Later on they come to find out Mel Gibson does not like football. If

the person was to like both football and Mel Gibson one of three things would happen: 1)

The individual would downgrade their opinion of Mel Gibson, or 2)downgrade football,

or 3) downgrade both. The action taken would create psychological consistency in one’s

mind. These theories are very interesting and have been quite researched, but none more

so than Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitivedissonance. Leon Festinger’s theory, unlike

the others I have described, deal with quantitative aspects, as well as qualitative. That’s

what is so different and revolutionary about Festinger’s theory. Robert Wicklund and

Jack Brehm (1976), in their book Perspectives on Cognitive Dissonance, write,“ Most

notably, the original statement of dissonance theory include: propositions about the

resistance-to-change of cognitions and about the proportion of cognitions that are

dissonant, both of which allowed powerful and innovative analyses of psychological

situations (p.1). The term “dissonance” refers to the relation between two elements.

When two elements do not fit together they are considered dissonant. Cognitive

dissonance can be broken down into a number of elements. As Brehm and Cohen (1962)

write, “A dissonant relationship exist between two cognitive elements when a person

possesses one which follows the obverse of another that he possesses. A person

experiences dissonance, that is, a motivational tension, when he (or she) has cognitions

among which there are one or more dissonant relationships” (p.4).Cognitive dissonance

can occur intrapersonally as well as betweentwo or more people. With individual

cognitive dissonance the individual longs for consistency within their own mind. Second,

there exist dissonance between two or more people. This occurs when two people have

differing opinions about a particular issue.This phenomenon may have something to do

with varying degrees of knowledge about the issue or different belief systems being

enacted. An example of this can be seen by taking a look at the cultures of the West

versus cultures of the East. Cultures of the East value loyalty and honor. Cultures of the

West have different value systems that often collide with those of the East. Between two

parties, dissonance may arise from: (1) logical inconsistency; (2) because of cultural

mores: (3) because of a specific opinion; and (4) because of past experience. To reduce

cognitive dissonance a person can either reduce the dissonant cognition, or its relative

importance can be reduced (Wicklund and Brehm, 1976, p.5). Although the theory

assumes that dissonance will be eliminated or reduced, only the thought about taking

action to do so is a given. The means employed by any given individual to meet these

ends is still open to speculation. Action taken depends solely on the many variables

involved, such as ego involvement, commitment, past experiences and so on. We all react

differently to dissonant cognitions that we are confronted with. My research attempts to

examine the different reactions that people have had to different opinions I have declared

which involve them heavily. The area I have chosen to look at is the habits which many

of my close friends engage in: smoking. This is often a difficult topic to discuss because

it is an addictive habit and very personal to many people. Full well knowing these facts, I

attempted to delve in the minds of my friends and put many of the theories afore

mentioned to use in the practical world. To undertake my research project I observed my

friends in their everyday routines. I chose to attempt to persuade many of my friends to

stop smoking. While attempting to undertake this momentous task I observed many of

the consistency theories, especially Festinger’s theory of cognitive-dissonance. The

research method that was used was first hand observation. You could say that I was

undertaking a form of ethnographic research. Most of the time I had to become an active

member of the persuasion process, or the subject of smoking possibly might not have

The context I chose was that of my friends at home. All of the participants in the

study did not know I was logging their behavior for later use in this research paper. Either

myself and/or my friends would be active participants in the persuasion process. The

basic premise of the cognitive-dissonance theory is that when two pieces of information

do not follow each other we will experience some form of psychological tension, which

we will attempt to reduce in some way. Often times, according to Leon Festinger, people

attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance whenever possible (Gleitman, 1983, p.12). I

noticed many times that my friends were very interested in the topic of quitting their

habit, and some at times took the issue personally. When people are personally involved

with an issue, much like the use of tobacco, they are much more attentive to the issue

(Petty & Cacioppo, 1981, p. 847). For example, on 3/31/96 I told my three friends that I

was concerned about how much they had been smoking recently. On the average they are

smoking 20 cigarettes a day. One of the girls immediately retaliated with the statement

that “ her grandmother smoked for nearly all of her life and she is in good health.” In this

particular instance we can see the basicpremise of the consistency theories at work. The

girl who said this statement likes me. She also enjoys smoking. When I made the

statement that I was concerned with the levels of tobacco consumption she disregarded

my opinion by using past experiences as evidence to back her point. She is a friend so I

assume she somewhat values my opinion, but she upgraded her opinion of smoking and

downgraded my opinion. She experienced some form of dissonance when I stated my

opinion. She reduced her dissonance and thus was in balance. This is where Festinger’s

theory of cognitive dissonance attempts to rationalize her behavior. The other consistency

theories do not recognize the degree to which the dissonance exist. If you were to not use

Festinger’s model, most likely you would have assumed that my opinion would have

changed her attitude and actions. After all, I did have a contradictory opinion that did not

follow hers, and dissonance was felt. That’s what is missing from the balance theory and

the congruency theory: “latitudes of attitude”. This theory, unlike many others, must

factor in the human psyche as a variable. The persuasion process did not occur in this

case because my friends attitude towards not smoking was so anti-quitting, that it might

be impossible to change. You cannot think of this theory in regards to machines you must

look at it from the human perspective. Another example of observable

cognitive-dissonance occurred on 4/7/96. The same three friends and myself were

watching television. An anti-smoking campaign sponsored by the American Red Cross

came on the television. Various facts about the amount of people that die every year from

smoking and statistics about the amount of Americans with lung cancer were shared. I

asked the girls what they thought about the information. They all agreed that it could

happen to them, but they hoped it did not. In this case, I believe dissonance was created

by exposure to information. The girls did not like the information and downplayed its

validity. Not one of the girls stood up and said, “I am going to quit smoking today, I am

really at risk of getting lung cancer!” Once again personal involvement was a given, and

once again no action was taken. The girls feel to strong about smoking and refuse to quit.

We must ask ourselves what a solution to this problem could be? Why is it that smokers,

in the face of grave danger, refuse to reduce dissonance by acting out their urge to quit

The cognitive-dissonance theory is a part of our everyday lives, whether we realize

it or not. When we are presented with view points or opinions that differ from our own

often times we feel dissonance. We, as human beings, are always striving to keep our

lives in balance. Often a balance in our psyche requires that we not heed the warnings of

things to come. As I have shown, cognitive-dissonance is utilized to avoid taking action.

As many theorist have stated cognitive dissonance does create an internal conflict

that causes someone to take action. In the case of smokers, I must regrettably report that

smoking is vary rarely avoided, even with dissonance in full effect. Smokers, when

presented with hard core data showing a decline in health due to smoking, refuse to head

warning. This is evident with all of the “guaranteed” products to help people stop

smoking. First there was “The Patch” and now the consumers are intrigued with

products, such as Niccorrest Gum. Apparently no matter how much dissonance is felt and

to what degree it is felt does not matter. Therefore, it may not be possible to get rid of

dissonance or even to reduce it materially by changing one’s behavior or feeling.

The research I have conducted supports my claim that it is nearly impossible to

change the actions of smokers even though massive amounts of cognitive dissonance are

felt. I believe that many of the people being observed reduced th overall magnitude of

dissonance by adding new cognitive elements. No matter how much dissonance is felt,

the smoker will always find elements that are consonant (agreeable) with the fact of

smoking. The will power of individuals feeling as though they have to have smoking in

their everyday lives is, often times, far to powerful for dissonance to overcome Perhaps

research such as mine can be useful to further research into the area of dissonance and

the use of tobacco. Much work still needs to be done in this area. We see so many people

dying from lung cancer. Something must be done Perhaps looking at effective methods


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viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc.
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Steins, Richard. (1993). Is It Justice?. New York: Twenty-First
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Jacobs, Nancy. E.D. (Ed.) (1996) Cruel And Unusual Treatment?. Texas: Information

McCafferty, James. (1974). Cognitive Dissonance. New York. Lieber-Atherton.

Josephson, Matthew. (1997). Discrimination and Cognitive Dissonance. New York:
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McCartney, K. (1998). “Choosing life or Death.” Developmental Psychology, 20,

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Rilke, Richard. Home Page. 18 Feb. 1999
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Cite this Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance. (2018, Jun 09). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/cognitive-dissonance-essay/

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