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Communication: cognitive dissonance

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The origin of cognitive dissonance theories is frequently attributed to the writings of the American social psychologist Leon Festinger. Festinger (1957) described the experience of cognitive dissonance as resulting from a need for psychological consistency that follows a “non-fitting relation among cognitions” (Festinger, 3) that exists between pairs of elements. Elements refer to cognition, which are defined as the things people know about themselves, about their behavior, and about their surroundings. In effect, an element of cognition is knowledge. According to Festinger (1957), an element represents knowledge about oneself including actions, feelings, wants or desires, etc.

, and knowledge about the world in which one lives. For him, these elements of cognition mirror one’s reality. In other words, elements of cognition correspond, for the most part, to what a person values, believes, and actually does. Festinger believed that pairs of cognitive elements exist in irrelevant, consonant, or dissonant relations:

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Cognitive elements are in an irrelevant relation when they have nothing to do with one another, consonant relation if, considering these two alone, one element follows from the other, and dissonant relation if, considering these two alone, the obverse of one element follows from the other.

(Festinger, 1957, 260) Dissonant relations among cognitions create a state of psychological discomfort that motivates the individual to reduce the dissonant state in a drive-like manner – much like he or she would try to reduce hunger, thirst, or pain (Aronson, 105). Situations and information that create inconsistency within the individual are avoided.

Festinger and colleagues found that reducing dissonance usually occurs by either: (a) changing one or more of the elements involved in dissonant relations so they are no longer inconsistent, (b) adding new cognitive elements that are consonant with existing cognition to outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or (c) decreasing the importance of the dissonant element(s) (Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 27-28). People generally differ in their preferred mode of dissonance reduction. Similarly, people differ in their ability to tolerate dissonance. According to Festinger (1957), people with low tolerance for dissonance should show more psychological discomfort in the presence of dissonance and should display greater efforts to reduce dissonance than persons who have high tolerance (Festinger, 18).

A primary focus of Festinger’s analysis was the relationship between “cognitions.” He explains that these cognitions, which may be consistent or inconsistent in relationship to one another, should be given the title “knowledges” (Festinger 1957:9).  He writes:

These elements refer to what has been called cognition, that is, the things a person knows about himself, about his behavior, and about his surroundings. These elements, then, are “knowledges,” if I may coin the plural form of the word. Some of these elements represent knowledge about oneself: what one does, what one feels, what one wants or desires, what one is, and the like. Other elements of knowledge concern the world in which one lives: what is where, what leads to what, what Ihings are satisfying or painful or inconsequential or important. (Festinger, 9)

This expanded definition of the term cognition, embodied in the coined term “knowledges,” makes clear that “cognition is not something discrete from attitudes, values, opinions, or feelings” (Aronson, 129). It is these individual cognitions that comprise the matrix of beliefs and values that the person ascertains and appropriates. The nature and validity of the relationship between these “knowledges,” however, is that which lies at the heart of cognitive dissonance theory.

In considering these relationships, Festinger submits three possibilities of correlation. First, the two elements may be in congruent relationship with one another. This relationship is defined by Festinger as cognitive “consonance.” The nature of the relationship between cognitions could also be inharmonious, or dissonant. Festinger observes that:

Persons are not always successful in explaining away or rationalizing inconsistencies to themselves. For one reason or another, attempts to achieve consistency may fail. The inconsistency then simply continues to exist. Under such circumstances—that is, in the presence of an inconsistency – there is psychological discomfort. (Festinger, 2)

Festinger argues that this “discomfort” will prompt the student to seek resolution and elimination of the dissonance. He equates the degree of the need for resolution with the self-preserving requirement to satisfy hunger (Festinger, 4). A third possible association between elements of knowledge may be that of irrelevance. In this construct, one cognition has no implicative bearing upon the other element. Festinger’s own example of this relationship involves a person’s knowledge of duration of travel time for mail sent from New York to Paris, while the person also possesses the understanding that a hot summer is a positive factor for Iowa’s corn crop (Festinger, 12). While each of these cognitions is held by the same individual, they do not have a correlative association. Of these three relational patterns, the presence of and factors contributing to dissonance between cognitions is of primary concern to the mass communication field.  Also of great concern, is an understanding of the nature of factors determining the degree or magnitude of dissonance.

There are two primary factors that determine the magnitude of dissonance. First, the prominence of each belief is a determinant in the amount of dissonance. Philip Zimbardo uses the illustration of a person who does not want to die prematurely, but also smokes cigarettes. The researcher observes that:

“I don’t want to die before my time” is dissonant with continuing to smoke. But if it were not important to a smoker that he or she might die of lung cancer (because the person is 80 years old and has already lived a full life), then little dissonance would be produced by the two cognitions. (Zimbardo and Leippe, 108)

Here, the amount of dissonance is directly tied to the import of the cognitions. The second factor that will influence the degree of dissonance is number of cognitions that are simultaneously discordant. Relying upon Zimbardo’s illustrative framework, the smoker has only the two above-stated cognitions in dissonant relationship; however, if he adds an additional cognition that notes that his cigarettes “have less tar and nicotine,” the consonant cognitions outweigh those that are dissonant. Adding consonant cognitions should achieve the goal of alleviating the experienced dissonance.

Dissonance is common whenever individuals make decisions, are exposed to information inconsistent with a prior belief, and act in ways that are discrepant with their beliefs and attitudes (Festinger, 5). The amount of dissonance a person experiences varies depending on the importance of the cognitive elements involved. If the elements involved are valued greatly by the person, then the amount between the two dissonant elements will be grand (Festinger, 6). It is likely that the cognition elements involved in the arousal of dissonance will be important to, or valued by, people having dangerous professions or occupations, like alpine climbers because of the dangerous and life threatening nature of the act. For instance, alpine climbers often make rash-survival oriented decisions that have a direct impact not only on the life of the person making the decision, but also on that of other climbers who are in close proximity. Thus, alpine climbers’ magnitude of cognitive dissonance is likely to be great and therefore so is the pressure to reduce the dissonance. According to Festinger, whenever dissonance is aroused, attempts to reduce it are observable. Efforts at reducing dissonance, however, are not always successful. In this instance, individuals are left in a state of psychological discomfort (Festinger, 8). It is these circumstances under which dissonance, once arisen, persists that need to be investigated to further our understanding of the theory (Festinger, 8).

The research methodology most often employed in testing predictions derived from Festinger’s original dissonance theory is that of induced-compliance (Festinger & Carlsmith, 205). In the confines of the laboratory, induced-compliance is concerned with the reduction of dissonance after a person acts in a way that contradicts their way of thinking (e.g., saying ‘not A’ when one thinks A) or acts in a manner that opposes their driving force (e.g., not playing with an attractive toy). According to Harmon-Jones (2000), if the justification for acting in the above mentioned dissonance arousing scenarios is just barely sufficient to induce the behavior, then persons are likely to experience dissonance (Harmon-Jones, 1495). The reduction in dissonance is usually represented by changing the belief or attitude to correspond more closely to what was said or performed. There are limitations to this laboratory-based research in that the dissonance is artificially created to make it easier to assess its manifestation and reduction. In a review of the literature, no studies conducted in real life settings were found. Devine, Tauer, Barron, Elliot, & Vance (1999) suggest researchers expand their methodological tools in the examination of dissonance to gain a more thorough and complete testing of the theory (Devine et al, 19). Although much has been learned about the theory of cognitive dissonance in the confines of the laboratory, exploring the phenomenon in a real life setting that by its very nature appears to be conducive to experiencing cognitive dissonance may be valuable to furthering our understanding of the theory. In a transcript of remarks made by Leon Festinger in a symposium discussion 30 years after his theory was first published, he shared:

I think we need to find out about how dissonance processes and dissonance

reducing processes interact in the presence of other things that are powerful influences of human behavior and human cognition, and the only way to that is to do studies in the real world. (Festinger,  385).

A major contributor to the field of social psychology, Festinger’s (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance has generated hundreds of studies, from which much has been learned about the “determinants of attitude and beliefs, the internalization of values, the consequences of decisions, the effects of disagreement among persons, and other important psychological processes” (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 2). It has also taught us about the learning process and how teachers can use this phenomenon to create teachable moments. All the more, Festinger’s theory has influenced the development of several alternative accounts of the dissonance phenomena. Some of what Festinger wrote in 1957 remains central to the revisions, however, each version of the dissonance phenomenon has been adapted to include new assumptions that have changed or replaced older ones. Three modified versions of the theory that have impacted the field of psychology include position of Self-Consistency, the perspective of Self-Affirmation, and the New Look position. In summary, the aforementioned perspectives of cognitive dissonance are similar in that dissonance is equivalent to a drive-like arousal state that is psychologically uncomfortable and that inevitably creates pressure to undergo cognitive changes. Several key components, however, differentiate these perspectives thereby adding new dimensions to our understanding of the dissonance phenomenon.

Cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957) has wide applications to a variety of situations. For instance, researchers have shown that dissonance arousal and reduction occur as smokers try to deal with the plethora of information that demonstrates that smoking is bad for you (Festinger, 1957). According to Aronson, cognitive dissonance theory makes its strongest predictions when an important element of the self-concept is threatened, typically when a person performs a behavior that is inconsistent with his or her sense of self. “The arousal of dissonance always entails relatively high levels of personal involvement and, therefore, the reduction of dissonance requires some form of self-justification” (Aronson, 109).

There appears to be an affective component involved in individuals’ experiences with cognitive dissonance, however, very little is known about the role of feelings in dissonance processes. Elliot and Devine (1994) believe that people ‘feel’ a sense of psychological discomfort following a contradicting relation among cognitions however there is little empirical evidence that confirms this view point (Elliot and Devine, 286). For instance, because althletes appear to be motivated to feel a certain way about themselves it is possible that they engage in various strategies to reconnect with desired self- relevant feelings when they are not experiencing them. Most research exploring the cognitive dissonance phenomenon focus on the cognitive component involved in the arousal and reduction of dissonance (Festinger, 1957). Because of its focus on feel and strategies that enable people to reconnect with desired feelings when they are not experiencing them, the Resonance Performance Model (RPM) is normally used to explore the role of feelings in people’s experiences with cognitive dissonance.

Resonance is a process that empowers people to live their life in a way that allows them to feel the way they want to ‘feel’ on a daily basis (Newburg, Kimiecik, Durand-Bush, & Doell, 259). In this holistic process, individuals identify the way they want to ‘feel’ on a daily basis. They then establish preparation strategies that will allow them to feel the way they want to feel as consistently as possible. Individuals also recognize potential obstacles that might get in the way of their sought out feeling and formulate strategies that will help them reconnect with it. Experiencing the way one wants to feel can give a new and perhaps clearer lens to our understanding of how cognitive dissonance is produced from within. According to Davidson and Cacioppo, how people feel plays a substantial role in the human experience and is essential for our understanding of various phenomena, including athletic excellence, life engagement, and subjective well-being and their interrelationship (22).

Examples of how cognitive dissonance theory relates to mass communication can be derived from personal experience. Watching fashion TV show a state of cognitive dissonance occurs in a viewer, due to the disparity between the viewer’s cognition about his or her body and that of the ideal model or the expected fit and size of the garment on their own body and that of the garment on the ideal model. The state of dissonance may create psychological discomfort, such as body dissatisfaction. According to the theory, when an individual is exposed to conflicting information, a state of dissonance, the person strives to reduce dissonance by emphasizing the elements consistent with existing cognitions (Abelson, 1959). Therefore, when an individual feels body dissatisfaction due to the discrepancy between actual/ideal body images, the person may be highly involved in fashion and try to use apparel to emphasize the positive parts of his or her body and enhance overall appearance. This particular example illustrates how the theory of cognitive dissonance provides a theoretical explanation for the effect of body image-self discrepancy and body dissatisfaction on consumers’ fashion involvement impacted through mass media.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aronson, E.  Dissonance, hypocrisy, and the self-concept. In E. Harmon-Jones & J.

Mills (Eds.), Cognitive dissonance: Progress on a pivotal theory in Social

Psychology (pp. 103-126). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1999

Davidson, R. J., & Cacioppo, J. T.  New developments in the scientific study of emotion:

An introduction to the special section. Psychological Science, 3(1), 21-22, 1992

Festinger, L. A Theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,

1957

Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. When prophecy fails. Minneapolis, MN:

University of Minnesota Press, 1956

Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. Cognitive consequences of forced compliance.

Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-210, 1959

Elliot, A. J., & Devine, P. G. On the motivational nature of cognitive dissonance:

Dissonance as psychological discomfort. Journal of Personality and Social

Psychology, 67, 382-394, 1994

Zimbardo, Philip G., and Michael Leippe. The psychology of attitude change and social

influence. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991

Harmon-Jones, E. Cognitive dissonance and experienced negative affect: Evidence that

dissonance increases experienced negative affect even in the absence of aversive

consequences. Personality and Social Psychology, 26(12), 1490-1501, 2000

Harmon-Jones, E., & Mills, J. An introduction to cognitive dissonance theory and an

overview of current perspective on the theory. In E. Harmon-Jones, & J. Mills

(Eds.), Cognitive dissonance: Progress on a pivotal theory in Social Psychology

(pp. 3-21). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1999

Festinger, L. Reflections on cognitive dissonance: 30 years later. In E. Harmon-Jones

& J. Mills (Eds.), Cognitive dissonance: Progress on a pivotal theory in social

Psychology (pp. 381-385), 1999

Newburg, D., Kimiecik, J., Durand-Bush, N., & Doell, K.  The role of resonance in

performance excellence and life engagement. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology,

14, 251-269, 2002

Cite this Communication: cognitive dissonance

Communication: cognitive dissonance. (2016, Sep 23). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/communication-cognitive-dissonance/

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