Cognitive Dissonance Theory

What do a telemarketing call, a social documentary, a political campaign ad, a sermon and a Hallmark commercial all have in common? Aside from being forms of communication, they are all attempts at creating cognitive dissonance in humans.

Cognitive dissonance is a theory of psychology that translates into “thought conflict.” First proposed by U.S. psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s, the theory seeks to explain how people reduce psychological discomfort and achieve emotional equilibrium in the face of inconsistent beliefs or behaviors. It rests on the premise that people desire to view themselves as rational and uniform in both thought and action; therefore, they consciously choose how they respond to information or behaviors that challenge their way of thinking. It has been used to understand why people give in to con artists, make risky financial decisions and justify unhealthy habits. Though Cognitive Dissonance Theory was controversial at first, it is now one of the most analyzed and accepted theories in both psychology and communication.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory contains two basic hypotheses. The first one states that people who experience psychological discomfort arising from cognitive conflict will attempt to reduce the discomfort and achieve consonance, or inner harmony. Festinger proposed three ways humans do this: minimize the importance of the dissonant thought, outweigh the dissonant thought with consonant thoughts, or incorporate the dissonant thought into one’s current belief system. For example, consider a college student who regularly drives while intoxicated. Upon hearing that drinking and driving is dangerous, the student might (1) argue that he never drives more than a mile from the local bar, (2) consider how much he’s saving on taxi fare by driving himself home or (3) accept that his behavior is dangerous and stop driving drunk.

The second hypothesis says that people who experience dissonance will try to avoid it in the future by shunning challenging situations and limiting information to that which affirms their current beliefs. This hypothesis explains, in part, why many national news outlets frame events along a political slant. People want to see reality in a way that supports their cognitions, and many organizations have found ways to capitalize on this desire. Fox News, for instance, caters to the preferences of conservative voters, whereas MSNBC is widely known for its liberal bias. The viewing audiences of these networks tend to be highly loyal. The Internet has also proven effective in solidifying people’s attitudes; blogs and discussion forums allow humans of every persuasion to find affirmation for their opinions and habits. In fact, the richer a society becomes in knowledge, the more people limit their sources of information. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as “selective exposure.”

So why do salespeople, social activists, politicians, ministers and advertisers try to create, rather than help people avoid, cognitive dissonance? It’s because cognitive dissonance has the potential to alter people’s behavior. If you’re a spokesperson for the laundry detergent Tide, you want people to stop using Gain and buy your product instead. The way to do that is to confront consumers with information that forces them to make a decision: “Use the next leading detergent and get mediocre results, or try Tide and enjoy the brightest whites ever.”

Hallmark probably devised one of the best dissonance-inducing campaigns in modern memory. The company’s slogan is “When you care enough to send the very best.” It implies that those who choose to buy another brand of greeting card don’t really care about their friends and family. The card’s recipients will sense that lack of concern, too, when they turn the card over and don’t see the Hallmark logo on the back, as illustrated in the company’s commercials. It’s a guilt trip strong enough to convince almost anyone shell out $3.99 for 3 cents worth of folded card stock. Dissonance that targets people’s insecurities is usually the most persuasive.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory, however, cannot predict how people will choose to reduce their psychological discomfort when challenged. Attempts to sway people to a different opinion or behavior can sometimes backfire by reinforcing an undesirable attitude. Again, consider the drunk-driving college student, for example. While at an alcohol safety orientation, he learns that intoxicated drivers are less likely to sustain serious injuries in traffic accidents because their bodies remain relaxed. The student might use this information to conclude that his irresponsible behavior affords him some small degree of safety, disregarding the fact that his odds of being involved in a car crash are much greater than the average person’s.

Yet the rewards of convincing people to change their behavior are often well worth the effort. In a phenomenon known as the “free-choice paradigm,” people who choose between two desirable outcomes tend to view the rejected outcome less favorably, and the chosen outcome more favorably, than they did before making their decision. That means the person who opts to use Tide over Gain will initially devalue the rejected detergent to justify their choice, which is exactly what a Tide spokesperson would want. Other paradigms further illustrate the power of cognitive dissonance:

Belief Disconfirmation – dissonance that fails to change a person’s belief causes that person to spread her belief to others to gain support for her position.

Induced Compliance – behaviors that offer little or no reward for compliance cause people to seek internal justification for their participation, which makes them more likely to permanently adopt said behaviors.

Effort Justification – people who are persuaded to put more effort toward achieving a goal exaggerate the attractiveness of the goal to justify their effort.

Since persuasion is the inherent goal of communication, it’s easy to see why cognitive dissonance plays such a large role in the field. Communicators who want to succeed in stirring others to action could benefit from understanding how cognitive dissonance affects people. The influential techniques gleaned from a study of the theory aren’t just used by advertisers and salespeople, but also by therapists, educators and environmentalists.

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