Leon Festinger organized this array of findings and used them as the basis for a powerful theory of human motivation that he called the theory of cognitive dissonance.3 It is a remarkably simple theory but, as we shall see, the range of its application is enormous. Basically, cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever an individual simultaneously holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent. Stated differently, two cognitions are dissonant if, when considered alone, the opposite of one follows from the other. Because the occurrence of cognitive dissonance is unpleasant, people are motivated to reduce it; this is roughly analogous to the processes involved in the induction and reduction of such drives as hunger or thirst—except that, here, the driving force arises from cognitive discomfort rather than physiological needs. To hold two ideas that contradict each other is to flirt with absurdity, and—as Albert Camus, the existentialist philosopher, has observed—humans are creatures who spend their lives trying to convince themselves that their existence is not absurd.
How do we convince ourselves that our lives are not absurd; that is, how do we reduce cognitive dissonance? By changing one or both cognitions in such a way as to render them more compatible (more consonant) with each other or by adding more cognitions that help bridge the gap between the original cognitions.*
Let me cite an example that is, alas, all too familiar to many people. Suppose a person smokes cigarettes and then reads a report of the medical evidence linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. The smoker experiences dissonance. The cognition “I smoke cigarettes” is dissonant with the cognition “cigarette smoking produces cancer.” Clearly, the most efficient way for this person to reduce dissonance in such a situation is to give up smoking. The cognition “cigarette smoking produces cancer” is consonant with the cognition “I do not smoke.”
But, for most people, it is not easy to give up smoking. Imagine Sally, a young woman who tried to stop smoking but failed. What will she do to reduce dissonance? In all probability, she will try to work on the other cognition: “Cigarette smoking produces cancer.” Sally might attempt to make light of evidence linking cigarette smoking to cancer. For example, she might try to convince herself that the experimental evidence is inconclusive. In addition, she might seek out intelligent people who smoke and, by so doing, convince herself that if Debbie, Nicole, and Larry smoke, it can’t be all that dangerous. Sally might switch to a filter-tipped brand and delude herself into believing that the filter traps the cancer-producing materials. Finally, she might add cognitions that are consonant with smoking in an attempt to make the behavior less absurd in spite of its danger. Thus, Sally might enhance the value placed on smoking; that is, she might come to believe smoking is an important and highly enjoyable activity that is essential for relaxation: “I may lead a shorter life, but it will be a more enjoyable one.” Similarly, she might try to make a virtue out of smoking by developing a romantic, devilmay- care self-image, flouting danger by smoking cigarettes. All such behavior reduces dissonance by reducing the absurdity of the notion of going out of one’s way to contract cancer. Sally has justified her behavior by cognitively minimizing the danger or by exaggerating the importance of the action. In effect, she has succeeded either in constructing a new attitude or in changing an existing attitude.
Indeed, shortly after the publicity surrounding the original Surgeon General’s report in 1964, a survey was conducted4 to assess people’s reactions to the new evidence that smoking helps cause cancer. Nonsmokers overwhelmingly believed the health report, only 10 percent of those queried saying that the link between smoking and cancer had not been proven to exist; these respondents had no motivation to disbelieve the report. The smokers faced a more difficult quandary.
Smoking is a difficult habit to break; only 9 percent of the smokers had been able to quit. To justify continuing the activity, smokers tended to debunk the report. They were more likely to deny the evidence: 40 percent of the heavy smokers said a link had not been proven to exist. They were also more apt to employ rationalizations: Over twice as many smokers as nonsmokers agreed that there are many hazards in life and that both smokers and nonsmokers get cancer.
*In the preceding chapter, we learned that beliefs and attitudes are not always good predictors of a person’s behavior—that is to say, behavior is not always consistent with relevant beliefs and attitudes. Here we are making the point that most people feel that their beliefs and attitudes should be consistent with their behavior and, therefore, are motivated to justify their behavior when it is inconsistent with a preexisting attitude.
3. Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University
4. Kassarjian, H., & Cohen, J. (1965). Cognitive dissonance and consumer behavior. California Management Review, 8, 55-64.
Aronson, Elliot (2008). The Social Animal, 10th Edition (pp. 181-182). Worth Publishers.
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