Cognitive Dissonance (2029 words) Essay

Cognitive Dissonance
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 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.

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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 been
talked about. 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 smoking? 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 of

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