Cognitive Dissonance Theory by Leon Festinger

Leo Festinger

Leon Festinger was an American psychologist born on May 8, 1919. He was famous for being a cognitive psychologist who gave the ‘theory of cognitive dissonance’. He also contributed to the studies over group behaviors, attitude change and self evaluation.

About Leon Festinger

As mentioned, he was born in early 20th century. He completed his graduation in psychology from New York and then completed his PhD from University of Lowa in 1942. Earlier he did not believe in social psychology and did not find it empirical. Later, after 1945 he investigated and took interest in social psychology. The initial step of Festinger into social psychology is considered to be an accident. He conducted a study on on-campus housing satisfaction of MIT students and discovered that students with close social relationships had similar views and students with different attitude were social isolates. This study led Leon and his colleague to develop a systematic approach to study social psychology or experimental social psychology.

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He continued his study and in 1954, he published his paper on ‘social comparison theory’. Later he moved to Stanford University and there he published his theory of cognitive dissonance in 1957. He also did his research on perception and visual system. However, he is most known for his Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.

What is the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance?

The theory of cognitive dissonance is the most widely searched and popular theory of cognitive consistencies because it talks about the general concept of human social motivation.

Cognitive Consistency:

It means that a person usually tries to maximize the consistency between their thoughts, beliefs and attitudes which are related to each other. It can also be said that our emotional or affective response to a particular thing should align with our belief and knowledge about it and it should be reflective in our behavior as well. For example, if a person believes that smoking is harmful for both physical health as well as mental health, then the person should express a negative emotional response towards smoking and on behavioral level, he should abstain from smoking.

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Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

As mentioned, this theory was given by Leon Festinger in 1957. A cognition, for the purpose of this theory, may be thought of as a piece of knowledge about an attitude, an emotion, a behavior, a value, and so on. There are two cognitions which are either in the state of consonance or in the state of dissonance. Two cognitions are consonant if one cognition follows or fit with the other. The state of consonance tends not to produce any kind of tension in the person. Two cognitions are said to be dissonant if one cognition follows the opposite of other.

Dissonance has been defined by Festinger as a negative drive state, which is produced when a person holds two cognitions, which are psychologically inconsistent. For example, a smoker who knows that smoking produces lung cancer illustrates two dissonant or discrepant cognitions. The cognition ‘I am smoker’ does not fit with cognition that ‘smoking causes lung cancer’ and creates a state of dissonance.

A person who has dissonant cognition is said to be in the psychological state of dissonance that is experienced as unpleasant psychological tension. This tension has a drive-like properties which a person wishes to change towards feeling comfortable, thus brings a change in the attitude. In 1984, Cooper and Fazio extended this study a little more. They said that this theory of dissonance is only valid under four conditions.

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These four conditions are followed:
  1. The first condition is that the individual must be aware of the fact that the inconsistency between their attitude and behavior would cause negative consequences.
  2. The second condition is that the individual with the attitude and beliefs must take responsibility for their behavior which means that they should know that their behavior is in their control and they can direct it the way they want.
  3. The third condition is that the individual must feel physical arousal. Mostly such physical experience can be negative if we take the case of smoking. Bodily discomfort is felt by the individual.
  4. The fourth condition is that the individual should attribute the dissonance that is felt is due to the inconsistency between their attitude and behavior. This attribution will motivate the person to change dissonance into consonance.

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Criticism of Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Although this was a popular and widely researched theory, it attracted some criticisms as well. Some of them are:

  • We cannot physically observe cognitive dissonance, and therefore we cannot objectively measure it. There was no evidence on how the dissonance works and one cannot scientifically evaluate it.
  • Highly anxious people are more likely to show dissonance. Many people seem able to cope with considerable dissonance and not experience the tensions the theory predicts.
  • Majority of experiments used students as participants, which raises issues of a biased sample. Could we generalize the results from such experiments?
  • Singh, A. K. (2015). Social psychology. Department of Psychology, Patna University.
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