Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance

In collaboration with: K. Otley, K. Freedman, and Q. Marques

Aesop tells a story about a fox that tried in vain to reach a cluster of grapes that dangled from a vine above his head. The fox leapt high to grasp the grapes, but the delicious-looking fruit remained just out of reach of his snapping jaws. After a few attempts the fox gave up and said to himself, "These grapes are sour, and if I had some I would not eat them" (Elster, 1983, p. 4).

As in human attitudes and behavior, the fox changed his attitude to agree with his behavior. Characteristic to human nature, dissonance in the relationship between attitude and behavior creates uneasiness and an awareness of unrest (Festinger, 1962). The human mind has a natural tendency to relieve the conflict by changing either one's attitude or behavior, or both. Cultural, social, and spiritual influences affect behavior and attitude, and the dissonance that accompanies their incongruence. The weight of these influences provokes a cognitive mechanism that alters the inconsistency in an effort to create a sense of harmony between one's perspective, attitudes, and behavior.

Dissonant Situation Description

A relatively small group of inner-city youths has had differences with an outspoken individual who is against the group's current violent behavior and continues to refuse to comply with the consensus of the group. A discussion between the group and the individual ensues, both sides become heated, and the boys' behavior escalates into physical assault on the non-complying member. All but one member of the group physically assaults the individual, and other members heatedly demand the non-aggressor take an equal role in the assault. The passive member does not want to be part of the assault although he understands his pacifism is breaking a pact of consensus within the group. As the pacifist individual reflects on his cultural, ethical, morals, and values, he clearly recognizes his responsibility to the group and his desire to keep his association intact. He must cognitively cope with the dissonant imbalance his choice makes. Characteristic to human nature, dissonance in the relationship between his attitude and his behavior creates cognitive unrest. He must change his attitude or his behavior.

Social, Cultural, and Spiritual Influences

The passive individual is ethically compelled to abstain from action and resists against it as long as possible. His Catholic religious experience has taught him behaviors powered by the will and implemented through human behavior are easily changed according to persuasion. “Violence to that extent causes involuntariness and freedom from imputability” (Meehan, 1912, p. 1). Brutality may be abated or overcome by opposition; however, the more intense the group, the more freedom of choice is restricted. In the ethical dilemma above, the boy's religion has taught him “often fear and force goes hand in hand, not infrequently force begets fear, but they aren’t to be confounded. In what is done through violence the will is quiescent, but in what is done through fear the will is active” (Meehan, 1912, p. 1). A behavior achieved through fright is motivated under the situation; however, it is not wanted. Coming from a Mexican heritage, social relationships are deeply important and friendships are regarded as important as la familia (the family). This traditional notion provokes the passive individual's belief he must maintain consensus with the group’s actions. Although the members of this group have similar cultural affiliation, they were affected individually by beliefs and moral values specific to their family and childhood experiences. “Such value conflict inevitably causes strain, leading to awkward balancing acts in our beliefs. Sometimes we decide that one value is more important than another” (Macionis, 2006, p. 44). In this situation, the pacifist believed it necessary to demonstrate his desire and responsibility to maintain consensus within the group and behaved accordingly. Feeling “forced or coerced and motivated by guilt, fear of rejection, and social conformity” (McAdams, 2006, p. 98), he decides to participate in the assault. His conforming behavior is a response to the situational demand and he is ignoring his cultural and moral beliefs to maintain his position within the social group.

Reciprocal Relationship: Behavior and Attitudes

According to Myers (2010), "If social psychology has taught us anything during the last 25 years, it is that we are likely not only to think ourselves into a way of acting but also to act ourselves into a way of thinking" (p. 131). Individuals tend to champion what they believe, and will come to believe in what they assert (Myers, 2010). The attitude-behavior relationship is reciprocal: humans have an uncanny ability to think themselves into specific behaviors as well as acting in ways that affect their thinking. Behavior augments the ideas and attitudes that influence the action, especially when individuals believe they are responsible for their behavior (Myers, 2010).

The individual in the above ethical dilemma changed his beliefs and values regarding harming others to accommodate the disparity between his attitude and his behavior. By his rationalization, his beliefs were altered enough so his attitude and his behavior were consistent thereby relieving cognitive dissonance. Although initially the individual believed it was not appropriate to hurt another person, in consideration of the group's interest as it related to his own agenda, he was compelled to participate in the assault. To preserve congruity between his attitudes and his beliefs, he rationalized and altered his attitude.

Rationalization According to Cognitive Dissonance Theory

According to Van Veen, Krug, Schooler, and Carter (2009), “When our actions conflict with our prior attitudes, we often change our attitudes to be more consistent with our actions” (p. 1469). When faced with cognitive dissonance, the boy in the above-mentioned situation thought he was forced to justify his behavior by altering his attitude toward violence and asserting the behavior was justified. He insisted the boy deserved the assault, a decision that supported his new attitude. Additionally, he convinced himself the act of violence is acceptable because in this case it is more important than his prior stance. In relieving cognitive dissonance, once the initial decision is made to change an attitude, it becomes important for the self to support and acquiesce to the behavior. The subject of our situation rationalized his behavior by telling himself the other boy deserved the beating. He further assumed the beating was not too bad and will teach him a valuable lesson.

Scott-Kakures (2009) claims the rationalization will begin to convince him there was less value than he believed in the idea of non-violence. The degradation of his beliefs and values in the present situation makes it easier for him to participate in a violent situation or event in the future (Scott-Kakures (2009). In the current situation his behavior became more important than his attitude and consequently has the potential to change his attitude in the same or similar situation.


According to the cognitive dissonance theory, humans are compelled to perceive agreement between their attitudes and behavior (Myers, 2010). The discomfort of dissonance requires accommodation to either one or the other. In the above example of cognitive dissonance, the individual's personal ethics, values, and spiritual beliefs caused the give in attitude by rationalization and accommodation that calmed the dissonant effects of the disparity. According to its theory, cognitive dissonance claims people are driven to reduce incongruity between actions and beliefs, and will accomplish this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors (Festinger, 1957). Rationalizing, justifying, blaming, and denying can also reduce the tension produced by contradictory ideas (Aronson, Akert, & Wilson, 2006). Although often perceived as a human flaw, cognitive dissonance guides the human species toward behavior that appropriately coincides with one's personal perspective. Preserving the congruence of personal attitude and behavior reduces internal conflict, allows situational adaptation, and reduces the stress and anxiety of cognitive dissonance.


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Elster, J. (1983). Sour grapes. studies in the subversion of rationality. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Macionis, J. (2006). Society: The Basics. (8th Ed.). New York, NY: Prentice-Hall.

McAdams, D. (2006). The Person: A New Introduction to Personality Psychology. (4th Ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Meehan, A. (1912). Violence. In the Catholic Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved April 07, 2011 from New Advent:

Myers, D. (2010). Social Psychology (10th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Scott-Kakures, D. (2009). Unsettling questions: cognitive dissonance in self-deception. Social Theory & Practice, 35(1), 73. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Van Veen, V., Krug, M. K., Schooler, J. W., & Carter, C. S. (2009). Neural activity predicts attitude change in cognitive dissonance. Nature Neuroscience, 12(11), 1469-1474. doi: 10.1038/nn.2413

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