Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Dissonance

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The motivational power of dissonance and how it can be used


"I want to eat the cake" "But I'm on a diet" Dissonance occurs when two cognitions are conflicting

Most of us like to think of ourselves as competent, reasonable, and moral people (Reeves, 2009). This is represented by a cognitive set of beliefs about the self, known as our self-view (Reeves, 2009). Our behaviour, however, is not always reflective of this self-view (Reeves, 2009). For example, smoking cigarettes despite knowing they are bad for you, or eating that piece of chocolate cake even though you are on a diet. In these situations our beliefs about who the self is and how the self should behave are inconsistent with our actions, causing psychological discomfort (Reeves, 2009). This state is known as cognitive dissonance (Reeves, 2009).

Figure 1. The motivational process underlying cognitive dissonance

Cognitive consistency is a state where beliefs are consonant, or consistent with each other, and this is the ideal cognitive state which people strive for (Reeves, 2009). Cognitive dissonance can cause varying levels of psychological discomfort, depending on the importance of the inconsistent beliefs, or the magnitude of the discrepancy (Reeves, 2009). When it becomes uncomfortable enough, cognitive dissonance acts as motivation to reduce or eliminate the dissonance in order to return to a state of consistency (Reeves, 2009) (see Figure 1). Before we can explore how to use this motivational drive, however, it is important to understand:

  • When dissonance occurs (Dissonance-arousing situations);
  • How dissonance becomes a motivational drive; and
  • What dissonance motivates us to do (Dissonance-reduction Strategies).
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Think of a situation where you did something that was inconsistent with your beliefs that made you feel uncomfortable. Keep this example in mind as you continue through the chapter.

Dissonance-arousing situations[edit]

Research has identified four dissonance-arousing circumstances: choice, insufficient justification, effort justification, and new information (Reeves, 2009). Research generated by these situations has categorised the experience of dissonance into four respective paradigms: The free-choice paradigm (Brehm, 1956), the induced-compliance paradigm (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959), the effort-justification paradigm (Aronson & Mills, 1956), and the belief disconfirmation paradigm (Burris, Harmon-Jones & Tarpley, 1997).

Choice and the free-choice paradigm[edit]

Dissonance can arise through choice when people choose between two alternatives which both have merit (Reeves, 2009). When making a difficult decision, there are always features of the rejected choice that are appealing (Brehm, 1956). In these situations, the choice that is made is dissonant with the cognition that the rejected option has appealing features (Brehm, 1956). This is demonstrable by the free-choice paradigm in which the dissonance is resolved by increasing appreciation for the chosen option, whilst adopting a more negative attitude toward the rejected alternative (Brehm, 1956). This paradigm was demonstrated in an experiment conducted by Brehm (1956), in which participants were asked to rate a number of common appliances and then allowed to choose two to take home as a gift. Participants were then required to provide a second rating, which showed an increased rating of the chosen appliances, and lower ratings of the rejected items.

Insufficient justification and the induced-compliance paradigm[edit]

When there is insufficient justification for our actions, dissonance can be aroused. This is usually resolved by adding new consonant cognitions which account for the behaviour. Research has demonstrated this through use of the induced-compliance paradigm, which assumes that inducements to engage in such behaviours can provide consonant cognitions; thus providing justification for the behaviour (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959). In order to demonstrate this phenomenon, Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) conducted an experiment in which participants were required to perform a series of dull tasks, such as turning pegs in a peg board for an extended period of time. Upon completion of the tasks, participants were paid either $1 or $20 to tell a waiting participant that the tasks were interesting. When later asked to evaluate the experiment, participants who received $1 rated the tasks as more enjoyable than those who received $20. It was concluded that $1 was not a sufficient incentive to lie, and the resulting dissonance could be overcome by adopting the consonant belief that the tasks really were enjoyable. Receiving $20, however, was sufficient justification, therefore these participants experienced no dissonance.

Effort justification and the effort-justification paradigm[edit]

Dissonance is aroused when an individual voluntarily engages in an unpleasant activity in order to achieve a desired goal (Aronson & Mills, 1956). In such circumstances, the dissonance caused by engaging in the unpleasant activity can be reduced by increasing the perceived desirability of the goal (Aronson & Mills, 1956). This is known as effort justification, and is demonstrable by the effort justification paradigm (Aronso & Mills, 1956). An experiment conducted by Aronson and Mills (1956) found that participants who had to undergo a severe initiation (involving engaging in an embarrassing activity) to become a member of a group rated the group, which was designed to be dull and boring, as more interesting than those who had undergone a mild initiation.

New information and the belief disconfirmation paradigm[edit]

Information which contradicts our beliefs can strengthen those beliefs

Cognitive dissonance occurs when people are exposed to new information which is inconsistent with their prior beliefs (Burris et al., 1997). The obvious solution to this sort of dissonance would be to change the original belief, however research has shown that in these circumstances the original belief is often strengthened (Burris et al., 1997). In situations where firmly held beliefs are challenged by new information, people seek alternative ways to reduce the dissonance; such as misinterpreting, rejecting or refuting the new information, seeking support from others with similar beliefs, or attempting to persuade others to believe as they do (Burris et al., 1997).

A famous example of the belief disconfirmation paradigm is described by Festinger, Riecken and Schachter (1956, as cited in Burris et al., 1997). The researchers followed a group who believed that the Earth’s destruction was imminent, and that they would be rescued by aliens at a certain time and place. After the appointed time passed without incident, the group was faced with extreme dissonance. Rather than recognising that they had invested considerable time and money into a hoax, many of the group members chose to believe that the Earth had been given a second chance because of their actions. As a result, the group was compelled to continue spreading their beliefs, and continued to grow despite the failed prophecy.

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Think of your example from earlier. What motivated you to act in a way that was inconsistent with your beliefs?

  • Was it a choice?
  • Were you offered some sort of inducement?
  • Were you trying to achieve a goal?
  • Was it based on new information?

Dissonance as a motivational drive[edit]

In order to be motivational, dissonance must be experienced as a negative intrapersonal state, which can be alleviated by the implementation of a reduction strategy (Elkin & Lieppe, 1986). The experience of dissonance as a negative intrapersonal state is said to be the result of an interaction between arousal and psychological discomfort (Elliot & Devine, 1994). Research conducted by Elkin and Lieppe (1986) revealed that attitude change following an induced compliance setting was accompanied by physiological signs of arousal. Arousal alone is not, however, sufficient to motivate us, so the arousal must be in the form of psychological discomfort in order to become a motivational drive (Elliot & Devine, 1994). Cooper and Fazio (1984, as cited in Elliot & Devine, 1994) proposed that the arousal caused by dissonance is undifferentiated, and can be interpreted positively or negatively. When the dissonance arousal is considered negative and internally attributed, the dissonance arousal becomes dissonance motivation (Cooper and Fazio, 1984, as cited in Elliot & Devine 1994).

Dissonance-reducing strategies[edit]

Dissonance can be reduced in one of four ways (Reeves, 2009):

  • By removing the dissonant belief;
  • By reducing the importance of the dissonant belief;
  • By adding a consonant belief; or
  • By increasing the importance of the consonant belief.

Consider the example of an environmentalist who drives a car to work everyday. They read a report that says exhaust fumes from cars are causing serious, irreversible damage to the environment, yet they know that they need a car. These two cognitions are inconsistent with each other, and this causes dissonance. The environmentalist can reduce the dissonance by adopting one of the above strategies. They could remove the dissonant belief by riding a bicycle instead of driving, or by choosing to believe that volcano ash, not car fumes are damaging the environment. The importance of the dissonant belief could be reduced by trivialising the immorality of driving by comparing the emissions from their car to something much worse for the environment, like a factory. They could also try adding a consonant belief, such as believing that scientists will soon find a way to solve the problem of pollution. Alternatively, they could increase the importance of the consonant belief by deciding that the issue of car exhaust fumes proves that there needs to be more bike paths (Example adapted from Reeve, 2009).

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How did you reduce your discomfort? Did you:

  • Change your belief?
  • Add a new belief?
  • Decide the dissonant belief wasn’t important?
  • Increase the importance of your consonant belief?

Using the motivational drive[edit]

Now that we know how dissonance works as a motivational drive, we can explore ways to use this motivation. Research has indicated that the experience of dissonance creates a “window of opportunity” for motivating change (Wells-Parker et al,, 2009). This motivation has been shown to be particularly helpful in inducing behavioural change. Research has demonstrated the use of dissonance as a means of reducing problem behaviours (Wells-Parker et al., 2009), as well as increasing desired behaviours (Fried & Aronson, 1995; Stone, Aronson, Crain, Winslow & Fried, 1994).

Dissonance can motivate us to reduce problem behaviours

Wells-Parker et al. (2009) suggest that when problem behaviour is recognised as the source of a psychologically aversive state (dissonance), it becomes more likely that a change in behaviour will be expected to reduce the dissonance. This acts as strong negative reinforcement for behavioural change (Wells-Parker, 2009). This increases the likelihood of contemplating behavioural change, attempting behavioural change, and being receptive to treatment (Wells-Parker et al., 2009).

A study conducted by Wells-Parker et al. (2009) revealed that the experience of dissonance can improve the outcome of remedial programs. The study recruited participants who had been charged with drink driving. Prior to the intervention, the researchers assessed the participants’ level of negative affect (caused by dissonance). The results showed that participants who demonstrated negative affect were more responsive to the intervention program used (Wells-Parker et al., 2009). This provides support for the motivational role of dissonance and the potential of its practical application.

Dissonance can be created to motivate an increase in desired behaviours

In some situations; however, discrepancies between attitudes and behaviour are not obvious. Research has indicated that although people may see an action or inaction as a problem, they fail to accept the problem as their own (Vinsky & Tryon, 2009). In these situations, dissonance must be created before the subsequent motivation can be utilised to elicit behavioural change. This can be achieved through the use of a hypocrisy paradigm (Vinsky & Tryon, 2009). Hypocrisy experiments require participants to advocate their attitudes on a given topic, while also making participants aware of discrepancies between their attitudes and behaviour. This causes dissonance, which acts as motivation to address the problem (Vinsky & Tryon, 2009).

Research has demonstrated the use of hypocrisy paradigms as an effective means of increasing desired behaviour (Fried & Aronson, 1995; Stone et al., 1994). An experiment conducted by Stone et al. (1994) required participants to publicly advocate the importance of safe sex. This was followed by a questionnaire about condom usage. The results showed that participants who were exposed to the hypocrisy condition subsequently bought more condoms on average than control participants. Research conducted by Fried and Aronson (1995) produced similar results, with exposure to a hypocrisy paradigm leading to increased recycling behaviour.

It should, however, be noted that research surrounding the use of hypocrisy paradigms is still limited, and has provided mixed results (Vinsky & Tryon, 2009). For example a study conducted by Vinsky and Tryon (2009) found an increase in cheating behaviour among college students following a hypocrisy experiment designed to decrease the behaviour. Despite these results, research does provide some evidence that dissonance motivation can be used effectively, even if there is no awareness of the dissonance to begin with (Fried & Aronson, 1995; Stone et al., 1994). However more research is needed to establish what factors contribute to the success of applying this motivation (Vinsky & Tryon, 2009).

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Think Spot:

Do you have a behaviour you would like to change? Think why you would like to change it - it probably has something to do with your attitude towards the behaviour.

  • Do you recognise dissonance?
  • Can you attribute the behaviour to your discomfort?
  • Do you recognise that changing your behaviour would reduce the discomfort?

If you answered 'yes' to all of these questions, then you have the motivation to change the behaviour - you just need to use it.


  • Cognitive dissonance arises when there is a discrepancy between our attitudes and our behaviour. This causes psychological discomfort, which we are motivated to reduce or eliminate (Reeves, 2009).
  • Dissonance can arise when we make a choice between two appealing alternatives (Brehm, 1956), when there is insufficient justification for our actions (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959), when we engage in unpleasant activities to achieve a goal (Aronson & Mills, 1956), and when we receive new information that contradicts our beliefs (Burris et al, 1997).
  • In order to motivate us, the resulting dissonance must be interpreted negatively and internally attributed (Elliot & Devine, 1994).
  • If there is sufficient motivation, we act to reduce the dissonance by changing our beliefs or our behaviour (Reeves, 2009).
  • Research has shown that dissonance motivation can be effectively created and used to encourage behavioural change (Fried & Aronson, 1995; Stone et al., 1994; Wells-Parker et al, 2009). For this to be successful:
    • There must be a discrepancy between an attitude and a behaviour, which may or may not be obvious, which causes dissonance (Vinski & Tryon, 2009).
    • The dissonance must be attributed to the behaviour (Vinski & Tryon, 2009).


Take this short quiz to test your understanding.


Discrepancy between our attitudes and our behaviour always leads to psychological discomfort.



David believes he is going to get a promotion; but Barry overhears their boss saying that John is going to get the promotion instead. David tells John that he must be mistaken; as no one in their right mind would give John the promotion over him. David is experiencing dissonance as a result of ______________. He is reducing the dissonance by _____________.

Effort justification; removing the dissonant belief.
New information; increasing the importance of the consonant belief.
Insufficient justification; removing the dissonant belief.
New information; reducing the importance of the dissonant belief.


In order to be motivational, the arousal of dissonance must be:

Interpreted positively and internally attributed.
Interpreted positively and externally attributed.
Interpreted negatively and internally attributed.
Interpreted negatively and externally attributed.


Mary is trying to lose weight, but at a friend's birthday party she eats two pieces of cake. To make herself feel better, Mary convinces herself that as it was carrot cake, it was actually very nutritious. This is an example of:

Removing the dissonant belief.
Adding a consonant belief.
Reducing the importance of the dissonant belief.
Increasing the importance of the consonant belief.


Recognising there is a discrepancy between our attitudes and our behaviour is sufficient to motivate behavioural change.


See also[edit]


Aronson, E. & Mills, J. (1956). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 177–181. DOI: 10.1037/h0047195

Brehm, J. (1956). Post-decision changes in desirability of alternatives. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52(3), 384–389. DOI: 10.1037/h0041006

Burris, C.T.; Harmon-Jones, E. & Tarpley, W.R. (1997). ‘By faith alone’: Religious agitation and cognitive dissonance. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 19(1), pp.17-31.

Elliot, A.J & Devine, P.G. (1994). On the motivational nature of cognitive dissonance: Dissonance as psychological discomfort. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(3), pp.382-394. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.67.3.382.

Elkin, R. & Leippe, M. (1986). Physiological arousal, dissonance, and attitude change: Evidence for a dissonance-arousal link and a "don't remind me" effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(1), pp. 55-65. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.51.1.55.

Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J.M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), pp.203–210. DOI: 10.1037/h0041593.

Fried, C. B., & Aronson, E. (1995). Hypocrisy, misattribution, and dissonance reduction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(9), pp.925–933. DOI: 10.1177/0146167295219007.

Reeves, J. (2009). Understanding motivation and emotion (5th ed.). John Wiley and Sons, pp.275-279.

Stone, J., Aronson, E., Crain, A. L.,Winslow, M. P., & Fried, C. B. (1994). Inducing hypocrisy as a means of encouraging young adults to use condoms. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20(1), pp.116–128. DOI: 10.1177/0146167294201012.

Vinsky, E.J. & Tryon, G.S. (2009). Study of a cognitive dissonance intervention to address high school students' cheating attitudes and behaviors. Ethics & Behavior, 19(3), pp.218-226. DOI: 10.1080/10508420902886692.

Wells-Parker, E.; Mann, R.E.; Dill, P.L.; Studoto, G.; Shuggi, R. & Cross, G.W. (2009). Negative affect and drinking drivers: A review and conceptual model linking dissonance, efficacy and negative affect to risk and motivation for change. Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 2(2), pp.115-126.