Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Cognitive dissonance and motivation

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Cognitive dissonance and motivation:
What is the effect of cognitive dissonance on motivation?


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Introductory case study:

Jill loves animals. One day, she finds a documentary on Netflix about the treatment of cattle in feedlots. She is horrified at how inhumane the conditions are. Later that afternoon, Jill is purchasing pot plants from a hardware store and smells the delicious aroma of the sausage sizzle. She decides to buy a sausage sandwich.

Cognitive dissonance is the aversive psychological state created by simultaneously holding inconsistent knowledge, opinions or beliefs. This aversive state is a precursor to action (Festinger, 1957, p. 3). As such, Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance provides an explanation for a common motivational experience (McGrath, 2017). As outlined by Festinger (1957, p. 3), the cognitions considered by the theory are constituted by knowledge, opinions and beliefs. Despite a number of revisions to Festinger's theory, a synthesis of these revisions provides a complete view of cognitive dissonance. The experimental paradigms highlight the application of the theory to different research contexts. Furthermore, research indicates cognitive dissonance may have a basis in physiological processes. In summary, cognitive dissonance is itself a source of motivation.

Learning outcomes

  1. Understand Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance and subsequent revisions.
  2. Understand how cognitive dissonance is a fundamentally motivational state.
  3. Understand how cognitive dissonance is applied to different experimental paradigms.
  4. Understand the physiological mechanisms involved in cognitive dissonance.

Festinger's theory

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Figure 1. Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance describes the experience of holding inconsistent cognitions.

The theory of cognitive dissonance was proposed by Leon Festinger (1957). He considered that people strive for the state of mental consistency or consonance, and dissonance describes the opposite state of inconsistency. In particular, Festinger proposed two hypotheses:

  1. the existence of dissonance is a motivator for achieving cognitive consonance
  2. where dissonance exists, people will try to reduce the dissonance and actively avoid circumstances which increase it.

Regarding motivation, Festinger (1957, p. 3) considered cognitive dissonance as a 'motivating factor in its own right'. Implicit in a discussion of the theory of cognitive dissonance is its effects on motivation. Whilst Festinger's theory may be considered simplistic (Mills, 2019) and has been subject to revisions, it does provide a broad conceptualisation of cognitive dissonance.


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Where cognitive dissonance is the aversive motivational state, reduction describes the mechanisms used to remove the dissonance. As proposed by Leon Festinger (1957), and supported in all subsequent revisions of the theory (Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2019), the existence of cognitive dissonance influences action due to the creation of a negative psychological state (McGrath, 2017).

Reduction and motivation

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Cognitive dissonance is a motivational state of psychological discomfort. Elliot and Devine (1994) describe it in terms of a "fundamentally motivational state" due to this discomfort. Festinger (1957, p. 18) outlined that the "presence of dissonance leads to action to reduce it". Reduction is the response to dissonance. As such, cognitive dissonance is a source of motivation which drives behaviours which facilitate a reduction in dissonance (McGrath, 2017). As initially proposed by Festinger (1957, p. 16), the magnitude of the dissonance correlates with the motivation to reduce it. This magnitude may be in relation to either the number of inconsistent cognitions, or the importance of the inconsistent cognitions.

Methods for reducing dissonance

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Although reduction is the overarching strategy to remove cognitive dissonance, it may be divided into individual methods. Festinger (1957) originally proposed three different methods which are used to reduce or remove dissonance:

  1. changing a behavioural cognitive element
  2. changing an environmental cognitive element
  3. adding new cognitive elements

Subsequent literature has clarified these methods further into seven categories (McGrath, 2017; see Table 1).

Table 1.

Reduction strategies from McGrath (2017).

Method for reducing dissonance Example from the introductory case study
Changing attitudes Jill decides that feedlots are necessary.
Distraction or forgetting Jill distracts herself reading the instructions for her new plants.
Trivialisation Jill tells herself that the use of feedlots is probably not that widespread.
Denying responsibility Jill says that she can't change the situation herself.
Adding consonant cognitions Jill reads about how feedlots are humane.
Behavioural changes Jill decides not to buy a sausage.
Act rationalisation Jill tells herself that because there are not other food options available, it's okay.

Whilst studies of cognitive dissonance have typically given particular attention to the use of one of these strategies to reduce cognitive dissonance, research has highlighted this is not necessarily clear cut. In an experiment by Gosling et al. (2006) participants who were exposed to conditions which aroused cognitive dissonance were seen to utilise the first method of reduction made available to them. There is a distinct lack of literature surrounding the methods people use to reduce dissonance in everyday life, as this depends on a number of factors (McGrath, 2017). Nevertheless, particular examples do exist such as act rationalisation for smoking (Foruhi et al., 2013).

Act rationalisation case study:

Alex is a smoker. Despite knowing the negative health effects, he tells himself that he is going to die of something, so he may as well have a smoke and enjoy life.

Revisions of cognitive dissonance theory

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Despite cognitive dissonance being a persistent theory, it has been subject to a number of revisions. A notable area of dispute amongst theorists regards the underlying motivation or rationale behind dissonance effects (Mills, 2019). Indeed, the four revisions presented below represent different conceptualisations of the underlying cognitions that cause cognitive dissonance.

Action-based model

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The action-based model of cognitive dissonance considers cognitions with regard to connected action. This means the negative psychological state created by cognitive dissonance arises specifically in relation to conflicting cognitions with action implications (Harmon-Jones et al., 2015). The action-based model considers cognitions in relation to connected action, where cognitive dissonance arises in relation to difficult decisions and commitments to act in a certain way. Cognitive dissonance may be seen to hinder effective action (Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2019).[vague][for example?]


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Figure 2. The self-consistency, self-affirmation and new look revisions of cognitive dissonance consider self-reflection at the centre of cognitive dissonance.

The self-consistency model considers that cognitive dissonance is caused by an inconsistency between the self-concept or personal standards, and a course of behaviour (Thibodeau & Aronson, 1992). As proposed by Aronson (1968), the self-consistency revision considers that cognitive dissonance arises specifically in relation to how inconsistency impacts on a positive self-concept, such as where people act in a way that makes them feel immoral, incompetent or guilty. In order to reduce cognitive dissonance, reduction strategies seek to rescue the self-image through justification of the action (Stone & Cooper, 2000).


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Similarly to the self-consistency revision of cognitive dissonance, the self-affirmation revision considers cognitive dissonance to arise specifically in relation to cognitions about the self. The self-affirmation revision considers that people seek to maintain a perception of moral integrity (Steele, 1988). As such, the revision considers dissonance to be "the distress of a threatened sense of [overall] self-integrity" (Steele et al., 1993). The self-affirmation theory considers that the goal of a reduction strategy is to restore overall self-integrity through focussing on positive cognitions of the self (Stone & Cooper, 2000).

The new look

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The new look perception of cognitive dissonance considers that people experience cognitive dissonance in response to something they are personally responsible for. Cooper and Fazio (1984) propose that people experience cognitive dissonance for consequences that they personally cause, and then seek to use reduction strategies to justify this course of action. However, this revision has been subject to criticism, where not all the experimental paradigms presented below support this revision (Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2007).

Synthesis of the different revisions

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Despite conceptual disagreement amongst the different revisions of cognitive dissonance, they may be incorporated into the original theory of cognitive dissonance. However, Harmon-Jones and Mills (2019) argue that while subsequent research has shown that revisions to the theory of cognitive dissonance are largely unnecessary, they do indeed provide a viewpoint of the different ways cognitive dissonance may arise. Despite the differences, they contribute to the overall picture of cognitive dissonance. Thus, a synthesis of the different revisions should consider these as distinct, but interconnected perspectives of cognitive dissonance theory.

Which revision of Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory considers dissonance to arise from an inconsistency between a person's self-concept and actions?

The new look model
Self-consistency model
Self-affirmation model
Action-based model

Experimental paradigms

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Experimental paradigms illustrate the specific components of cognitive dissonance. These may be conceptualised as the different research observations of cognitive dissonance. As such, they provide a greater view of the specific effects of the theory on motivation.

Free-choice paradigm

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Figure 3. The free-choice paradigm may be implicated in the choices made in everyday contexts such as the supermarket.

The free-choice paradigm describes the cognitive dissonance associated with making a choice between competing options (see Figure 3). After making a choice, the negative aspects of the choice, and the positive aspects of the alternative are dissonant with the actual choice.[for example?]

A seminal study by Brehm (1956) tested the free-choice paradigm amongst a range of household items such as an automatic coffee-maker, a sandwich grill and a fluorescent desk lamp. Participants were asked to rate the desirability of each item on a scale. After rating the items, the participants were given a choice between two items, with the high dissonance condition created by asking participants to choose between similarly rated items. After the choice, there was a second rating conducted and results showed a reduction in the desirability of the forgone choice in the high dissonance condition. This change indicates that participants were reducing dissonance through reducing the desirability of the alternative (Brehm, 1956).

The free-choice paradigm continues to be applied in studies of cognitive dissonance. Harmon-Jones et al. (2008) observed increased left frontal cortical activity amongst participants engaging in a reduction strategy through the free-choice paradigm. Similarly, a study by Eagan et al. (2007) observed dissonance reduction from a variation of the free-choice paradigm in both monkeys and young children, using stickers and coloured M&Ms[explain?]. Nevertheless, the methods behind the free-choice paradigm may be criticised due to the effects of existing preferences (Chen & Risen, 2010). Chen and Risen (2010) found that a reduction in the desirability of an alternative could occur even when it could not have been in response to a previously made choice. Whilst the free-choice paradigm should be interpreted cautiously, it does present an everyday example of cognitive dissonance.

Free-choice case study:

Mark needs new toothpaste and walks down the personal care aisle at the supermarket. He picks up a box of Col-white whitening toothpaste. But he looks at the other options, and sees Sensotime gum care. The positive aspects of the alternative such as superior gum care, and the negative aspects of his choice such as its abrasiveness are dissonant with his choice.

Effort-justification paradigm

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The effort-justification paradigm describes the cognitive dissonance associated with undertaking an unpleasant task for a positive result. As such, cognition about the unpleasantness of the task is dissonant with engaging in the task.

A study by Aronson and Mills (1959) tested this effect through participants engaging in initiation activities to join particular groups. Participants were 63 college women who were split into a control condition, a mild initiation condition and a severe initiation condition, which involved an embarrassing task. After the initiation activity, participants listened to a fake conversation of the group and were asked how desirable the discussion and group members were. Participants in the severe initiation condition rated the group more highly compared to those in the control condition. This indicates that cognitive dissonance may be reduced by exaggerating the desirability of the result (Aronson & Mills, 1959).

Figure 4. The IKEA effect may be considered as a particular subset of the effort-justification paradigm.

The IKEA effect may be considered as a particular subset of the effort-justification paradigm in which people exhibit an increased value for self-made products (Norton et al., 2011). In a series of three experiments, participants were asked to assemble an IKEA box (see Figure 4), origami and Lego. Willingness-to-pay was used to measure the value participants placed in the products. Overall, Norton et al. (2011) concluded that successful assembly of the items led to an over-valuing of these items in comparison to participants who merely observed the items. Further, participants who assembled the products believed that their products rivalled those made by experts.

Induced-compliance paradigm

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Also known as the insufficient justification or forced compliance paradigm, induced-compliance describes the cognitive dissonance a person experiences when doing something inconsistent with a held belief. Originally coined as the forced compliance paradigm (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959), external sources of motivation are consonant with the behaviour, whilst prior held beliefs are dissonant. The experienced dissonance is greater where the degree of external motivation such as a reward or punishment is less.

Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) observed the existence of the induced-compliance paradigm in their seminal study. Participants were 71 male psychology students who completed a boring task for an hour. Subsequently, participants were asked to convey to the next participant how enjoyable the tasks were. Participants were divided into a control condition with no reward, a condition where the participant was paid $1 and a condition where the participant was paid $20. Afterwards, participants rated how interesting the activity was. The results showed that participants paid $1 rated the tasks as the most enjoyable.

The study demonstrates that people with high choice have few consonant cognitions for engaging in the activity against their held belief, and therefore needed to create these consonant cognitions to reduce the cognitive dissonance. In other words, students in the condition that was paid $1 had the greatest free choice because the reward wasn't high, but came to believe the lie that the task was enjoyable. Where the participants were paid $20, the external motivation meant that participants experienced less dissonance.

Figure 5. As a subset of the induced-compliance paradigm, the forbidden toy experiment used toys such as a toy fire truck to create dissonance.

As a subset of the induced-compliance paradigm, the forbidden toy paradigm involves the threat of punishment rather than a positive reward incentive. In a study by Aronson and Carlsmith (1963) young children rated the desirability of different toys (see Figure 5). Afterwards, they played with the toys, with one toy having a punishment associated with it. Participants were split into a mild punishment condition and a severe punishment condition. After playing with the toys, the children re-evaluated the desirability of the toys. Participants in the mild punishment condition rated the forbidden toy less desirable than those in the severe punishment condition, indicating that they experienced dissonance because the external punishment was less.

Induced compliance case study:

Lisa sells dietary supplements as part of Herb-Alive, a multi-level marketing scheme. Despite working very hard to sell the supplements, she is not making money, and believes that she can't just from sales. She reads in the pamphlet that if she recruits others to join, she will receive a bonus. She convinces her friend Michael to join, telling him that he will make lots of money from the business. To reduce dissonance, she internalises the narrative that she is actually helping out Michael by making him rich.

Belief-disconfirmation paradigm

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The belief-disconfirmation paradigm describes the cognitive dissonance associated with exposure to information that is inconsistent with existing beliefs. In response to the cognitive dissonance, people are motivated to misinterpret the conflicting information, reject the information, seek support from those who agree with the belief, and attempt to persuade others to agree with the belief.

In the study by Festinger et al. (1956), the researchers observed a cult group called the Seekers through participant observation. The group predicted the end of the world through flooding which would occur on the 21st of December 1954. On the day before the flooding was due to occur, the group was told that they would be taken away in a flying saucer. When this did not occur, the group's beliefs were disconfirmed. However, after the disconfirmation, the group continued to engage in proselytising to encourage others to join. This indicates that members were removing the cognitive dissonance between the previously held belief and the exposure to the reality by adding cognitions consonant with their own beliefs (Festinger et al., 1956).

Betty purchases a new phone. She was deciding between an e-phone and a Suesung which are similar. After making her choice, what paradigm of cognitive dissonance would she likely experience?

Free-choice paradigm
Effort-justification paradigm
Induced-compliance paradigm
Belief-disconfirmation paradigm

Physiological basis

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Figure 6. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has allowed researchers to investigate the specific areas of the brain associated with cognitive dissonance.

Different areas of the brain may be implicated in cognitive dissonance. Through the use of neuroimaging methods such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (see Figure 6) and electroencephalogram (EEG), researchers have a greater understanding of the cognitive processes underlying cognitive dissonance. In particular, increased activity in the posterior medial frontal cortex (pMFC) may be observed with experiencing cognitive dissonance. In a study by Van Veen et al. (2009) the induced compliance experimental paradigm was adapted to allow for participants to be monitored by fMRI. The results of the fMRI showed increased activity in the pMFC when participants experienced dissonance. Similarly, using the free-choice paradigm, Izuma et al. (2010) found that the pMFC was associated with a choice-making condition designed to create dissonance. Activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC) tracked these situations (Izuma et al., 2010).

Other neural regions have also been observed in studies on cognitive dissonance. The anterior insula has been observed to be active in both the induced compliance and free-choice paradigms (van Veen et al., 2009; Izuma et al., 2010). Nevertheless, in each of these studies, it is important to note that observations are made through reverse inference (Izuma & Murayama, 2019).


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Cognitive dissonance is an important topic of psychological science. Understanding why people make choices to justify or engage in certain courses of action provides insight into their motivation. Cognitive dissonance is fundamentally a motivational state, which causes people to engage in behaviours to reduce its effects. Further, its presence in everyday life makes understanding its effects beneficial on a personal level. The theory and its experimental paradigms aptly describe behaviours which are frequently experienced. Cognitive dissonance remains a pertinent theory in attributing behaviours to motivational states. In conclusion, cognitive dissonance is fundamentally motivational.

See also

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Aronson, E., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1963). Effect of the severity of threat on the devaluation of forbidden behavior. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66(6), 584–588.

Aronson, E., & Mettee, D. R. (1968). Dishonest behavior as a function of differential levels of induced self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9(2, Pt.1), 121–127.

Aronson, E., & Mills, J. (1959). The effect of severity of initiation on liking for a group. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59(2), 177–181.

Brehm, J. W. (1956). Postdecision changes in the desirability of alternatives. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52(3), 384–389.

Chen, M. K., & Risen, J. L. (2010). How choice affects and reflects preferences: Revisiting the free-choice paradigm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(4), 573–594.

Cooper, J., & Fazio, R. H. (1984). A new look at dissonance theory. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 17, pp. 229–266). Elsevier.

Egan, L. C., Santos, L. R., & Bloom, P. (2007). The origins of cognitive dissonance: Evidence from children and monkeys. "Psychological Science", "18"(11), 978–983.

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

Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 203–210.

Festinger, L., Riecken, H., & Schachter, S. (1956). When Prophecy Fails. University of Minnesota Press.

Fotuhi, O., Fong, G. T., Zanna, M. P., Borland, R., Yong, H.-H., & Cummings, K. M. (2013). Patterns of cognitive dissonance-reducing beliefs among smokers: A longitudinal analysis from the International Tobacco Control (ITC) Four Country Survey. Tobacco Control, 22(1), 52–58.

Gosling, P., Denizeau, M., & Oberlé, D. (2006). Denial of responsibility: A new mode of dissonance reduction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 722–733.

Harmon-Jones, E., Gerdjikov, T., & Harmon-Jones, C. (2008). The effect of induced compliance on relative left frontal cortical activity: A test of the action-based model of dissonance. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38(1), 35–45.

Harmon-Jones, E., & Harmon-Jones, C. (2007). Cognitive dissonance theory after 50 years of development. Zeitschrift für Sozialpsychologie, 38(1), 7–16.

Harmon-Jones, E., & Harmon-Jones, C. (2019). Understanding the motivation underlying dissonance effects: The action-based model. In E. Harmon-Jones (Ed.), Cognitive dissonance: Reexamining a pivotal theory in psychology (2nd ed.). (pp. 63–89). American Psychological Association.

Harmon-Jones, E., Harmon-Jones, C., Fearn, M., Sigelman, J. D., & Johnson, P. (2008). Left frontal cortical activation and spreading of alternatives: Tests of the action-based model of dissonance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(1), 1–15.

Harmon-Jones, E., Harmon-Jones, C., & Levy, N. (2015). An action-based model of cognitive-dissonance processes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(3), 184–189.

Izuma, K., Matsumoto, M., Murayama, K., Samejima, K., Sadato, N., & Matsumoto, K. (2010). Neural correlates of cognitive dissonance and choice-induced preference change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(51), 22014–22019.

Izuma, K., & Murayama, K. (2019). Neural basis of cognitive dissonance. In E. Harmon-Jones (Ed.), Cognitive dissonance: Reexamining a pivotal theory in psychology (2nd ed.). (pp. 227–245). American Psychological Association.

McGrath, A. (2017). Dealing with dissonance: A review of cognitive dissonance reduction. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(12), e12362.

Mills, J. (2019). Improving the 1957 version of dissonance theory. In E. Harmon-Jones (Ed.), Cognitive dissonance: Reexamining a pivotal theory in psychology (2nd ed.). (pp. 27–39). American Psychological Association.

Norton, M. I., Mochon, D., & Ariely, D. (2012). The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22(3), 453–460.

Steele, C. M. (1988). The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the inteegrity of the self. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 21, pp. 261–302). Elsevier.

Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J., & Lynch, M. (1993). Self-image resilience and dissonance: The role of affirmational resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(6), 885–896.

Stone, J., & Cooper, J. (2001). A self-standards model of cognitive dissonance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 37(3), 228–243.

Thibodeau, R., & Aronson, E. (1992). Taking a closer look: Reasserting the role of the self-concept in dissonance theory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18(5), 591–602.

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.

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