Cognitive dissonance

The theory of cognitive dissonance has been one of the pillars of social psychology for decades.

Expressed by Leon Festinger in 1957 in the book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, it starts from the concept, which is postulated as an initial fact, that cognition pairs may or may not, among themselves, have relevance.

The two cognitions could have, one for the other, a relevance that can be consonant, and in this case one follows the other, or dissonant and in this case they are opposite. When a dissonance occurs, the subject will try to reduce it as the dissonant situation creates psychological discomfort.

In this regard, let us remember that the term “dissonance“, for Festinger, indicates both the discrepancy between the two cognitions and the situation of psychological discomfort that derives from this situation.

According to the theory expressed by Festinger’s, in a situation of dissonance, the person will try to reduce, or eliminate, this situation in order to avoid psychological discomfort. This can be achieved in various ways, for example through the elimination of dissonant cognition, either by increasing consonant cognition or, again, by removing importance from dissonant cognition or increasing the importance of consonants.

Festinger himself gives an example to explain in practice what is expressed in a theoretical way.

Considering a smoker who acquires information about the harm caused by smoking. This information will be dissonant with the fact that he is aware of smoking and continuing to do so. To reduce the dissonance, they can:

  • Quit smoking: this will make their thinking, and their behaviour, consonant with the fact that smoking is harmful.
  • Believe that smoking is not harmful and, in this way, eliminate the dissonance between the known fact and behaviour.
  • Convince themselves that smoking also has positive effects, such as reducing tension or preventing them from gaining weight, and therefore increasing consonant cognition thus reducing dissonance.
  • Think that the risk related to smoking is lower than other risks that they run on a daily basis, for example travelling by car and risking an accident, thus reducing the relevance of dissonant cognition.

In practice, when a subject is faced with two cognitions at odds with each other, a situation that creates emotional distress, they will try to eliminate the situation that creates this problem through various strategies. A widespread strategy for the elimination of dissonance is selective exposure, i.e. the avoidance of situations or knowledge capable of increasing dissonance. But also downplaying what leads to dissonance is a behaviour often and fruitfully used.

We find a clear example of this last attitude narrated in Aesop’s fable when he tells us about the fox and the grapes:

“A hungry fox, as he saw bunches of grapes hanging from a vine, wished to grab them but was unable to. But as he walked away, he said to himself, “They are unripe.”

According to Festinger, the dissonance between two elements tends to occur generally due to a problem of internal logic, a contrast with cultural norms or previous experiences, a disconfirmation of expectations or, finally, an inconsistency between the element and one, wider, of which however the former is a component.

Reducing dissonance therefore leads to a state of greater well-being, and therefore, can be considered a positive action, but what is important is to realize the existence of these mechanisms so as not to fall into self-deception.

Self-deception can take place through various mechanisms including the exclusive search for biased information or the use of interpretative processes and memory that are also[1] biased (von Hippel, Trives 2011).

Unlike when you lie to another person, an action that is carried out with awareness, when you lie to yourself this action is unconscious, so the person accepts something that is not true but does not realize the lie that he is accepting.

In the face of this, always from the perspective of self-deception, we cannot fail to notice how, sometimes, these lies, which the person tells himself, are functional to the protection of the self. In practice, lies are used to undo, or at least reduce, the suffering that truth brings with it. This activity, especially in subjects with low self-esteem, is particularly harmful as these subjects cannot stop lying to themselves and therefore fail to express their true self so that their relationship with the world ends up being based on a lie, to which others will adapt, as it is not being possible for them to visualize the true self and the true emotions and feelings of the person in front of them, as they are hidden, leading to a situation of misunderstanding in which the person will feel less and less understood and loved with a consequent worsening of self-esteem.

Returning to Festinger’s theory, it is noted that this places a logical-cognitive discrepancy between two different cognition in contrast to each other with a consequent loss of coherence.

Presently, as Greenwald and Ronis have pointed out, it appears that the need to preserve self-esteem prevails over the need to maintain logical coherence.[2]

In fact, there is much discussion of a revision of the original theory, placing the role of the Self in the theoretical models of dissonance constructs in the foreground. How self-cognition modifies and acts on dissonance processes is the subject of at least three main theories: Self-consistency, self-affirmation, and New Look perspective.

The interpretation of dissonance based on self-consistency (Aronson 1968)[3] is founded on considering dissonance as based on the difference between the adopted behaviour and self-awareness. In other words, the subject has, like everyone else, a fundamentally positive self-concept where when the behaviours adopted are somehow reprehensible or irrational or lacking in competence, a dissonance is created.

The interpretation based on self-affirmation considers dissonance as originating from behaviours that in some way constitute a threat to the subjective sense of integrity and integration (Steele 1988).[4]

The new look perspective states that dissonance occurs when the subject feels responsible for the formation of predictable consequences and therefore based on a process of self-blame.

Despite these revisions of the original theory, it seems necessary to note that, although the mechanisms involved may be numerous and different, there is nothing to suggest that a dissonance process cannot be had simply due to a situation of cognitive inconsistency.

Consonance, that is internal coherence, helps to feel good about oneself so that the mechanisms of attenuation, or elimination, of cognitive dissonance help us and constitute a fruitful self-defence mechanism until they result in self-deception. We can also use these mechanisms not only to better, but also to improve our behaviours by using cognitive dissonance and the discomfort it entails to our advantage. If we return to the initial example given by Festinger, for example, we can use cognitive dissonance profitably by eliminating its source by quitting smoking and thus obtaining an improvement in our health. Dissonance can therefore become a push for positive change.

Dr. Patrizia Pietropaolo

[1]Von Hippel W, Trives R, The evolution and psychology of self-deception  Behavioral and brain sciences (2011) 34, 1–56

[2]Greenwald A G, Ronis D L,  Twenty years of cognitive dissonance: Case study of the evolution of a theory Psychological Review,  85(1), 53–57 (1978).

[3]Aronson E,  Dissonance theory: Progress and problems. (1968) in Abelson E et al. Theories of cognitive consistency: A sourcebook

[4]Steele C M, The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self. (1988) in  Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 21, pp. 261–302). San Diego, CA: Academic Press

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