Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance

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Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance

Theory: Cognitive Dissonance

Theorist(s): Leon Festinger

Keywords: equilibration, rationalization, internal inconsistency, internal harmony


Keywords: equilibration, rationalization, internal inconsistency, internal harmony


Leon Festinger was born on May 8, 1919 in New York City to Alex Festinger, a manufacturer of embroideries, and Sara Solomon. He attended the City College of New York and graduated with his BS in Psychology in 1939. His first published work appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology within the first year after he graduated. He accepted a position as a research associate at the University of Iowa in September of 1939. While working at the University of Iowa he obtained is Master’s in 1940 and his PhD is 1942. From 1943 to 1945, Festinger ‘served as senior statistician for the Committee on Selection and Training of Aircraft Pilots at the University of Rochester’. (Zajonc) He then went to MIT where he became one of the first staff members of the ‘Research Center for Group Dynamics’ (RCGD). When the RCGD was moved to the University of Michigan, Festinger followed as the Associate Professor of Psychology and Program Director of the RCGD. From there he ‘went to the University of Michigan in 1951 as Professor of Psychology and then [on] to Stanford University in 1955’ (Zajonc). Festinger’s contributions to the world of psychology were enormous to say the least. So much so that they were ‘recognized by the National Academy of Sciences (1972), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1959) and the American Psychological Association, which gave him the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1959’ (Zajonc). Leon Festinger died quietly in his hometown on February 11, 1989.

Description of Theory:

In 1957 Leon Festinger published his book explaining his cognitive dissonance theory. He explained the concept that people like to believe and behave in a way that does not demonstrate inconsistency. When a person acts outside of his beliefs, he finds himself in the uncomfortable state of “dissonance.” Festinger states that people often observe inconsistencies in others’ behavior but it is upon sensing this in ourselves that discomfort arises, as do attempts to decrease the distance shown to exist between our beliefs and actions. (p. 2) He goes on to propose that “…dissonance…is the existence of nonfitting relations among cognitions…” and that this dissonance is “…a motivating factor in its own right.” (p. 3) He acknowledges that many, many situations in everyday life create dissonance but that in some cases this dissonance persists and this persistence is the motivation to reduce the uncomfortable awareness of inconsistency between our beliefs and actions.
Festinger listed four types of dissonance-producing situations: 1) logical inconsistencies; 2) inconsistency with cultural mores; 3) inconsistency between one cognition and a more general, more encompassing cognition; and 4) past experience. (p. 6 of Aronson book—link emailed to myself.)
Piaget and others, although employing varying terms, hold that interior conflict and resolution of that conflict is a constant state of reality that leads to learning (Smedslund 1961). Keller asserts that cognitive conflict actually leads to sparking attention in students and that effective teaching would do well to motivate students by intentionally, among other actions, presenting them with puzzles or demonstrations to incite this productive conflict. Indeed, in order to proceed beyond students’ incorrect pre-conceived ideas, instruction needs to use cognitive conflict effectively (1987).
According to Festinger and subsequent researchers who treat the concept of cognitive dissonance, there are several ways to decrease the degree of dissonance created by an action; among these are just a few: stop a behavior that causes it (i.e. over-eating or smoking)—of course this is not possible if a single, irreversible action has already been completed so some determine never to do the action again in order to assuage guilt; change “knowledge” about the effects of an action—change one’s actual fundamental belief in order to reduce internal conflict—this goes against deep beliefs we hold so it does not happen lightly ; change one’s perception or memory of a completed action—this is where the familiar strategy of “rationalizing” is applied. (Mcleod 2007). The third listed here, rationalization, takes place when a person justifies cheating on a test, for example, by reasoning: “Others cheat; why can’t I?” or “The class was stupid; the grade doesn’t matter, so why not cheat?”
A well-known experiment conducted in the late 1950’s attempted to measure results of cognitive dissonance. Subjects were asked to turn pegs in a board for a certain amount of time—a menial, tedious task—then subsequently asked to convince others (who had not performed the task) that this was a fun, meaningful activity. After completion of the task, half of the subjects were paid one dollar and half received twenty dollars before being directed to try to talk the newcomers into doing the same task. Those who had been paid one dollar were found to be more enthusiastic about persuading others about taking part in the task. Those who were paid the greater amount (not insignificant in 1959) put much less effort into describing the task as stimulating and worthwhile. According to Festinger, this response demonstrated that those paid twenty dollars likely felt recompensed for their menial work and did not sense a great degree of dissonance about performing a tedious task. On the other hand, those paid only a dollar probably sensed that the task was not worthy of their intelligence or time; this no doubt cause a feeling of dissonance between their beliefs and their actions. These subjects exaggerated the fun element of the task—they lied in order to cover up the conflict that performance of the unimportant task created in their perception. (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959).
Over the intervening decades, Festinger’s ideas have had adherents and opponents. Certain social psychologists have assigned new terminology to his ideas but the basis remains the same: his concepts fit into a group of social psychology ideas and theories known as “action-opinion theories” (Mcleod 2007). Whereas many people believe that our beliefs produce actions, Festinger and his proponents believe that our actions yield beliefs—changed beliefs—when we rationalize new thoughts to explain or support our actions that may have previously caused dissonance. Festinger wrote of this behavior-begets-belief directionality in his 1964 publication “Behavioral support for opinion change.”
Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance has launched many studies and, agree or disagree, researchers have used his ideas as a springboard for concepts such as motivation, influence, decision-making, and other areas that are germane to such topics as advertising, public policy, and education, among others.

Theory Measurement and Instrumentation:

[replace with information about measuring the theory and any instruments used in this process]

Prepared by: Juli Cook and Kelly Griffith


Aronson, E. (1969). The theory of cognitive dissonance: a current perspective. In

Berkowitz, L. (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (pp. 2-32).
NY: Academic Press.

Festinger, L. (1964). Behavioral support for opinion change. The Public Opinion

Quarterly, 28
(3) 404-417. Retrieved from

Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance.

The Journal Of Abnormal And Social Psychology, 58(2), 203

Keller, J. M. (1987). The use of the ARCS model of motivation in teacher training. In K.

Shaw & A.J. Trott (Eds.), Aspects of educational technology, vol. 17: Staff

Development and career updating. London: Kogan Page.

Mcleod, S. A. (2007). Simply Psychology - Psychology Articles for Students.Retrieved
from www.simplypsychology.org/

Smedslund, J. (1961). The acquisition of conservation of substance and weight in

Children. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 2, 156-160.

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