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© Dr Bob Moles, Networked Knowledge: Festinger ‘Cognitive Dissonance’.  

 

Networked Knowledge Media Reports 

Networked Knowledge Psychological Issues Homepage

 

This page set up by 



Dr Robert N Moles

  

Leon Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance 



Introduction  

The problem we will be faced with in the course of our work is to explain why it is that 

people who otherwise appear to be sensible and rational people do things which might 

otherwise appear to be surprising. For example, a concern of many people over the years has 

been to understand why it is that judges, attorney’s general, or other officials have been 

reluctant to refer cases back to the courts where miscarriages of justice may have occurred. 

Equally of concern are those cases where judges have declared there to be no miscarriage of 

justice, when it later turns out that there had in fact been a very serious miscarriage of justice. 

Indeed, it appears to have been the experience in all jurisdictions, that a miscarriage of justice 

might more easily be recognised after the passage of some 50 years or so. In cases such as 

that of 

Stephen Truscott in Canada

 and 

Derek Bentley in the UK



, the errors involved were 

fundamental and the detection of the errors did not depend upon some new scientific 

breakthrough or some new evidential discovery. All that was required was to apply well 

established processes of reasoning to the facts and circumstances which were manifestly clear 

from the outset in order to determine that there had been a miscarriage of justice. Yet, in each 

case, it took decades before the error was officially recognised. Why was that so?  

Similar questions might be asked about the circumstances which led to the recognition in 

Canada that 

Dr Charles Smith

 was incompetent in the way in which he conducted autopsies 

and gave evidence concerning them. Many years before he was officially recognised as being 

unfit for the office which he held, inquiries had been conducted and he was given the ‘all 

clear’ by those who ought to have known better. Similar tales can be told of delays and 

obfuscation in all jurisdictions in similar circumstances.

1

  

                                                 



1

 In the UK obvious cases would include the IRA bombing cases of the 

Birmingham Six

, the 


Guildford Four

, the 


Maguire Seven

 and the case of 

Judith Ward

. Cases which eventually led to the establishment of the UK 

Criminal Cases Review Commission

, which since 1997 has been responsible for the overturning of over 400 

criminal convictions which had otherwise exhausted all avenues of appeal.  



© Dr Bob Moles, Networked Knowledge: Festinger ‘Cognitive Dissonance’.  

 

In the appeal in the case of Derek Bromley in South Australia in December 2016, Professor 



Ian Coyle made reference to a number of psychological theories which relate to the 

evaluation of the significance of eye-witness evidence. They included the theory of ‘cognitive 

dissonance’ developed by Leon Festinger in the 1950s; the important work of Elizabeth 

Loftus in the 1970s and 1980s on memory and recall; the work of Gusli Gudjonsson on issues 

of interrogations and suggestibility in the 1990s.

2

 In this chapter I will discuss Festinger’s 



work on cognitive dissonance and in the following chapter I will look at the work of 

Gudjonsson on suggestibility. Also, because the Bromley case focusses on the nature of 

police interviews of the key eye-witness in that case, it might be helpful to include a further 

chapter on interrogation techniques.  



The theory of cognitive dissonance 

This theory is premised upon the understanding that humans do not like inconsistency or 

conflict in terms of the beliefs or ideas to which they adhere.

3

 It causes discomfort and the 



motivation is to reduce or eliminate it. We can do so, by changing our perception of the facts, 

or our beliefs or principles (in the case of lawyers it may be the ‘legal rules’ or their 

perception of them) in relation to those facts. In other words, without changing the world we 

can make our position within it more comfortable. The important point Festinger made was 

that the desire to reduce the inconsistent elements amounted to more than just a preference: 

Festinger’s insistence that cognitive dissonance was like a drive that needed to be 

reduced implied that people were going to have to find some ways of resolving their 

inconsistencies. People do not just prefer eating over starving; we are driven to eat. 

Similarly, people who are in the throes of inconsistency in their social life are driven to 

resolve that inconsistency. How we go about dealing with our inconsistency can be 

rather ingenious. But, in Festinger’s view, there is little question that it will be done.

4

 



A cognition is a piece of knowledge and it may relate to attitudes, beliefs or knowledge about 

the world. Dissonance arises when a person has two psychological representations which are 

inconsistent with each other. For example, I believe my son to be honest and truthful, and 

                                                 

2

 A  good overview of the issues can be found in the series of articles in Saul M Kassin, Gisli H Gudjonsson 



(editorial by Elizabeth Loftus) ‘

The Psychology of Confessions: A Review of the Literature and Issues

’ in 

Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol 5 no 2 November 2004.   

3

 This discussion here is based upon J Cooper Cognitive Dissonance: Fifty Years of a Classic Theory 2007 Sage 



[Cooper Cognitive Dissonance]. The underlying theory was developed by L Festinger in A Theory of Cognitive 

Dissonance, 1957.   

4

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p3.  




© Dr Bob Moles, Networked Knowledge: Festinger ‘Cognitive Dissonance’.  

 

now someone has come to me to say that he was caught shoplifting. Of course, I could just 



accept that he is a thief and I didn’t know him as well as I thought I did. But in this case, the 

issue concerns something fairly fundamental, not only to my son, but also to myself and my 

perception of myself. In order to accept that my son is a thief I might also have to accept that 

I have not been as good a father as I hoped I was, or that I have not been as attentive to him 

as I ought to have been. One can see fairly readily that there might be an easier way. I might 

prefer to say that the person reporting the matter to me is lying, or that there was a 

misunderstanding. Perhaps my son was merely ‘borrowing’ the item – not stealing it.  

In the Bromley case, one might take the ‘common-sense’ view that an eye witness, who was 

indisputably psychotic at the time of witnessing an event, suffering from audible and visual 

hallucinations and delusions of grandeur might not be a reliable witness. The factors giving 

rise to his unreliability were all known at the time of the trial. However, if one were to accept 

that view, which was promulgated by all five experts on the appeal, including the Crown’s 

own expert, then that would undoubtedly lead to the appeal being allowed. The difficulty 

with that for the Crown is that it would have to accept that Bromley had been kept in prison 

for 33 years on the basis of evidence which it ought to have known from the outset was 

inherently flawed. That could well lead to serious adverse judgments about the Crown 

conduct and to a substantial claim for compensation. Cognitive dissonance theory might lead 

to the view that the Crown would attempt to justify its position by continuing to uphold the 

claims made at the trial that the witness’s evidence supporting Bromley’s guilt could be 

partitioned from the obvious defect’s in the witness’s cognitive abilities. The interesting thing 

from our point of view is the fact that the Crown would maintain that position, despite the 

fact that none of the expert witnesses would do so.  

It can readily be seen that a person can do things to alter the significance of the gap between 

the discrepant cognitions. They can decrease the discrepancy by loading up the favourable 

cognition or undermining the unfavourable one.

5

 In the above example, it becomes clearer to 



me that my son is reliable and attentive because of the various things which he has done for 

me recently, and I can see that the person reporting the shoplifting to me comes from a bad 

part of town, and maybe he has some ulterior motive. Otherwise, I can try to minimise the 

                                                 

5

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p8, and reference to S J Sherman and L Gorkin (1980) “Attitude bolstering 



when behaviour is inconsistent with central attitudes,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16: 388-403; 

J Mills (1965) “Avoidance of dissonant information,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2: 589-

593.   



© Dr Bob Moles, Networked Knowledge: Festinger ‘Cognitive Dissonance’.  

 

impact of the whole event in my scheme of cognitions. I haven’t seen my son for a long time, 



he’s big enough to sort it out for himself, and I have a lot of urgent work to do.  

So, without changing the actual cognitions, one can change their respective values either 

individually or as a group. That this occurs was established experimentally by Jack Brehm 

when testing hypotheses derived from Festinger’s dissonance theory. He asked participants to 

rank kitchen items in the order of their desirability. He then told the participants that they 

were to be given a choice between two items from the list for them to keep as a gift. After 

receiving the gift, they were asked to re-rank the items on the list. It was not surprising to find 

that the item they received was now ranked higher and the item they did not receive was now 

ranked lower.

6

 The experiment also established that the more difficult the decision-making 



the greater was the subsequent spread in the ranking of the alternatives. The other interesting 

outcome was that where a person was simply given an item without any choice being made, 

then the relative rankings remained constant – there being no need for justificatory 

adjustment to the respective values.  Choice (or responsibility) it seemed was an essential 

precondition to the experience of dissonance.  

A further intriguing development of the theory came about when Festinger did a joint study 

looking at the effects of induced compliance.

7

 He reasoned that where a person was required 



to act publicly in a manner which was contrary to that person’s beliefs, a state of cognitive 

dissonance would occur. In the area of miscarriages of justice, this might apply where a judge 

is required to come to a decision which might show that a fellow judge in a previous case had 

made a serious error of judgment. In the Bromley case, it might be that the trial judge should 

have ruled the evidence of the eye witness to be inadmissible as not having probative value.

8

 



A subsequent decision ruling the trial judge to have been in error could have adverse 

consequences for the social perceptions of the trial judge - or for perceptions about the 

reliability of the criminal justice system. Any possible dissonance can be removed by 

determining that the evidence was in fact reliable and that there was no miscarriage of justice.  

                                                 

6

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p10-14, and reference to J W Brehm (1956) “Postdecision changes in the 



desirability of alternatives,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52(3): 384-389.  

7

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p15ff and reference to LFestinger and J M Carlsmith (1959) “Cognitive 



consequences of forced compliance” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 58: 203-210. 

8

 The law of evidence requires that evidence to be admissible in a criminal trial must have ‘probative value’. 



That means it is to be capable of proving some ‘fact in issue’ in the case. If the evidence is inherently unreliable, 

or if its ‘probative value’ is outweighed by its ‘prejudicial value’, the trial judge should rule it to be 

inadmissible.  



© Dr Bob Moles, Networked Knowledge: Festinger ‘Cognitive Dissonance’.  

 

In order to reduce the dissonant effects, Festinger reasoned that the person would need to 



reduce the discrepancy between what was said and what was believed; “… in the battle 

between changing one’s attitude and changing one’s behaviour, attitudes are the easiest to 

change.”

9

 Therefore, the theory predicts that attitudinal change would occur in the direction 



of supporting the mandated act.  

A number of experiments were conducted to confirm this hypothesis. Most of them involve 

participants who initially express their views on topics – the job they had just been asked to 

do was very boring. They are then induced to inform other students that it was a really 

exciting and interesting task. They then have to complete a survey ranking the task from 

boring to exciting. Most of them subsequently rated the task as being more exciting than they 

had initially stated that it was. Dissonance arose when they were asked by someone in 

authority to misinform another student, and it was subsequently reduced by shifting their 

attitude closer to support the misinformed view. Interestingly, it was found that when 

students were paid for this task, a greater payment produced less dissonant effect than did a 

smaller payment. In the former, they could say that they did it for the money, but when that 

explanation was lacking, they shifted their attitude as justificatory support.  

In a further elaboration of the thesis, Elliot Aronson and Jud Mills hypothesised that if people 

have to suffer or sacrifice something to gain a benefit, their subsequent evaluation of that 

benefit will be greater than it might otherwise have been.

10

 After all, they wouldn’t want to 



admit to others that their suffering had been pointless or in vain, would they? So, students 

who had to go through some embarrassing procedure to gain admission to a group, 

subsequently rated the activities of the group as more interesting and valuable than did those 

who were not required to go through such a procedure. In effect, effort justification means 

that the more onerous it becomes to achieve a desired goal, the more attractive the goal 

becomes.


11

  

In case we should think that the dissonance effect only works to enhance ego, self-respect and 



to maximise opportunities, we should remind ourselves that this is not what dissonance 

theory is about. It is merely about restoring equilibrium between discrepant cognitions. The 

adjustments required can work in any direction. In a case where a person has low self-esteem 

                                                 

9

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p15. 



10

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p11 and reference to E Aronson and J Mills (1959) “The effect of severity of 

initiation on liking for a group” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59(2): 177-181. 

11

 See also Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p159. 




© Dr Bob Moles, Networked Knowledge: Festinger ‘Cognitive Dissonance’.  

 

and expects to fail, a ‘win’ can be discrepant with that view. Instead of seeing this as a 



breakthrough to a rosy future, the re-alignment of ideas can result in turning the win into a 

loss. Aronson and Carlsmith conducted an experiment where participants were asked to make 

choices and then they were informed of the result in terms of being right or wrong. 

Subsequently, they were told that the results had been lost and that they had to go through the 

process again. Successful students adjusted their choices to maximise their success. 

Unsuccessful students even adjusted some successful choices they had made to unsuccessful 

ones. It was suggested that this was to maximise their failure rate so as to bring the results 

closer to the expectation demanded by their low self-image.  

 A number of studies were conducted to confirm the suggestion people can identify their 

affective reaction to dissonance as some form of discomfort, and so support the view that by 

acting to reduce dissonance by way of attitude change, they are in turn reducing their 

experience of discomfort.

12

 As we have seen, some degree of decision freedom seemed 



necessary for dissonance arousal, and so too did some degree of commitment to the dissonant 

cognitions,

13

 especially where there was some degree of public association with them and in 



circumstances where they could not easily be withdrawn.

14

  



Another factor found to be of significance in dissonance arousal was the bringing about of 

some adverse consequence. In the experiment, it was getting the subject to make a false 

statement to a third party, and then getting the third party to confirm that they believed what 

they were being told. The successful duping of the third party in this way would have been 

perceived as an adverse consequence by the subject. Where this occurred, it was found that 

the subject’s views shifted in the direction of supporting the false statement, even though they 

had earlier confirmed its falsity.

15

 However, for the adverse consequence to be a determining 



factor in dissonance arousal, it has to be something which was foreseeable at the time the 

action occurred. In this experiment, the subject was requested (not required) to choose a 

business partner who had a trait which meant that the business objectives would be less likely 

                                                 

12

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p57, 62. 



13

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 63 and reference to J M Carlsmith, B E Collins, R L Helmreich (1966) 

“Studies in forces compliance: 1. The effect of pressure for compliance on attitudes change produced by face to 

face role playing and anonymous essay writing,” Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, 4(1): 1-13. 

14

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 63 and reference to K E Davis, E E Jones (1960) “Change in interpersonal 



perception as a means of reducing cognitive dissonance,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 61(3): 

402-410. 

15

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 67 and studies there cited.  




© Dr Bob Moles, Networked Knowledge: Festinger ‘Cognitive Dissonance’.  

 

to be achieved. Freely choosing a partner who was less than optimal created dissonance in the 



subject, which was partially resolved by the subject rating that partner as a more likeable 

person.


16

 Indeed, the more disadvantageous the partner was the greater the subject got to 

increase their liking of them.  

The essence of dissonance is the bringing about of a foreseeable adverse consequence in a 

situation of choice, and where the agent has some degree of responsibility. The real 

motivating factor Cooper argues is the avoidance of an adverse consequence, rather than the 

restoration of consistency or the avoidance of inconsistent cognitions. (p80)  He appreciates 

that inconsistent cognitions, from an action orientation point of view may well be 

dysfunctional which is why we are motivated to reduce or eliminate them. However, he takes 

the view that the avoidance of the adverse consequence (in the Bromley case the owning up 

to a serious and prolonged miscarriage of justice) is really the dominant consideration.  

Ziva Kunda’s theory of motivated reasoning may well be helpful here.

17

 The attitudinal shift 



in favour of the adverse consequence to render it less adverse in the context of dissonant 

cognitions is understandable. Kunda overlays this with the understanding that where a person 

is motivated to hold a particular attitude or view, they will scan their previous knowledge and 

experience to identify key features to support that position. In effect, what were thought to be 

unwanted consequences are now converted into acceptable ones with additional reasoning to 

support them.

18

  

Cooper hypothesises that cognitive dissonance is a learned secondary drive resulting from the 



emotional responses to aversive events. If so, it may also be unlearned by applying principles 

of secondary learning.

19

 It is this consideration which could help us to identify educational 



strategies which could be employed to avoid potential miscarriages of justice.  

Self-affirmation theory suggests that in addition to an immediate response to attitude-

discrepant behaviour, the damage done to one’s self-image can also be restored by a broader 

                                                 

16

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 69. 



17

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 85; Z Kunda (1990) “The case for motivated reasoning,” Psychological 



Bulletin, 108: 480-498. 

18

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 87.  



19

 J Cooper (1998) “Unlearning cognitive dissonance: toward an understanding of the development of cognitive 

dissonance,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 34: 562-575.  



© Dr Bob Moles, Networked Knowledge: Festinger ‘Cognitive Dissonance’.  

 

range of self-affirming conduct.



20

 For Aronson, it is not so much the inconsistency between 

cognitions, but an inconsistency between cognitions and one’s concept of self.

21

  



People with high self-esteem will be troubled by a realisation that they acted dishonourably 

or incompetently.

22

 Of course, what counts as an aversive outcome merely indicates whether 



or not it was a desired outcome. The actual outcome may include the bringing about of harm 

to another.

23

 In the assessment of harm one may well use some normative standard, ie the 



standard or some group or culture. “… the culture may or may not be as broad as a society 

but may also be as small as a person’s family, neighbourhood or community. The main thrust 

of the definition is that the standards are based on a shared understanding of good and bad, 

wanted or unwanted, foolish or clever.”

24

 Other standards may be more personal.  



In dissonant situations, the use of normative or personal standards may be influenced by 

accessibility of appropriate cues; to the extent the situations makes one think of culture, 

groups or society will make normative standards more accessible, and more likely to be used. 

(108) As we have seen, dissonance brings about changed attitudes, justification of choices 

and rationalisation of effort to render outcomes non-aversive.

25

 Of course the type of 



rationalisation will be appropriate to whether the cognitive dissonance invokes the use of 

personal standards or normative judgments, it being suggested that the default standard is the 

normative one except where personal standards have been explicitly invoked

26

  and where the 



issue of self-esteem becomes particularly relevant.

27

  



Vicarious cognitive dissonance is based upon common membership of a group.

28

 The 



hypothesis is that if as a member of a group, you see another member of that group state an 

opinion you know that they do not believe, then you experience cognitive dissonance, even 

though you have not been personally responsible for the publicly embarrassing statement.  

                                                 

20

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 90-95. 



21

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 96 and reference to E Aronson (1968) “Dissonance theory: progress and 

problems,” in R P Abelson, E Aronson, W J McGuire, T M Newcomb, M J Rosenberg, P H Tennenbaum (eds) 

Theories of Cognitive Consistency: A Sourcebook, Chicago IL; Rand McNally, pp5-27.  

22

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 103. 



23

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 104.  

24

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 106.  



25

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 110. 

26

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 111. 



27

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 113.  

28

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 117.  




© Dr Bob Moles, Networked Knowledge: Festinger ‘Cognitive Dissonance’.  

 

Observers are more likely to share in the emotions of people to whom they feel close. A 



family member might feel the pain of joy or embarrassment of another family member. 

A team member might experience the frustration of his teammate’s missing a goal in 

the soccer match or the exhilaration of a late inning home run in the baseball game. 

Relationships in which people feel closely identified with one another help to activate 

the empathic transmission of emotions.  

One powerful reason that causes people to feel close to one another is common 

membership in important social groups. When we share group membership with 

someone, we take on part of that person’s identity and they take part of ours. We are 

connected by common membership and common fate.

29

  



Research on issues of social identity and social categorisation make it clear that we identify 

with and classify people in terms of their belonging to the in-group or out-group. Social 

identity theory demonstrates that people’s personal identity is tied up with their group 

membership.

30

  It also indicates that people favour their in-group to the detriment of the out-



group. Researchers found that the preference for in-group selection even prevailed where the 

basis of group membership was based upon the most trivial of factors.

31

 In addition, members 



of a group tend to see themselves as being more similar to prototypical members of the 

group, and individually distinguishing factors become less noticeable. Obviously, group 

membership must be relevant to the issue at hand, and in that situation, it must be relevant to 

the individual member’s sense of identity.

32

 So, where someone is acting to produce an 



aversive outcome, another person might feel the tension or discomfort by virtue of their 

membership of a common group, where group membership is relevant and the other is 

attracted to that group.

33

  



It may well be that the observer, aware of the tension (vicarious dissonance) might vary their 

behaviour as a result, which might trigger corresponding emotions. In one study, students 

based upon membership of a residential college, changed attitudes in support of another 

student from their college, who had been required to write a strong counter-attitudinal essay 

                                                 

29

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance  p 119. 



30

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 96 and reference to H. Tajfel (1982) Social Identity and Intergroup Relations

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

31

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 120.  



32

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 120. 

33

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 121.  




© Dr Bob Moles, Networked Knowledge: Festinger ‘Cognitive Dissonance’.  

 

(in support of a hike in college fees).



34

 “Indeed, Mackie, Worth and Asuncicn (1990) have 

shown that people attend more carefully to the arguments of in-group members than out-

group members when reading or listening to a persuasive message.

35

 Similar responses can be 



seen within sub-groups (prototypical members / marginal members) and also possibly 

between associations based upon other factors such as friendships or other relationships.

36

 

Empathy may be a factor, but is not a defining characteristic of vicarious dissonance.



37

 

Norton’s study demonstrates that once people change their attitude following vicarious 



dissonance, they cease to report vicarious discomfort.

38

 One possibility is that the attitude 



change alleviates the tension on the part of the witness, rather than the witness being 

empathetic to the plight of the other.

39

 The witness shares a sense of responsibility arising 



from common group membership, and so acts to adjust the least resistant cognitions to make 

the consequence less aversive.  

One problem with the experimental method of psychology is that it frequently bases its 

studies upon the reactions of middle class students at universities and colleges.

40

  

Westerners are supposed to act consistently with their inner thoughts and feelings; in the Far 



East, the harmonious flow of interpersonal interaction is an equally important aspect of the 

self. Dissonance may therefore be culture specific.

41

 If not in its occurrence, then perhaps in 



the conditions in which it occurs.

42

 The key factor is not whether dissonance occurs in all 



cultures, but what triggers the experience of dissonance in different cultures. If dissonance 

involves the violations of standards, then to the extent that those standards differ across 

cultures, there will be different triggers for the experience of dissonance.

43

  



                                                 

34

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 123.  



35

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 124 and reference to D M Mackie, L T Worth, A G Asuncion (1990) 

“Processing of persuasive in-group messages,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58: 812-822.   

36

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 132. 



37

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 133.  

38

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 133 and reference to M I Norton, B Monin, J Cooper, M A Hogg (2003) 



“Vicarious dissonance: attitude change from the inconsistency of others,” Journal of Personal and Social 

Psychology, 85: 47-62. 

39

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 134.  



40

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 135.  

41

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 139.  



42

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 147.  

43

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 149.  




© Dr Bob Moles, Networked Knowledge: Festinger ‘Cognitive Dissonance’.  

 

So, too within cultures, the experience of people can be affected by race or socio-economic 



position. Cooper refers to Du Bois who spoke of a double-consciousness. On the one hand 

the prevailing philosophy is that “all men are created equal” yet the experience of black or 

aboriginal people in terms of poverty, employment and discrimination is that they are 

distinctly unequal. In such circumstances, those discriminated against might well develop a 

greater tolerance to inconsistency than others.

44

  There is research to suggest that people of 



lower socio-economic status might experience less dissonance following adverse outcomes 

arising from their choices.

45

  

“One of the fascinating aspects of cognitive dissonance is that it often helps us make sense 



out of non-obvious events.” Cooper refers specifically to politics and terror and we obviously 

are concerned with legal investigations and judicial decision-making. He goes on to suggest 

that psychotherapy might well be successful because of its capacity to both arouse and reduce 

cognitive dissonance.   

Cooper goes on to apply dissonance theory to the situation of President Clinton and the 

Monika Lewinsky scandal. He makes us aware of the caveat that experimental social 

psychologists are uncomfortable with explanations that do not rely upon control groups and 

random assignment to condition and retrofitting explanations to accommodate historical 

events. However, he goes on to suggest that a dissonance analysis in this context might prove 

to be of interest there where the parallel seems striking.

46

 We might take the same view of the 



reasoning in relation to investigations and judicial decision-making. Cooper suggests that the 

experience with Clinton might be analogous to that of the person who chose a partner with 

money-losing traits who subsequently lost money. It was a situation of choice which led to 

adverse consequences (the losing of money) and to offset the dissonance experienced the 

person making the choice increased their liking for their partner. So, despite the very public 

predicaments which Clinton got into, the public had chosen to re-elect him in circumstances 

where such predicaments were foreseeable, and when they occurred, people increased their 

attraction to him.

47

  

                                                 



44

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 150 and reference to W E B Du Bois (1903) The Souls of Black Folk 

Chicago: AC McClurg & Co.  

45

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 153.  



46

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 159. 

47

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 161.  




© Dr Bob Moles, Networked Knowledge: Festinger ‘Cognitive Dissonance’.  

 

So, too, with psychotherapy. People expend often considerable time and money pursuing 



what appears to be a wide range of therapeutic processes, with each claiming roughly the 

same degree of success. So, in a situation where they could choose their therapy, would they 

come to be more attached to the therapy of their choice? It appears that they did. Indeed, even 

where the therapies were specially designed to be neutral in terms of the sought-after 

outcome, the attachment to them following upon physical, mental or financial effort meant 

that they gave rise to improved results.

48

  

Cooper suggests that persuading people of the validity of a particular message does not 



necessarily change their behaviour (eg smoking and condom use). He also suggests that 

dissonance can help to induce greater compliance with such positive messages.

49

 He points 



out for example that it can be hypocritical to advocate something and then not implement 

what is advocated. He adds that hypocrisy can induce dissonance where the pro-attitudinal 

statement is a matter of personal responsibility and the person is aware of the discrepant 

behaviour. The most obvious way to reduce the dissonance is to bring the behaviour into 

conformity with the attitude.

50

 This is most likely to be achieved where others are also aware 



of the tension. Hypocrisy studies have been used in many domains, including subjects like 

littering, water use and racism.

51

 Indeed, vicarious dissonance can occur where a person 



observes a fellow group member acting hypocritically and this too can be used to implement 

favourable reforms.

52

  

Festinger explained why eventually he left the field of social psychology. If a theory is not 



testable, then it is probably pointless. If testable, it requires change, and that too can induce 

tensions and dissonance on the part of the propounder of the theory. Some still think that the 

theory of cognitive dissonance is about inconsistent cognitions; others that it is about self-

affirmation and others about self-expectations.

53

 As Festinger said, all theories are wrong – 



and therein lies their interest – in finding out how they are wrong and what we may learn 

from them.

54

  

                                                 



48

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 167-170.  

49

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 174.  



50

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 175.  

51

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 177.  



52

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 178.  

53

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 182.  



54

 Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 183.  




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