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Leon Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance
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
Stephen Truscott in Canada
Derek Bentley in the UK
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
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.
In the UK obvious cases would include the IRA bombing cases of the
and the case of
. 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.
In the appeal in the case of Derek Bromley in South Australia in December 2016, Professor
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.
In this chapter I will discuss Festinger’s
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.
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.
It causes discomfort and the
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.
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
A good overview of the issues can be found in the series of articles in Saul M Kassin, Gisli H Gudjonsson
The Psychology of Confessions: A Review of the Literature and Issues
Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol 5 no 2 November 2004.
This discussion here is based upon J Cooper Cognitive Dissonance: Fifty Years of a Classic Theory 2007 Sage
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p3.
now someone has come to me to say that he was caught shoplifting. Of course, I could just
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.
In the above example, it becomes clearer to
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
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p8, and reference to S J Sherman and L Gorkin (1980) “Attitude bolstering
J Mills (1965) “Avoidance of dissonant information,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2: 589-
impact of the whole event in my scheme of cognitions. I haven’t seen my son for a long time,
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
The experiment also established that the more difficult the decision-making
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.
He reasoned that where a person was required
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.
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.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p10-14, and reference to J W Brehm (1956) “Postdecision changes in the
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p15ff and reference to LFestinger and J M Carlsmith (1959) “Cognitive
The law of evidence requires that evidence to be admissible in a criminal trial must have ‘probative value’.
or if its ‘probative value’ is outweighed by its ‘prejudicial value’, the trial judge should rule it to be
In order to reduce the dissonant effects, Festinger reasoned that the person would need to
between changing one’s attitude and changing one’s behaviour, attitudes are the easiest to
Therefore, the theory predicts that attitudinal change would occur in the direction
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.
After all, they wouldn’t want to
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
In case we should think that the dissonance effect only works to enhance ego, self-respect and
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
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p15.
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.
See also Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p159.
and expects to fail, a ‘win’ can be discrepant with that view. Instead of seeing this as 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.
As we have seen, some degree of decision freedom seemed
especially where there was some degree of public association with them and in
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.
However, for the adverse consequence to be a determining
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
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p57, 62.
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.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 63 and reference to K E Davis, E E Jones (1960) “Change in interpersonal
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 67 and studies there cited.
to be achieved. Freely choosing a partner who was less than optimal created dissonance in the
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.
The attitudinal shift
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
Cooper hypothesises that cognitive dissonance is a learned secondary drive resulting from the
of secondary learning.
It is this consideration which could help us to identify educational
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
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 69.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 85; Z Kunda (1990) “The case for motivated reasoning,” Psychological
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 87.
J Cooper (1998) “Unlearning cognitive dissonance: toward an understanding of the development of cognitive
dissonance,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 34: 562-575.
range of self-affirming conduct.
For Aronson, it is not so much the inconsistency between
cognitions, but an inconsistency between cognitions and one’s concept of self.
Of course, what counts as an aversive outcome merely indicates whether
In the assessment of harm one may well use some normative standard, ie the
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.”
Other standards may be more personal.
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.
Of course the type 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
and where the
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.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 90-95.
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.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 103.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 104.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 106.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 110.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 111.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 113.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 117.
Observers are more likely to share in the emotions of people to whom they feel close. A
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.
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
It also indicates that people favour their in-group to the detriment of the out-
basis of group membership was based upon the most trivial of factors.
In addition, members
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.
So, where someone is acting to produce an
membership of a common group, where group membership is relevant and the other is
attracted to that group.
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
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 119.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 96 and reference to H. Tajfel (1982) Social Identity and Intergroup Relations,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 120.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 120.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 121.
(in support of a hike in college fees).
“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.
Similar responses can be
between associations based upon other factors such as friendships or other relationships.
Empathy may be a factor, but is not a defining characteristic of vicarious dissonance.
Norton’s study demonstrates that once people change their attitude following vicarious
One possibility is that the attitude
empathetic to the plight of the other.
The witness shares a sense of responsibility arising
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.
Westerners are supposed to act consistently with their inner thoughts and feelings; in the Far
self. Dissonance may therefore be culture specific.
If not in its occurrence, then perhaps in
The key factor is not whether dissonance occurs in all
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.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 123.
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.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 132.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 133.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 133 and reference to M I Norton, B Monin, J Cooper, M A Hogg (2003)
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 134.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 135.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 139.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 147.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 149.
So, too within cultures, the experience of people can be affected by race or socio-economic
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.
There is research to suggest that people of
arising from their choices.
“One of the fascinating aspects of cognitive dissonance is that it often helps us make sense
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
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.
We might take the same view of 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.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 150 and reference to W E B Du Bois (1903) The Souls of Black Folk
Chicago: AC McClurg & Co.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 153.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 159.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 161.
So, too, with psychotherapy. People expend often considerable time and money pursuing
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.
Cooper suggests that persuading people of the validity of a particular message does not
dissonance can help to induce greater compliance with such positive messages.
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.
This is most likely to be achieved where others are also aware
littering, water use and racism.
Indeed, vicarious dissonance can occur where a person
Festinger explained why eventually he left the field of social psychology. If a theory is not
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.
As Festinger said, all theories are wrong –
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 167-170.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 174.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 175.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 177.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 178.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 182.
Cooper Cognitive Dissonance p 183.