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Essay/Term paper: Cognitive dissonance

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Science Reports

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Cognitive Dissonance

How do human beings make decisions? What triggers a person to take
action at any given point? These are all questions that I will attempt to answer
with my theoretical research into Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive
dissonance, as well as many of the other related theories. We often do not
realize the psychological events that take place in our everyday lives. It is
important to take notice of theories, such as the balance theory, the congruency
theory and the cognitive dissonance theory so that one's self-persuasion occurs
knowingly. As psychologist and theorist gain a better understanding of
Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory manipulation could occur more easily
than it already does in today's society.
Leon Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory is very closely related to
many of the consistency theories. The first of the major consistency theories,
the balance theory, was proposed by Fritz Heider (1946, 1958) and was later
revised by Theodore Newcomb (1953) (Larson, 1995). Heider and Newcomb's theory
was mostly looking at the interaction between two people (interpersonally) and
the conflicts that arose between them. When two people have conflicting opinions
or tension is felt between another person, it is more likely persuasion will
occur. Because if no tension was felt between the two parties, or there were no
conflicting opinions there would be no need to persuade each other. If you think
about it persuasion occurs only because there is tension between two facts,
ideas or people.
Charles Larson writes in his book, Persuasion, Reception and
Responsibility, "another approach to the consistency theory is congruency theory,
by Charles Osgood and Percy Tennenbaum (1955)" (p.82). This theory suggest that
we want to have balance in our lives and there is a systematic way to
numerically figure it out. When two attitudes collide we must strive to strike a
balance between the two attitudes. The balance varies depending on the intensity
we feel about each attitude and our pre-disposed positions concerning the
attitude. We either have a favorable , neutral or unfavorable opinion concerning
ideas. When two attitudes collide we will attempt to downgrade the favorable
position and upgrade the unfavorable position so that we feel a balance. For
example, suppose someone thought of Mel Gibson as a good role model. Later on
they come to find out Mel Gibson does not like football. If the person was to
like both football and Mel Gibson one of three things would happen: 1) The
individual would downgrade their opinion of Mel Gibson, or 2) downgrade football,
or 3) downgrade both. The action taken would create psychological consistency in
one's mind. These theories are very interesting and have been quite researched,
but none more so than Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance.
Leon Festinger's theory, unlike the others I have described, deal with
quantitative aspects, as well as qualitative. That's what is so different and
revolutionary about Festinger's theory. Robert Wicklund and Jack Brehm (1976),
in their book Perspectives on Cognitive Dissonance, write," Most notably, the
original statement of dissonance theory included propositions about the
resistance-to-change of cognitions and about the proportion of cognitions that
are dissonant, both of which allowed powerful and innovative analyses of
psychological situations (p.1). The term "dissonance" refers to the relation
between two elements. When two elements do not fit together they are considered
dissonant. Cognitive dissonance can be broken down into a number of elements. As
Brehm and Cohen (1962) write, "A dissonant relationship exist between two
cognitive elements when a person possesses one which follows the obverse of
another that he possesses. A person experiences dissonance, that is, a
motivational tension, when he (or she) has cognitions among which there are one
or more dissonant relationships" (p.4).Cognitive dissonance can occur
intrapersonally as well as between two or more people.
With individual cognitive dissonance the individual longs for
consistency within their own mind. Second, there exist dissonance between two or
more people. This occurs when two people have differing opinions about a
particular issue. This phenomenon may have something to do with varying degrees
of knowledge about the issue or different belief systems being enacted. An
example of this can be seen by taking a look at the cultures of the West versus
cultures of the East. Cultures of the East value loyalty and honor. Cultures of
the West have different value systems that often collide with those of the East.
Between two parties, dissonance may arise from: (1) logical inconsistency; (2)
because of cultural mores: (3) because of a specific opinion; and (4) because of
past experience. To reduce cognitive dissonance a person can either reduce the
dissonant cognition, or its relative importance can be reduced (Wicklund and
Brehm, 1976, p.5). Although the theory assumes that dissonance will be
eliminated or reduced, only the thought about taking action to do so is a given.
The means employed by any given individual to meet these ends is still open to
speculation. Action taken depends solely on the many variables involved, such as
ego involvement, commitment, past experiences and so on. We all react
differently to dissonant cognitions that we are confronted with. My research
attempts to examine the different reactions that people have had to different
opinions I have declared which involve them heavily. The area I have chosen to
look at is the habits which many of my close friends engage in: smoking. This is
often a difficult topic to discuss because it is an addictive habit and very
personal to many people. Full well knowing these facts, I attempted to delve in
the minds of my friends and put many of the theories afore mentioned to use in
the practical world.
To undertake my research project I observed my friends in their everyday
routines. I chose to attempt to persuade many of my friends to stop smoking.
While attempting to undertake this momentous task I observed many of the
consistency theories, especially Festinger's theory of cognitive-dissonance. The
research method that was used was first hand observation. You could say that I
was undertaking a form of ethnographic research. Most of the time I had to
become an active member of the persuasion process, or the subject of smoking
possibly might not have been talked about. The context I chose was that of
my friends at home. All of the participants in the study did not know I was
logging their behavior for later use in this research paper. Either myself
and/or my friends would be active participants in the persuasion process. The
basic premise of the cognitive-dissonance theory is that when two pieces of
information do not follow each other we will experience some form of
psychological tension, which we will attempt to reduce in some way. Often times,
according to Leon Festinger, people attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance
whenever possible (Gleitman, 1983, p.12). I noticed many times that my friends
were very interested in the topic of quitting their habit, and some at times
took the issue personally. When people are personally involved with an issue,
much like the use of tobacco, they are much more attentive to the issue (Petty &
Cacioppo, 1981, p. 847).
For example, on 3/31/96 I told my three friends that I was concerned
about how much they had been smoking recently. On the average they are smoking
20 cigarettes a day. One of the girls immediately retaliated with the statement
that " her grandmother smoked for nearly all of her life and she is in good
health." In this particular instance we can see the basic premise of the
consistency theories at work. The girl who said this statement likes me. She
also enjoys smoking. When I made the statement that I was concerned with the
levels of tobacco consumption she disregarded my opinion by using past
experiences as evidence to back her point. She is a friend so I assume she
somewhat values my opinion, but she upgraded her opinion of smoking and
downgraded my opinion. She experienced some form of dissonance when I stated my
opinion. She reduced her dissonance and thus was in balance. This is where
Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance attempts to rationalize her behavior.
The other consistency theories do not recognize the degree to which the
dissonance exist. If you were to not use Festinger's model, most likely you
would have assumed that my opinion would have changed her attitude and actions.
After all, I did have a contradictory opinion that did not follow hers, and
dissonance was felt. That's what is missing from the balance theory and the
congruency theory: "latitudes of attitude". This theory, unlike many others,
must factor in the human psyche as a variable. The persuasion process did not
occur in this case because my friends attitude towards not smoking was so anti-
quitting, that it might be impossible to change. You cannot think of this theory
in regards to machines you must look at it from the human perspective.
Another example of observable cognitive-dissonance occurred on 4/7/96.
The same three friends and myself were watching television. An anti-smoking
campaign sponsored by the American Red Cross came on the television. Various
facts about the amount of people that die every year from smoking and statistics
about the amount of Americans with lung cancer were shared. I asked the girls
what they thought about the information. They all agreed that it could happen to
them, but they hoped it did not. In this case, I believe dissonance was created
by exposure to information. The girls did not like the information and
downplayed its validity. Not one of the girls stood up and said, "I am going to
quit smoking today, I am really at risk of getting lung cancer!" Once again
personal involvement was a given, and once again no action was taken. The girls
feel to strong about smoking and refuse to quit. We must ask ourselves what a
solution to this problem could be? Why is it that smokers, in the face of grave
danger, refuse to reduce dissonance by acting out their urge to quit smoking?
The cognitive-dissonance theory is a part of our everyday lives, whether
we realize it or not. When we are presented with view points or opinions that
differ from our own often times we feel dissonance. We, as human beings, are
always striving to keep our lives in balance. Often a balance in our psyche
requires that we not heed the warnings of things to come. As I have shown,
cognitive-dissonance is utilized to avoid taking action.
As many theorist have stated cognitive dissonance does create an
internal conflict that causes someone to take action. In the case of smokers, I
must regrettably report that smoking is vary rarely avoided, even with
dissonance in full effect. Smokers, when presented with hard core data showing a
decline in health due to smoking, refuse to head warning. This is evident with
all of the "guaranteed" products to help people stop smoking. First there was "
The Patch" and now the consumers are intrigued with products, such as Niccorrest
Gum. Apparently no matter how much dissonance is felt and to what degree it is
felt does not matter. Therefore, it may not be possible to get rid of dissonance
or even to reduce it materially by changing one's behavior or feeling.
The research I have conducted supports my claim that it is nearly
impossible to change the actions of smokers even though massive amounts of
cognitive dissonance are felt. I believe that many of the people being observed
reduced the overall magnitude of dissonance by adding new cognitive elements. No
matter how much dissonance is felt, the smoker will always find elements that
are consonant (agreeable) with the fact of smoking. The will power of
individuals feeling as though they have to have smoking in their everyday lives
is, often times, far to powerful for dissonance to overcome. Perhaps research
such as mine can be useful to further research into the area of dissonance and
the use of tobacco. Much work still needs to be done in this area. We see so
many people dying from lung cancer. Something must be done. Perhaps looking at
effective methods of the use of cognitive dissonance can be helpful in this


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