Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive dissonance theory of communication aims at explaining how men can handle their thoughts beliefs and their actions. Essentially, the theory provides a picture of how the human brain handles ideas and specifically how it navigates around conflicting issues. The theory was first proposed by Festinger in 1957. According to Festinger, man has the ability or inner drive to hold all our beliefs and attitudes hence avoiding disharmony which is popularly referred to as dissonance. As a result of the development of this theory, it has been widely used by many psychologists in their aim of providing explanations concerning activities of man which require the mind to make decisions. Such instances involve cases whereby an individual may be in a dilemma- having a difficulty in choosing the right or the better option (Festinger, 1997).

In his book when prophecy fails, Festinger outlines how one religious group which had been made to believe that the world would end through the disastrous attacks from the aliens. The congregants and believers of the sect prepared themselves for the doomsday by taking the necessary measures like the abandonment of all the worldly activities which they deemed unfit for them in this new dispensation of things. However, the day they had expected the world to end came but the world did not end as they had been told by their prophet. The leaders of the sect were never taken aback by the occurrences. Therefore, they came with an explanation to substantiate for the new occurrence. They alleged that the world never ended because the welfare of members of the sect was considered by the aliens. Festinger points this out as an issue of dissonance whereby the leaders of this religious group did not want to face the shame as a result of their earlier stamen. So in stating that the aliens considered the members and decided against their plan of putting the world to an end was a way of dealing with the dissonance.

In a bid to prove the theory, Festinger carried out a research which entailed having participants to play around with pegs on a peg a board. Essentially this was a boring task which was to take duration of one hour each for the participants. The participants were then paid $1 or $ 20 randomly in order to convince those who in the queue that the exercise was very pleasing and enjoyable. Later on, when the individuals were asked to rate the exercise, those who had been paid $1 said that they had enjoyed the process while those who were paid $20 said that the process was tedious and boring. This research reflects the issue of dissonance quite clearly. In the case of those who were paid $ 1, they had altered their opinions in order to counter the feeling that they may have spent their time for nothing therefore they in a way developed an excuse for it. Those who were paid $20, on the other hand, felt that they went through a difficult process and hence the reason or the payments. They, therefore, did not have to alter their opinions or feelings in order to cover for the boring activity (Cooper, 2007).

Festinger goes ahead to elaborate how the issue of dissonance and consonance relate to each other in the process of cognitions. According to him, this feature exists in the beliefs that people harbor, their opinions, the knowledge they possess concerning their environment, and the knowledge pertaining their own actions and the feelings they have towards the different circumstances and issues in their lives.

Dissonance- in the case where there two opinions thoughts or beliefs which do not agree or oppose each other, dissonance can be said to be present in such a situation. A popular example which explains this is when a person who is a smoker is confronted with the thought concerning his health, as it is cigarette smoking has a lot of disadvantages for once health. So in this situation, the person will be debating between the thoughts for and those against the use. In order to minimize dissonance, in this case, the individual will downplay the effect of cigarette smoking on his life or even still just hold the opinion that a short life full of enjoyment is better than a long one which is boring, this, therefore, will reduce the dissonance and allow him to continue smoking as he wishes (Sanderson, 2010).

Generally, dissonance leads to discomfort in one’s life or in the community, hence, in a bid to reduce this, the individual will come up with measures to solve the issue of contention. The observable aspect of dissonance comes about as a result of the measures being taken by an individual to counter the effects of discomfort. Essentially this is the part which has been used by researchers to point out the existence of cognitive dissonance. In order to restore comfort, the individual may have to change one among the various aspects which determine dissonance, for instance, the beliefs, opinions or even their own behaviors

According to Festinger, dissonance can be reduced in a number of ways, for instance, an individual can decide to alter one or more of his attitudes. In doing so, the individual will be countering the discomfort which comes as a result of the former attitude. A consonant effect will result from such a step taken. In this case, if an individual’s behavior like smoking is contributing to the feelings of discomfort, the individual can drop the habit. This, however, is a rarity as in many cases the behavior has become habits or worse addictive.

The other approach which can be used in reducing dissonance is by one acquiring or getting new information. As it is, most beliefs opinions and even behaviors are determined on the basis of the information which an individual has concerning the different issues which affect his or her life. Hence, the acquisition of new information on the issue of contention will help in a big way in resetting the discomfort. For instance, if the individual is a smoker and is faced with the dilemma concerning whether he should drop the habit or not, in consulting information resources which contain information pertaining the issue of smoking , the individual will be better placed to make the right decision. In this case, the information material may tell him of the diseases caused by cigarette smoking as such the individual will be more inclined to stop the habit altogether.

Festinger also identified another remedy for the issue of discomfort which comes with dissonance aspect. He proposed the reduction of the importance attached to the beliefs opinions or attitudes possessed by an individual. Whenever an individual is pressed into a corner by his beliefs, for instance, the one stated above concerning the cult and the believers, it would be wise for the individual to downplay the whole issue. This will reduce the importance of the belief and the related pressure and responsibility required of him. As such the individual will be spared the agony of having to choose between the two issues that is, whether to sell his land quit his job and join the cult in their activities or just going on with his life (Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2012).

In spite of the many accolades and praises which the inventor of the theory has received from different quarters, critics of the theory have emerged with different assertions which claim that the theory is not as complete and foolproof as it seems. One such issue which has been pointed out is the individuals on which the research proving the validity of the theory was carried out on. It has been established that the people who participated I the research were predominantly university students. This, therefore, leads many to question whether the results from such a research could be applied to the whole population regardless of age. As it is, age and social class are some of the biggest determiners in the decision-making process in life. Therefore, by having people from the same category of the society of the society as the sample for the research, it makes it not to be easily applied to the society as a whole without it being rendered invalid.

The other weakness which has been pointed out by researchers is the fact that one cannot physically point out the dissonance issue. This, therefore, has made it quite difficult to be proved by science measurement methods. As such it is quite to prove the existence of something which cannot be seen through the use of the naked eye.

The term cognition has also been a subject of debate due to its ambiguousness as far as the cognitive theory is concerned. Critics questioned if the term referred to the emotions aspect or the perspective aspect. This really puts to question the whole theory as its definitions and interpretations rely on the understanding inferred from this word. Apart from that, different individuals react differently to situations. For instance, when an individual is anxious, he or she tends to be nervous and can easily take a step if confronted with a dilemma. Essentially many people do not experience the dissonance as the theory may want to claim or assert.

The ecological validity of the research studies supporting the theory has been put to question. It has been established by the researchers and critics that the research was carried out based on artificial activities which do not reflect the everyday activities carried out by people. Therefore, its application to the people’s life has been invalidated as the activities which people handle on their daily lives do not correspond to those upon which the research was based on (Cooper, 2011).

The cognitive dissonance theory can have huge implications in the field of health campaigns. Health issue as they are, are mostly matters which have to decide on a personal basis. A person will have to decide to adopt a healthy lifestyle or continue on a dangerous trend of carefree living. In most cases, the information which an individual possess concerning issues like the diseases prevalence, their causes their effects on an individual’s life and generally how it can be avoided or treated, can go a long way in influencing an individual’s views on such pertinent issues. Therefore, the provision of information through the various campaigns which sensitize the society concerning the disease which is most likely to affect them will in a way influence their opinions and attitudes towards diseases and generally their health. Therefore, the individuals will be forced to take a step as a result of the dissonance created by the information provided through the campaigns.  In order to eliminate the feelings of discomfort, the individual in this case will have to change their behavior. This will have an effect on their health. For instance, if the individual was a drunkard and resolves to stop the habit, chances that he or she will suffer from beer related complications will be much lowered or eliminated.

From the highlighted evidence it is quite clear that the theory has played quite a big role in the definition of people’s behavior and how they react to different activities. In a way, the theory provides the psychologists with an explanation as to why people act in a certain manner.





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