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In this lesson, we’ll talk about the psychological theory of cognitive dissonance, and a famous experiment done by psychologist Leon Festinger, who developed the theory of cognitive dissonance. Then you can test your knowledge with a quiz!

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Think about some of your deeply-held beliefs. What would it take for you to change those? Would you feel uncomfortable if you encountered information that seriously challenged some of these beliefs? What if you believed something but acted in a way that contradicted that belief?The theory of cognitive dissonance is a psychological principle that gets at these questions. It refers to the discomfort we feel when we act in a way that contradicts our beliefs, encounter information that challenge our beliefs, or hold competing beliefs simultaneously.Let’s say you believe animals and people are equal and should be treated with the same respect. You dislike the meat industry and feel that eating animals is inhumane.

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Yet, you sometimes prepare and eat meat. The discomfort you might feel by acting in a way that contradicts something you believe is cognitive dissonance.Now that we know a little bit about cognitive dissonance, let’s talk an important experiment that led to the development of this theory.

Leon Festinger

In the 1950s in American psychology, cognitive dissonance was a little known perspective. Enter psychologist Leon Festinger, one of the most notable social psychologists of the last century.

He was interested in trying to understand how people make sense of things when beliefs and actions don’t match.Festinger developed a few propositions to explain what would become the theory of cognitive dissonance. Let’s talk about those now.First, Festinger suggested that people are aware when our beliefs and our actions are inconsistent. In fact, we’re sensitive to this and it tends to have some kind of effect on us.

Second, once we become aware of this inconsistency, it will cause dissonance and depending on how uncomfortable we are, we’ll work to resolve this dissonance. Third, we’ll try and resolve this dissonance. This can happen a few ways.First, we might change our beliefs. Think back to our example about eating meat. You could just decide eating meat is OK. This seems like the easiest approach but people don’t tend to change their beliefs that often or that easily.

Another way would be to change your action. If the belief that eating meat is wrong is difficult to change, then you can stop eating meat, maintaining your belief and reducing dissonance by changing your action. This is generally the most common way people reduce dissonance.

Finally, you could change how you remember the situation that caused dissonance. Maybe you had a chicken sandwich but you decide that eating chicken is OK, it’s just cows you need to avoid. Basically, you’re changing your perception of your action to reduce dissonance.So how did Festinger test this out? Let’s talk about his famous cognitive dissonance experiment.

Festinger and Carlsmith Experiment

In 1959, Festinger and his colleague James Carlsmith devised an experiment to test people’s levels of cognitive dissonance.

They gathered a group of male students at Stanford University as their participants. The students were instructed to do a couple of very boring tasks for about an hour (they were asked to turn pegs clockwise on a board and move spools in and out of a tray. Thrilling, right?).After completing the tasks, participants were asked to rate how exciting they found the task to be.

But after this, some of the participants were asked to tell the next group of people that the task was very exciting and interesting, even though it was boring. Half of the subjects were paid $1 to do this and half were paid $20 to do this.The main goal of the experiment was to see if people would change their beliefs to match their actions, in an effort to reduce the dissonance of not enjoying a task but lying about it.Here’s where things get interesting.

You might think that the subjects who were paid $20 would be more inclined to say the experiment was interesting, even though they had not enjoyed it, since they were given a lot more money. But this group actually did not change their attitude much, maintaining it was boring. Those who were only paid $1, however, were more likely to change their attitude a bit, saying that the experiment was interesting.Festinger and Carlsmith theorized that the group who was paid $20 didn’t really need to justify why they had lied; they were paid a lot of money to do it! However, those who were only paid $1 to lie had to justify this some other way, in order to reduce the dissonance of both lying and receiving little reward. This group needed to change their attitude to fit their behavior, reducing their cognitive dissonance.

Lesson Summary

Cognitive dissonance is a theory developed by 20th century social psychologist Leon Festinger. It refers to feelings of discomfort that occur when our actions and beliefs don’t match, when we hold competing beliefs, or when we encounter information that seems to challenge some of our beliefs.When people experience dissonance, they are motivated to reduce it, especially if it is causing a lot of stress or discomfort. We can do this by changing our actions, changing our beliefs, or by changing our perception of a situation that caused dissonance.When Leon Festinger came up with this theory, he and his colleague James Carlsmith came up with an experiment to test it out. A group of students were paid either $1 or $20 to complete a very boring task but then lie and say it was fun.

The group paid $20 maintained that the experiment was boring. They didn’t need to adjust their attitude because they were paid plenty of money to lie. The group paid only $1, though, had to change their attitude to fit their behavior in order to reduce the cognitive dissonance of not only lying but also being paid very little to do so.Next time you feel like your actions and beliefs don’t quite match up, remember this experiment!


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