After reading this article you will learn about the theory of cognitive dissonance.
A theory which primarily tries to explore the relationship between one’s prior perception and attitudes on the one hand and actual experience on the other is the theory of cognitive dissonance propounded by Leon Festinger. The theory has certainly stimulated a lot of research in relation to motivation and attitudes and their important relationship to behaviour and a number of other areas. In fact very few theories in psychology have attracted so much of research as the theory of cognitive dissonance.
Basically, the theory postulates that people in general like to find that their perceptions and ideas about themselves, those about the environment, the happenings in the environment and reality agree with each other or in other words that their own perceptions, beliefs and ideas are in congruence with each other and also with the experiences of reality. Thus if a person has certain expectations of behaviour from another individual because of his own past experiences with him and the latter behaves in a completely different manner then this produces a dissonance.
Similarly when we expect a very respected leader to behave in an honest manner and his behaviour is at variance with our expectations then there results a dissonance.
Whenever one experiences such discrepancies between what one expects and beliefs on the one hand and actual reality, dissonance is the result and such a dissonance makes the individual uneasy and disturbed and impels to move in a direction or behaviour in such a manner as to reduce or minimise this dissonance.
These attempts may take any one of many forms like change in one’s own perception of oneself or a change in one’s perceptions of other persons or even use of several mechanisms of defence like trying to justify the discrepancy through other arguments etc. Reactions to dissonance can be constructive and positive or negative and non-adjustive.
For example, if people of one community have wrong ideas about another community and in actual experience they see “few members” of the latter community behave in a manner positively and constructively and different from the ideas they had, then such a dissonance can be very helpful in reducing prejudice and inter-group tensions.
Negatively it may take the form of furthering distance and making the perceptions more negative, and also worsening the situation, when it comes to the use of defence mechanism. Let us take the example of a bright management graduate in the area of marketing. His perception of himself and his qualifications is very high and consequent on this his expectations on the nature of his responsibilities and the status of a job which he should take up is very high.
He expects that he would be entrusted with very crucial responsibility like developing strategies, being involved in taking major decisions etc. But unfortunately when he joins a job, he finds that it is a routine job and all his dreams were ‘pipe dreams’.
Under such situations there arises a dissonance and this can result in a variety of responses:
(1) He can add a positive cognition by starting to believe that since he is a fresher it is better that he gets some grassroots experiences for his own good.
(2) He may alter his earlier ideas about himself, his qualifications and also consequently the expectations from his job, and accept the reality and settle himself, reasoning “that many outstanding marketing managers also started the same way as himself and try to collect evidence about outstanding executives whose life record would support this perception.
(3) He may develop an aversion for the job and think of quitting and finding a different job.
(4) He may remain tense and work mechanically, and even lose his motivation.
Here we may see that the first and perhaps even the second one are positive reactions while the latter two are negative. The dissonance theory as already mentioned has received wide attention and stimulated a lot of research and thinking.
It has been applied in attempts to make people less resistant to changes, changes in attitudes and also bring about changes in perception. Dissonance has even been used as a motivational concept. There is not doubt, the theory received very enthusiastic reception.
According to Festnger, dissonance can result under the following conditions:
(a) Logical inconsistency:
A person cannot be both honest and dishonest – a person whom you trust so much, lets you down.
(b) In consistency with expected behavioural norms:
An elderly person is normally expected not to fight with a young child, for some petty reason, but if you find an elderly person doing this, this also produces dissonance. Similarly one expects so called selfless leaders not to be corrupt and if it is proved that they are steeped in corruption, this can produce dissonance. Perhaps this is now more true in our country.
(c) Inconsistency between major and larger cognition and the minor cognition:
For example, if there is a general belief that educated people are generally gentle in their manner, logical and do not resort to physical violence and if we experience an incident where an educated manager or boss physically assaults or uses abusive language against the subordinate then this can also produce dissonance.
(d) Inconsistency with past experience:
For example, you have travelled by a particular airlines since a long time and the efficiency of the airlines has been very good and your journey always comfortable in the past. But suddenly you find that on the occasion the flight is uncomfortable, there is delay and the cabin service very poor. This can also produce dissonance.
In the above examples, Festinger has described various situations under which dissonance can occur. Perhaps one can think of many other examples of situations belonging to these four categories. The dissonance theory certainly had a very sound appeal in its early stages, but very soon questions came to be raised.
One objection is that it is mere commonsense and there is nothing great in it. The second objection is that the concept of dissonance is very vague and general and the theory should explicitly state whether dissonance is confined to logical inconsistency or experiential inconsistency or other forms of consistency, but as the theory has been applied this does not appear to be clear.
In many instances, the dissonance suggested is emotional and psychological and not rational. The dissonance theory has also been described as nothing but a watered down version of the classical, psychoanalytic concept of conflict and the operation of defence mechanism. But this last objection may not be very justified because in the case of classical psychoanalytic theory a conflict belongs to the past and occurs before an event or the opposite of it occurs whereas in Festinger’s view the conflict occurs after experience.
On the whole while one may say that the theory of cognitive dissonance may not have justified all the great expectations from it, nevertheless it has certainly made some contributions. In the assessment of a leading social psychologist Aronson, cognitive dissonance research has generated interest in some very crucial areas like the crucial role of the self-concept in behaviour, the concept of selective exposure and its efficacy in reducing dissonance and bringing about changes in attitudes and behaviour.