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Social Psychology: Applying Leon Festinger's Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

Updated on August 16, 2011

In my hub about cognitive dissonance, I introduce and define the concept of cognitive dissonance in greater detail. I recommend checking it out before reading this if you haven't.

The theory of Cognitive dissonance has its applications into many everyday scenarios. Here are the few more salient examples.

Free Choice Paradigm: Post-Decisional Dissonance

Making decisions can be challenging especially when our self-image is at stake, or when our options are both morally questionable, attractive or perhaps inconsequential.

On 12 October 2007, The Straits Times ran a story Plight of the Elderly, which highlighted the plight of the homeless elderly in Singapore and India. Now that the days of three generations residing under one roof are gone, coupled with the changing demands on modern workers, many elderly parents are left neglected by their children.

In Singapore, many families face the dilemma - whether to send the elderly to an old folks home or to take care of them themselves. Would it be considered unfilial to send them to a home? Is it really best to keep them at home if we are too busy or lacking the care-taking skills to provide the best care for them? Someone believing strongly in filial piety would experience cognitive dissonance when he eventually chooses to put his aged parent in a home.


In fact, postdecision cognitive dissonance is something that has been observed (Brehm 1956; Aronson 1997; Murphy and Miller, 1997). This is when people feel better after making difficult decisions. For example, the person who eventually places his elderly parent in a home although he is afraid it is unfilial now is more convinced that the home will provide his parents with better facilities and company of other old folks – which he cannot provide in his own home.

Selective Exposure Hypothesis

Selective exposure is our propensity to be more attentive to details, pieces of information or cognitions that help to confirm our own cognitions (consonant information), and to pay less attention to information that is inconsistent or dissonant to our attitudes (dissonant information).

For example, when we eat exotic and endangered animals – an adventurous person with no qualms about eating such tonics or foods would pay attention to the medicinal benefits of these foods, experience the novelty of this experience, and would probably recall how people in Thailand sell fried beetles and cockroaches and worms on the street as snacks. However, someone with the opposite feelings towards consuming these foods would pay more attention to the facts that the sharks are inhumanely left to die after their fins are slashed off, how the tigers are on the brink of extinction, or perhaps how the people have to risk their safety when they climb up rickety poles to get to the swallow’s nests.

Induced Compliance Paradigm: Counterattitudinal Behavior

The induced Compliance Paradigm gives insight into how people behave when they were influenced to behave in ways that were inconsistent with their private attitudes.

  • Empirical study

In 1959, Leon Festinger and James M. Carlsmith published their paper Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Here we provide a summary of the experiment: 


Undergraduate students in Stanford University were experimental participants tasked with two boring, meaningless and repetitive tasks that lasted half an hour each– the first requiring to fill a tray with spools, emptying them and then refilling them… and afterward screwing 48 pegs onto a board, unscrewing them and repeating the process again until the time was finally up.

After they finished, the experimenter told them that he needed their help to brief another group of students. These students were awaiting to do the experiment they (the participants) had just completed. Their job was to tell them enthusiastically how much they enjoyed the experiment (which would be a lie to most people don’t enjoy doing boring tasks!).

Then, half of the participants were given $1 to thank them for their time, while the other group $20. Before they left the experiment, they were asked if they had enjoyed it.

Results of the experiment:

Participants who received $1 rated the experiment as enjoyable, while those who received $20 did not rate it as enjoyable.

In other words, those who received $1 changed their attitude to reduce cognitive dissonance more compared to those who received $20. This could be attributed to the substantial external justification that they received of $20; $1 was probably too small for the participants to resolve dissonance by changing their attitudes. (Festinger &  Carlsmith, 1999)

What we can learn from the experiment:

1. If someone is forced to do something that would create dissonance, there would be a likelihood that he would alter some of his cognitions to reduce the dissonance experienced.

2. The higher reward received for performing dissonant actions, the higher the likelihood a person would not alter his cognitions to reduce dissonance experienced. (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959)
Implications of the study: Overjustification Effect

The overjustification effect is sometimes referred to as the undermining effect. When this occurs, strong external reasons are used to justify one’s behavior. This reasons could be financial in nature or otherwise, and this cause people to attribute their actions to this external justification instead of intrinsic motivation. (Deci, E., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R.,1999).

Tangible rewards tended to be more detrimental for children than college students, and verbal rewards tended to be less enhancing for children than college students. (Deci, E., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R.,1999)

Applications of these findings are numerous – does this now mean that it is better not to give children stickers, little gifts or extra pocket money when they excel in school or demonstrate positive behavior? According to this study, perhaps so.

Factors affecting Induced compliance

  • Personal responsibility
  • Choice
  • Aversive consequences
  • Personal Responsibility

Effort Justification Paradigm

The Effort Justification paradigm says that people will try to rationalize their actions as worthwhile when they have devoted a lot of resource or energy or effort into that particular endeavor.

This paradigm is built on the assumption that as far as possible, we will conserve as much energy as possible as do not like to exert unnecessary effort as we do not like to suffer unjustly. (Worshel 2000)

Take for example, the effort put in for a school project that weighed 5% of your final grade. You stay up late many consecutive nights, sacrifice considerable episodes of your favorite television program, neglect your social life… just to make that project perfect. Although the 5% of the final grade does not really call for that much sacrifice, the thought of all the leisure and precious time you gave up causes you to justify your actions. You comfort yourself with the thought that your project was critical to your grade; that it was important enough for you to make such considerable sacrifice. Besides, it would be terrible to regard yourself as having exerted such tremendous effort for a silly or menial cause!

Let’s take a look at the thought process an individual might go through. This is a good instance of cognition reduction in action.

Step 1: Dissonant Cognitions: “I put in a lot of effort” & “This goal is not worthwhile”

Step 2: Realizes that one cannot turn back the clock in time, what is done is done; “I put in a lot of effort” is, among the 2 cognitions, the harder one to change.

Step 3: Justifies/ Rationalizes why and how the goal is important, to reduce the dissonance in “This goal is not worthwhile.” 

What affects cognitive dissonance?
Social support

Festinger’s theory of social comparison (1954) tells us that people need to evaluate their own actions and behaviors, abilities attitudes… to do this, we compare ourselves to people around us, or to a reference group.

The people we choose to compare ourselves are most likely to be similar to us – those who share similar values and beliefs or who engage in similar activities as us.

If this reference group shares the same values and opinions as us, we experience consonance; if we share opposing views, we experience cognitive dissonance.

We can see the widespread implications and applications of this when we look at how politicians appeal to the public so that when they campaign, they will garner the most support. and how many religious groups are tightly knit communities as people tend to turn to each other for social support.


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    • RedmanBrendan profile image


      7 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Have you ever seen any of zimbardo's stuff? He has a lecture on his "Lucifer Effect" where he mentions abu-grabe, etc.

      If you're interested in the UFO/Alien phenomona check out a couple of my hubs, especially the NSA documents if you haven't.


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