Theoretical and Conceptual Knowledge


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The APA Dictionary of Psychology (2006) defines theory as a principle or body of interrelated principles that purports to explain or predict a number of interrelated phenomena. In the philosophy of science a theory has been defined as a set of logically related explanatory hypotheses that are consistent with a body of empirical facts that may suggest more empirical relationships. Theories are important tools in learning, research and in understanding various phenomena in life. Theories provide a consistent framework for understanding certain observations, occurrences and situation.

One such theory is the Cognitive Dissonance Theory. This is a theory that has attempted to establish the relationship between human behavior and attitude (Aronson, 1997). It has been useful in many field but especially so in the therapy and counseling field. This theory has brought new light on how people perceive behavior based on their beliefs and values. This theory has also brought about a great opportunity for psychologist, therapist and counselors to understand better human behavior and develop better ways of addressing behavior and attitude related cases. This paper is going to discuss the concept of the cognitive dissonance theory, it key areas of strength and the limitations of the theory.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

 Cognitive dissonance is a feeling of tension that comes as result of holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time (Aronson, 1997).  Dissonance theory presents the argument that dissonance is an unpleasant motivating force that encourages attitude change in order to restore consistency.  People having two conflicting cognitions will attempt to device ways of changing one or both cognitions that are in conflict so that they can feel comfortable about their actions or beliefs.  These theory attempts to explain why people lie to themselves about the reasons that make them behave the way they do.

Existence of cognition dissonance has been illustrated over and over by researchers.  Some studies have indicated that the magnitude of dissonance is at maximum when the reward for performing the causative action is low (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959). According to the theory, two factors affect the magnitude of dissonance; (1) the number of dissonance belief and (2) the importance attached to each dissonance beliefs. The magnitude of dissonance decreases as the reward increases. Various researches have indicated that people make up lies to justify their drinking or smoking habits. Others also try to justify irresponsible sexual behavior.  

People make up such stories because their habits conflict with their morals values and beliefs and therefore find themselves in a state of dissonance.  In order to feel comfortable about their actions people justify their behaviors by changing the conflicting cognitions.   Dissonance theory suggested that people try to eliminate dissonance in three ways (Aronson, 1997); (1) by changing either one or both cognitions that are in conflict. For example, an individual engaging in alcohol abuse may change his or her belief that alcohol abuse is morally unacceptable and unhealthy or he/ she may opt to change the perception of the seriousness of his/ her drinking habits or change his alcohol abuse behavior.  

(2) Cognitive dissonance is also eliminated by adding a new cognition. Using the example of alcohol abuse, the person involved may introduce a new belief that his habit of alcohol abuse is contributing some benefits in his/ her life.  (3) Cognitive dissonance is also eliminated by changing the importance of cognition. The person involved in alcohol abuse may also opt to reduce the importance of his belief that alcohol abuse is morally unacceptable and unhealthy.

According to the theory, cognition dissonance appears in almost all decisions and evaluation that people are involved in.  Dissonance occurs mainly when a person is compelled to choose between two incompatible beliefs or actions and eliminated by reducing the importance of the conflicting beliefs or actions. Knowledge of cognitive dissonance is very important and applicable in the field of therapy and counseling in understanding patients behaviors and trying in recommending intervention measures (Creswell D et al, 2005).

Through dissonance any unethical behavior can occur and be rationalized by human minds. By understanding how dissonance works counselors and therapist can act to reduce dissonance towards unethical behavior by individuals. The concept of reward in reducing dissonance and encouraging change of attitude can also be applied in therapy and psychology where a counselor will understand what kind and amount of pressure to give in order to achieve a certain behaviors change in an individual. In our daily attempt to avoid dissonance we practice what is referred to as selected exposure, selective attention and selective interpretation (Knobloch & Meng, 2009).

Selective exposure refers to the action of naturally seeking to be in environments that are supportive to our actions and beliefs. This argument is very true in real life as people will attempt to associate with other people that shares common values, beliefs and ideologies. People will try as much as possible to avoid people that do not behave in the same manner as them. Cognitive dissonance theory thus has been useful in helping us to understand how people associate. This theory can also be used in therapy and counseling sessions where individual undergoing behavior intervention procedures can be encouraged to select environments that will expose him/ her to desired morals. 

This concept also aid counselor and therapist to identify their patients character based on who they associate with and the environments they like to stay in. Selective selection refers to the tendency by human being to focus and accept ideas that are consistent with their beliefs and to block out ideas that are contrary to these beliefs (Knobloch & Meng, 2009.  It is common practice for example, for people professing the Christian faith to accept and focus on ideas that are in line with their faith but resist and lock out ideas that are contrary to their faith though they have seen or heard of such practices. A good example of a practice that may be locked out by Christian believers is the idea of same sex marriage.

Though they understand that this practice exist and has been accepted in some section of the society, most Christians will lock out such ideas. This concept is also useful in therapy and counseling. A patients behavior and actions can be influenced by selecting ideas and information that reach the patient. In school and home environments teachers and parents can control their childrens behavior by controlling the ideas and information that their children have access to. Selective interpretation on the hand refers to the tendency by human being to interpret information in a way that will bring meaning that is consistent to their beliefs.

People always avoid dissonance by interpreting the information they receive to only that which is in line with their beliefs. Dissonance theory suggests that dissonance is a result of cognition of ones behavior in relation to self concept. This means that people with high self concept and values will tend to have greater magnitude of dissonance when they are involved in overt behaviors (Klein & Monin, 2009). Psychologist can use this concept to change a patients behaviors by raising the patients self esteem, values and feeling of self consciousness. When the patients levels of self awareness and consciousness are raised he will be cautious in choosing his action to avoid dissonance.

The principle of minimal justification/ reward has also been suggested by the theory. This theory explains that in order to make one change his/ her attitude you have to give him or her least incentive (Critcher, Dunning & Armor, 2010).  This is also applicable in the field of counseling and therapy.  While attempting to change peoples behaviors, a counselor should not use huge incentives as this will increase the importance of the beliefs that the individual has. Offering less incentive to an individual makes the action you want them to take less important and therefore will not bring much conflict with the individuals fundamental beliefs.

The theory of cognitive behavior is not only applicable in therapy and counseling fields only but is also applicable in other fields as well. One such field where cognitive dissonance can be applied is product and services management. Dissonance knowledge can also be used to study consumer behaviors and even employees behavior within an organization (Cummings, 1996). This can play a big role in designing organization code of conduct and ethics, in developing marketing strategies and human resources policies as well.

Development of Cognitive Dissonance Theory

This theory was developed by Festinger in 195 when he described dissonance as a negative drive state experienced when a person holds two cognitions that are inconsistent.  This condition is usually uncomfortable and therefore a person tries to reduce it by attempting to change the inconsistent cognitions. In 1959 Festinger and Carlsmith conducted another experiments on how opinion changes following forced compliance. This experiment involved a subject performing a monotonous and boring experiment. After a certain period the subject is informed that his participation as a subject was over.

The experimenter then asks the subject for help saying that his research assistant was not available. The experimenter then tells the subject that he was experimenting on effect of peoples preconceptions on their performance. The subject is asked to tell the incoming participant that the task he has just completed was exciting and enjoyable (though it was monotonous and boring). The subject is offered either $1 or $20 for telling this lie.  His experiments came up with two derivatives;  (1) If a person is induced to say or do something that is contrary to his/ her opinion, there is a tendency for him/ her to change his/ her opinion in order to make it correspond with what he/ she has said.  (2) The larger the reward used to bring about the overt behavior the weaker the tendency for opinion change.

After Festinger and Carlsmith experiment, more studies involving more complex actions were conducted. One such study was the study conducted was that of reassessment of the dangers of smoking marijuana among university of Texas Students (Aronson, 1997). Another study on cognitive dissonance was that conducted Mill and Aronson (1959), which experimented attitudes of people on groups that they joined due to reward or pressure. This study experimented on the attitude of students who underwent different conditions in order to get into discussion groups. Students that were made to accomplish hard requirements in order to get into discussion groups which were made to appear boring made an excuse to themselves that the groups are just okay.

Cognitive dissonance theory has changed the way psychologists think about the human cognitive ability. Previous theories have suggested a simplistic approach to the way the human cognitive ability functions. Development of cognitive dissonance theory disapproved these simplistic approaches to human cognitive abilities that were being suggested by enforcement theories (Aronson, 1997). According to enforcement theories human rewarding individuals for performing a certain action may make the individual come to like the beauty of that action. This claim by enforcement theories were disapproved by Festinger and Carlsons experiment that revealed that the greater the reward the more the importance assigned to an action and therefore the more the dissonance.

Enforcement theories also suggested that people forced to join groups by some kind of pressure or reward end up liking the group more than group with less rewards (Aronson, 1997).. This claim was also disapproved by Millâs experiment that gave the indication that people forced join groups by means of rewards or other pressure attach more important to the action and therefore leading to greater magnitude of dissonance. Development of cognitive dissonance theory also changed psychologists perception of the relationship that exists between human behaviors and attitude (Monin, 2005).

Prior psychology knowledge suggested that in order to change human behavior, you must change their attitude first. Cognitive dissonance has proved that human attitude can also be influenced by human action and behaviors. This was evident in 1954 when court decision to stop segregation in school was arrived at. Traditional psychologist advocated that segregation should not be abandoned till people change their attitude toward different races and ethnic groups. However, this suggestion was overlooked and when segregation was stopped attitude of community toward members of different races began to change.

Cognitive dissonance presents this view that as people interact and adopt behavior that encouraged their coexistence their attitude towards each other will also be influenced. The idea expressed in these early experiments on cognitive dissonance emphasized dissonance as results of two cognitions. Later studies on this theory introduced a key concept in one of the cognition which is self concept (Aronson, 1997). Thus dissonance is a result of existence of a self concept cognition and a piece of behavior that violet our cognition. This later study came to claim that, it was not the action of saying that the experiment task was exciting while it was boring that brought about the dissonance but rather the fact that the individuals had told a lie which is contrary to their values without proper justification.

Insufficient punishment is a theory that was derived from and enforces the cognitive dissonance theory. Insufficient punishment theory claim that when there is less reward a person will end up devaluing the forbidden thing (Gregg, 2008). Aronson and Carlsmith displayed this when they threatened children not to play with some toys. It was not noted that the children did not play with the toys even after being left alone. After a period of time it was again noted that children who had received mild warning not to play with the toys were less attracted to the toys than those who received strong warning. 

Another modification to the cognitive dissonance theory is the consistency theory. This theory states that a person will only be in a comfortable state of affair when his inner systems all support each other and are supported by external evidence (Knobloch & Meng, 2009). Individual also have strong belief to be in constituent with prevailing social norms. When there is inconsistency among these things a level of discomfort is experienced in our inner world and a person act to restore constituency. A person resorts into ways such as; denial, ignoring, excuses, rationalization, transcendence or persuasion to restore consistency.

Self perception theory was also later derived from the cognitive dissonance theory (Bem, 1967). However, this theory took a slightly different approach in interpreting the cognitive dissonance phenomena. This theory takes in to account that it is possible to achieve attitude changes proposed in the dissonance theory without applying evasive motivational factors (Bem, 1967).   This theory also sort to solve statistical inconsistency experienced in the dissonance experiments. Other revision theories to the cognitive dissonance theory include; self affirmation theory and aversive consequences theory.

However, this later modification retained the core notion of the theory of there being a sense of inconsistency that a person would like to get rid of. This meant that dissonance now could be explained as an individual cognition about his behavior being inconsistent with his self-concept as a sensible person. The introduction of the concept of self as being the central element of dissonance helped in enhancing the predictive power of the theory.

Limitations of Cognitive Dissonance Theory

According to cognitive dissonance theory people attempt to change their behavior to fit into their self-consistence to avoid the state of dissonance. This theory continue to make claims that there a level of cognitive dissonance in every decision and evaluation that we make(Aronson, 1997). If this is the case, why are people always inconsistent in terms of their behaviors and believes. There are situations where people will come up with excuses on why they did a certain action or say certain things but few days later when the same people are asked they give different reasons. Existence of cognitive dissonance would not allow this.

Another limitation of the theory is that it addresses the foreseeable behaviors and foreseeable consequences (Aronson, 1997). When the subject participants Festinger lied about the experiment they went into dissonance because they understood the consequences of their actions. The theory has not addresses cases where actions are unforeseeable or consequences of certain actions are unpredictable. Therefore, it is nit clear as whether an individual will experience dissonance if his action results into unforeseeable consequences.

There is also criticism about the experiment conducted by Festinger and Carlsmith having secondary data and of being inconsistent (Bem, 1967). In the experiment, Festinger was able to know whether the primary subjects that had lied about the task changed their attitude because the subjected said so. Other things might have influenced them to act like or say that they that their attitude towards the task have changed. On similar note, a valid experiment should be able to replicate results. That is the experiment should be able to give consistent results every time the experiment is conducted under similar conditions. This was not the case with Festingers and other dissonance experiments where it is was difficult to replicate results.

There is also a question of choice in Festinger experiment.  The subjects in Festingers experiment were asked to lie to the incoming participant and had very limited choices between lying and disobeying Festingers request (Aronson, 1997). This raises the question as to whether a person can suffer from dissonance if he had no other choice other than to commit the actions that are contrary to his beliefs. This theory applies the concept of dissonance in areas where people choices of behavior are not continent with their self-consistency.

But in the experiment setting the subject had no choice like in real world setting. In the evidence concerning desegregation of school, parents had an option of taking their children to desegregated public schools or segregated private schools. However the government made the process of applying for state aid for private school education that many parent were unable to comply. This now makes it difficult to determine whether parents sent their children to desegregated school because of changed attitude or because of lack of a choice. Personal freedom and availability of choice can play a big role in influencing peoples attitude.

If there were real choices in the above mentioned scenarios that have widely been used to support cognitive dissonance theory may be the outcome would have been different. In summary, theories provide a good framework for professional to better understand a certain phenomena or situation. Though a theory might present aspects of a given phenomena that are not accurate, they however contribute to better understanding of the truth towards that phenomena. Cognitive dissonance theory is a good example of theory that has made significant contribution to better understanding of human behaviors.   

Dissonance theory is a theory about seeking consistency and sense making among human beings: that is how humans try to make sense out of their surroundings, beliefs, values and behaviors (Aronson, 1997).  Whenever there is an inconsistency between our attitude and behavior we tend to change something so as to eliminate the dissonance.  Through cognition dissonance human being are able to rationalize irrational behavior helping them become less critical of themselves. Human minds use dissonance to impress others, protect our moral integrity and to reaffirm our self-concept.


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