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Respectable Challenges to Respectable Theory: Cognitive Dissonance Theory Requires Conceptualization Clarification and Operational Tools

By May 27, 2021 August 16th, 2023 No Comments

Becoming aware of how conflicting beliefs impact the decision-making process is a great way to improve your ability to make faster and more accurate choices. Changing the conflicting cognition is one of the most effective ways of dealing with dissonance but it is also one of the most difficult—particularly in the case of deeply held values and beliefs, such as religious or political leanings. Cognitive dissonance can even influence how people feel about and view themselves, leading to negative feelings of self-esteem and self-worth.

Note that social comparison mechanisms and consistency reduction mechanisms are both self-enhancement strategies, yet they seem to have little in common. Threat from dissonance rarely has anything to do with the performance of another, i.e., social comparison. Similarly, inconsistency is generally irrelevant to an SEM threat, whereas other’s performance is crucial. Attitude change is the usual mode of dissonance threat reduction; on the other hand, changes in closeness, performance, or relevance are the SEM modes.

Potential Pitfalls of Cognitive Dissonance

This number of studies is a strong argument for the conceptual validity of the theory. However, some of the core hypotheses of CDT have not been as thoroughly examined and, in their case, the field may benefit from an increased standardization. For instance, cognitive dissonance theory counter-attitudinal essays have been investigated with various topics and many differences concerning the instructions, the time course (e.g., length, temporal distance between the induction and the assessments) and the task (e.g., argument, essay, speech).

cognitive dissonance theory

To illustrate this, imagine Festinger (1957, p. 19) picnicker from Section “Dissonance in a Nutshell” once more (see Figure 2). One could take this even further, and notice a new dissonant relation between “I dislike and avoid rain” and the recognition that “Rain is vital,” or the fact that humans and nature need rain to survive. Here, the reduction of psychological dissonance (or higher-level prediction error) could therefore be achieved by attitude change, with the picnicker finally admitting that she, in fact, highly values rainfall.

Predictive Processing: a Brief Overview

These new paradigms are encouraging, but researchers in the field must still clearly realize that varying factors such as commitment is not the same as varying inconsistency. Given the number of possible regulation strategies, assessing only one of them limits the conclusion that can be drawn. For instance, the absence of use of a single strategy does not suggest that no regulation has occurred through others, even more as we know very little about what influence the choice of a strategy (Weick, 1965; McGrath, 2017; Vaidis and Bran, 2018). Hence, a serious assessment of regulation strategies that avoid false negatives would have to include all possibilities.

I have presented above the main tenets of the original composition of dissonance theory (see particularly Ch. 1 in Festinger, 1957, p. 1–31). More recent developments of dissonance theory, such as its action-based model, are discussed later in the present article. One notion worth emphasizing here is the plurality of strategies Festinger (1957) proposes for dissonance reduction, which include not only attitude change but also the alteration of behaviors and environments, movement and interaction in the socio-material realm, and active avoidance of dissonant information. Although dissonance research, since Festinger’s seminal work, has largely focused on dissonance between attitudes or values (Cooper, 2007), I wish to underscore here that this restrictive position is not one found in Festinger’s original theory.