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In 1959, the Cognitive Dissonance Theory was introduced in an attempt to explain the discomfort one experiences when they hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. It’s a blend of cognition and motivation, and as Elliot Aronson tried to explain, “It’s essentially a theory about sense making: how people try to make sense out of their environment and their behavior, and thus try to lead lives that are sensible and meaningful,” (Aronson, 304). Aronson is a firm believer in the Cognitive Dissonance Theory and believes it revitalized social psychology as a whole.
Whenever one experiences dissonance between the beliefs held, one tries to reduce that dissonance in order to make sense of their decision making. One main idea presented by Aronson was what in particular leads someone to perform dissonance-reducing behavior. He said that it happens when one is astonished, made to feel stupid or made to feel guilty, (Aronson, 305). An example that he provided was if a basketball player makes twelve free throws during a game when he normally shoots 40%. Aronson said that he would feel some discomfort on his inability to gauge such a good performance and possibly wonder why he does not typically perform that well. Another main idea that he presented was that the theory encompasses and simplifies many different theories that try to combine cognition and motivation (such as the self-affirmation and self-discrepancy theories). He agrees that the theories add something important but questions the fact of whether or not having a lot of smaller theories develops the scientific development of psychology.
On the contrary to Elliot Aronson is Barry Schlenker who is not convinced that the cognitive dissonance theory is as suitable as it claims to be. One reason he gives for this belief is that there is no way to determine, at any given time, which sets of the possible cognitions are pertinent during a particular situation. Therefore, we cannot determine which pairs are consistent, inconsistent or irrelevant, creating room for disagreement, (Schlenker, 342). Another claim by Schlenker is one that attacks the claim made by Aronson that the theory has the ability to subsume several other smaller theories. He says: “[It] must shift its shape to incorporate the central propositions of each of these other theories. Dissonance does not subsume the others, it becomes the others. When all variations are taken into account, dissonance theory can explain all social behavior, but only after the fact,” (Schlenker, 344). In simpler terms, Schlenker believes that although the theory provides a good basis for a link between cognition and motivation, the theory is too broad and there is no way to prove what dissonance really is.
I found Schlenker’s viewpoint more convincing compared to Aronson’s. Part of this might be because he was able to directly attack/refute Aronson’s particular points that he made such as the theory having the ability to encompass that of many. Whatever the reason might be though, Schlenker still made extremely valid points as to why he is right. As he explained, there are too many possible explanations that can contribute to dissonance. One example that Schlenker gives is: “Why would consonant cognitions such as ‘I told the lie because the experimenter requested it of me’ or ‘I am helping science by telling the lie’ not eliminate any dissonance that might otherwise be created in forced-compliance situations?” (Schlenker, 342). This point directly attends to the problems of the different cognitions possible during a given time, and proceeds to question the validity of the theory as a whole.
I personally believe that in the realm of social psychology today although the Cognitive Dissonance Theory offers up valid reasoning that explains why we might feel a certain way in a given situation, there is a lot of arbitration. The general idea that when we have two specific, competing cognitions, we experience dissonance and attempt to reduce this dissonance as we might try to reduce hunger or any drive, is very intriguing and acceptable. However, the question then becomes whether or not we can isolate two specific cognitions and determine that those are the only factors influencing us. This is compared to hunger where we know indefinitely that it is derived from the lack of food which we be satiated by eating. The Cognitive Dissonance Theory does however offer up acceptable reasoning for examples such as hazing for a fraternity. We cognitively increase our positive outlook towards the fraternity since we can attribute the ‘abuse and hardwork’ we went through be convincing ourselves it was worth it. If we concluded that we did not in fact like the fraternity, there would be a personal struggle that makes one question as to why they went through the hazing and would therefore cause dissonance. Consequently, although the theory offers up valid reasoning, there is still some arbitration which allows me to conclude that the Cognitive Dissonance Theory is still relevant today, but requires some modifications for it to be more reliable and acceptable in the realm of social psychology.
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