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The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance in Social Psychology

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Known as one of the most intensively studied theories, Cognitive Dissonance (CD) theory was developed by American social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. He proposed individuals have a core belief system that affects attitude and actions. When conflict to this core arises, a person naturally desires to eliminate the conflict to alleviate the discomfort caused. Individuals want to avoid dealing with their dissonance conflict, and that can result in an alteration of attitude and behavior. 

Cognitive dissonance theory has evolved greatly since its birth in 1957. Originally, the theory focused on inconsistency among cognition. Currently, cognitive dissonance is studied as a complex set of principles that incorporate the insurmountable data gathered over the last 50 years. CD research has evolved from studying the theory on an individual level to studying the theory within social groups, social media, and in correlation with emotions. (Cooper, 2019) We review some of these studies and the effect of their results on cognitive dissonance theory in this paper.

Often individuals facing discomfort from dissonance conflict will find ways to avoid, disregarding, or devaluing the knowledge that doesn’t align with their belief system. While changing the behavior can be an effective way to overcome cognitive dissonance, it is difficult for individuals to release deeply ingrained belief systems and habits. This often leads to unsuccessful results. Individuals could also search for new information that outweighs conflicting evidence. Another way to possibly reduce cognitive dissonance is a reduction in the importance of the belief system. Individuals experiencing cognitive dissonance will attempt just about anything to reduce the feeling of anxiety due to the conflict they’re facing. 

An individual’s emotions and attitudes are intimately connected. With this information, how do emotion theories function concerning cognitive dissonance? Can you have one without the other? There are many definitions of emotion and emotional episodes. For this paper, we use Agnus Moors definition of emotion as a process with multiple components. Moors states an emotional episode encompasses all the stages from stimulus to action. Her study investigates the cause of emotions and if emotion causation affects an individual’s actions. Her results reveal that while emotion causation has several theories, they all have some impact on an individual’s actions. 

Most research studies about emotion focus on feelings; however, Breslavs’ study offers a fresh look into how emotions cause individuals to self-correct their actions. After reviewing the data, Breslavs concludes emotions, guilt, and shame most significantly can cause a crisis of conscience and motivate action because of the conflict of an individual’s values versus another’s. His research shows us there can be a correlation between both emotion and cognitive dissonance theory.

Yet another study reviewed how both good and bad emotions are related to the attitude-change effect of cognitive dissonance. This study controlled the baseline emotion for each research group and found that emotion theories are immensely important in understanding cognitive dissonance. These results again support further study on this topic. 

With a baseline understanding of emotions as well as attitude change, the question arises about which demographic(s) are susceptible to cognitive dissonance. Joel Cooper and Lauren Feldman of Princeton University observed an unresolved issue with the research regarding cogitative dissonance. There hadn’t been cognitive dissonance research conducted with individuals in the 65 years and older age group. 

They decided to conduct a study to determine at what age people no longer struggle with CD. The first study of its kind in cognitive dissonance research to, directly and indirectly, observe elderly individuals. The individuals were categorized into six age groups defined as follows: Young Adulthood (18 yrs. & older), Adulthood (18-29 yrs.), Thirties (30-39 yrs.), Middle Age (40-64 yrs.), Aged (65 yrs. & older) and Very Old (85 yrs. & older). The study results aligned with current dissonance theory, demonstrating CD affects attitude and behavior at any age, including in the Aged and Very Old categories. 

Does the heavy dependence and accessibility of technology together with social media, influence cognitive dissonance theory? Throughout my youth, I had a family member who was the center point to many of my traumas. Often, I would go against my gut and what I knew to be right because I was under the impression this person was family and, therefore, an exception to the rules. I found myself in constant turmoil when this person was involved. Ultimately, I dissociated myself from this person completely except on social media.

I felt conflicted, cutting them from my life completely even though I knew it was what was best for my mental, emotional, and physical health. However, when this person would message me or comment on something, I sustained a dramatic attitude change due to my internal conflict. I continued to allow this person on my page for several years against my feelings of it being wrong. I found myself utilizing one of CD’s common coping strategies of “explaining it away.” It was easier to avoid conflict with the person and rationalize the conflict with myself; however, eventually, I realized this was unfair for myself and my family. One day I realized I had made excuses for long enough, and I removed this person from my social media. It wasn’t until then I realized how much social media could affect a person’s life, personal belief systems, attitude, and interactions.

A study conducted this year investigated the effects of social media and the computer on an individual’s behavior. What separates this study from other research studies involving social media was the hypothesis including not just an individual’s wellbeing but also their resulting behaviors. This study was to look specifically at the psychological discomfort of the individuals and their response to this distress. Researchers determined social media has a significant effect on individuals and amplifies the cognitive dissonance theory in both behavior and attitude changes considerably. This change is due to individuals being exposed multiple times daily to conflicting opinions. As a result, there is extreme discomfort affecting them mentally and emotionally, in conjunction with their behavior and their attitude. 

It’s undeniable that cognitive dissonance is one of the most important theories in social psychology today. It has a direct relation to so many aspects of people’s lives. With the expediential evolution of technology and the integration of social media and online networking, the need for further research is essential. This theory evolves with society and therefore requires constant research into the validity and application in everyday life. Cooper says it well in his paper, there is a need, as with any theory, to have lab testing. However, CD requires further testing in the social setting and how dissonance can be used to resolve problems in individuals’ lives potentially. 

References

  • Breslavs, G. M. (2013). Moral emotions, conscience, and cognitive dissonance. Psychology in Russia: State of the Art, 6(4), 65–72. https://doi-org.postu.idm.oclc.org/10.11621/pir.2013.0405
  • Cancino-Montecinos, S., Björklund, F., & Lindholm, T. (2018). Dissonance reduction as emotion regulation: Attitude change is related to positive emotions in the induced compliance paradigm. Plos One, 13(12), e0209012. https://doi-org.postu.idm.oclc.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209012
  • Cooper, J. (2019). Cognitive dissonance: Where we’ve been and where we’re going. International Review of Social Psychology, 32(1). https://doi-org.postu.idm.oclc.org/10.5334/irsp.277
  • Cooper, J., & Feldman, L. A. (2019). Does cognitive dissonance occur in older age? A study of induced compliance in a healthy elderly population. Psychology and Aging, 34(5), 709–713. https://doi-org.postu.idm.oclc.org/10.1037/pag0000338
  • Jeong, M., Zo, H., Lee, C. H., & Ceran, Y. (2019). Feeling displeasure from online social media postings: A study using cognitive dissonance theory. Computers in Human Behavior, 97, 231–240. https://doi-org.postu.idm.oclc.org/10.1016/j.chb.2019.02.021
  • Moors, A. (2009). Theories of emotion causation: A review. Cognition & Emotion, 23(4), 625–662. https://doi-org.postu.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/02699930802645739
  • Perlovsky, L. (2013). A challenge to human evolution—cognitive dissonance. Frontiers in Psychology, 4. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00179

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