Cognitive Dissonance Classic in Psychology

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There were famous experiments conducted in psychology and many of these experiments gave scientists a new perspective on understanding people. In the 1950s, scientists began conducting test about the effect of social pressures and influence to the behavior of people. Among these scientists is Leon Festinger. He became a well known scientist about the topic social influence through his famous theory of cognitive dissonance[1].

Cognitive Dissonance Festinger came about this theory in the 1950s at a time when a doomsday cult attracted media attention. The cult worshipped a certain god named Sananda. Cult members believed that Sananda gave them these warnings The uprising of the Atlantic bottom will submerge the land of the Atlantic seaboard; France will sink…. Russia will become one great sea… a great wave rushes to the Rocky Mountains… for the purpose of purifying it of the earthling and creating a new order. [2] Believers claimed that these warnings would happen in midnight of December 21.

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Festinger got interested with the cult and in his mind he had these questions: “What would happen when on the midnight of December 21, nothing happens? Would the group lose faith? How do human beings react when prophecy fails? ”[3] Festinger found out that when the prophecy failed the believers did not lose their faith. They found ways to justify the failed prophecy. One of famous explanation was earth was spared because the cult members went into action and believed in the prophecy. Christians and Jews will find this justification not hard to believe.

In the book of Jonah in the bible, Jonah prophesied that Nineveh would be destroyed by fire (Jo. 3:1-10). The people of Nineveh believed and decided to fast and put on sackcloth to show that they had repented. Even their king fasted, sat on ashes and put on sackcloth. Eventually Nineveh was spared and destruction did not happen. So when cult leaders told their members that the earth was spared because of believing Sananda's message, the members bought it, but not Festinger. To him the explanations are a bunch of lies, which he politely called “cognitive dissonance. Festinger saw the effort of cult leaders in lyng to the media in making excuses to their failed prophecy. They contacted TV stations ABC and CBS, they welcome New York Times, the phoned the writers of Life, Time and Newsweek and gave dozens of interviews to reporters. [4] These actions according to Slater were “attempts to convince the public that their actions and beliefs were not in vain. ” The attempts of cult leaders to justify their actions and beliefs became the basis of Festinger’s theory and experiments on cognitive dissonance[5].

Through his readings about history, people tend to proselytize (a sort of desperate defense mechanism) when their belief is disconfirmed. He also found out that the “disjunction between what one believes and the factual evidence is highly uncomfortable. ”[6] When prophecy of a cult fails members would attempt to convince everyone to join the cult through false justification. The more people join the group, the more the members feel that they were not mistaken. Is it possible for people to engage in extreme lying just to reconcile their seemingly irreconcilable ideas?

Festinger found out that people indeed lie in order to avoid dissonance. In fact, he discovered several forms of dissonance. According to Cooper , what Festinger observed in the cult, he called it the belief disconfirmation paradigm[7]. When he conducted experiment regarding dissonance and money, he called it the insufficient reward paradigm. In his last research he also identified another dissonance- induce compliance paradigm[8]. To understand cognitive dissonance theory it is important to review Festinger’s experiment. The Experiment

But to be able to explain Festinger’s experiment and his theory of cognitive dissonance, discussion of the actual experiment is necessary. Festinger’s experiment is considered a classic in psychology and can easily be retrieved in the net. It was first published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology and was entitled “Cognitive Consequence of Forced Compliance. ” The experiment objective is to investigate how cognitive dissonance takes place when people are force to comply. Slater simply called cognitive dissonance as “irreconcilable ideas”[9].

Social Psychology authors such as Brown simply defined cognitive dissonance as a state of opposition between cognition such as beliefs, views and opinion[10]. It is a perceived inconsistency within a person’s mental processes, in which he believes in something then acts in a different way from what he believes. Festinger exp[11]eriment aimed to measure the cognitive dissonance effect during force compliance and to test the validity of the following two statements: “If a person is induced to do or say something, which is contrary to his private opinion, he tends to change his opinion to bring congruence to what he has done or said. and “The larger the pressure used to elicit the overt behavior (beyond the minimum needed to elicit it) the weaker will be the above-mentioned tendency”) Festinger and his colleagues hypothesized that the larger the reward the lesser would be the subsequent opinion change. Therefore, if one puts their words in research method statements, the main hypothesis would be “there is a significant relationship between the amount of rewards and the magnitude of cognitive dissonance”[12]        To test the validity of the hypothesis, Festinger divided his subjects into three groups, one controlled group and two experimental groups.

The two experimental groups are named- one-dollar group and twenty-dollar group respectively, the name correspond to the amount of money that the two groups will received in order to comply. The subjects for the experiment were college students and the primary technique utilized by the researcher was deception. The subjects were told that the experiment is about their behavior on a monotonous activity. However, the real experiment would only begin when the researcher tries to deceive them, by telling another group will be exposed to a variable in which a confederate will tell them that the activity is enjoyable.

However, the original confederate will not come and that the experimenter needs the respondents to act as proxy and be the one to tell lies to the other subject (who herself is also a confederate) on the other room. The persuasion involves a monetary reward a one-dollar for the first group and a twenty-dollar for the other. The rewards are intended to affect the subject’s behavior or the dissonance effect. Deception was not included in the control group to be able to control its effect. The first experimental group receives a one-dollar amount in order to tell lies. The other experimental group receives 20 dollars.

The authors theorized that the one-dollar group would have a greater magnitude of dissonance compared to the 20 dollars group[13]. By applying statistical treatment and comparing the responses of the experimental group with the control group the researcher found out that the one dollar group came to believe that the experiment as enjoyable where in fact, the control group finds it extremely boring, the twenty dollar group find the experiment slightly boring not far from the control groups answer. These results support the theory that the smaller the award the greater is the magnitude of the dissonance.

Hence the authors accepted the hypothesis. Festinger’s experiment also has limitations. It is only limited to the response of the subjects who were mostly college students. The results might be different if conducted on professionals and middle age adults. Impact of the Experiment to Psychology Festinger’s findings were considered a milestone in psychology. It gave convincing explanations to mysterious human behaviors. Gawronski[14] provided an example. During the Korean War she wrote, the Chinese were able to convince American prisoners to become communists.

They did this not by torture but by offering a bit of rice or candies. In exchange of these goodies, Americans were asked to write an anti-American essay. After the essay writing many American soldiers espoused communism. Ordinary people might find such behavior baffling and stupid. Why throw democratic principles in exchange of a bit of rice? It would be easy to accept that these Americans were tortured and went through a near death experience that is why they converted to communism. It is a rational explanation and very acceptable. The fact that Americans embraced communism for a candy is something people could not accept.

Cognitive dissonance theory provided an answer- the simpler the reward for engaging in behavior that is contrary with one’s beliefs, the higher the tendency of the person to change his or her beliefs[15]. Even though this answer seems to make no sense, it really happens. The one and twenty dollar experiment supported it. According to Petty, there is a rational explanation for changing one’s belief. It was such a horrible thing to sell one’s self for a piece of candy[16]. The emotional pain would be so great. The person may lose his feeling of self-worth and may look at himself an undignified individual.

Slater coined this feeling a “schmuck. To avoid such a feeling, the person should come up with a better explanation for selling his principles for a very cheap price. Festinger’s theory provided an alternative explanation for behaviorism. Formerly Skinner had said rewards reinforce and punishments extinguish. Skinner explained human behavior through his reward theory. Humans operate in their environment and through this operation they learn certain behaviors. Humans acquire behavior through operant conditioning. Skinner took away the mental element of humans. He made humans simple machines that behave through the means of conditioning.

After cognitive dissonance theory, humans were seen as punishment driven beings that act not because of conditioning but because of mental processes. Festinger added the element of thoughts in explaining human behavior. His theory challenges the behaviorism. Behaviorism claimed that mind and thoughts are not worthy of psychological investigations because they belong to the realms of philosophy and not empirical science. Festinger discovered that behavior is influenced by the way people think. Psychologists cannot set aside the mind and thought processes in explaining human behavior.

Without considering the mind and thought processes, psychologists would never understand why American soldiers embraced communism in exchange for a piece of candy or a bit of rice. Human beings are not only motivated by rewards and punishment. For, if this were so, the Chinese will have a hard time convincing Americans to espouse communism because their offer of rewards were not actually rewarding. Festinger has drawn a concrete conclusion from his cognitive dissonance theory. Human are hypocrite beings. They are beings motivated by minds that must be made comfortable.

Reward theory alone can never explain human behavior. Human beings think. They engage in the most amazing mental gymnastics, all just to justify their hypocrisy[17].

Explaining Mysterious Human Behavior

Cognitive dissonance theory is not only an elegant explanation for mysterious human behavior. It is also became a tool to discredit religion especially Christianity. Using the belief – disconfirmation paradigm, one can conclude that the spread of Christianity was due to cognitive dissonance and lack of deep knowledge of human behavior during the early years of Christianity.

Everybody knows for a fact that Christianity spread through the effort of Jesus’ disciples. Ancient critics of Christianity suspected that early Christians had engaged in mass hysteria[18]. They collectively had seen unreal things. Before, cognitive dissonance theory, such accusation of mass hysteria was dismissed because of the martyrdoms of virtually every apostle of Christ. The apostle would not sacrifice their lives for something that is founded by fallacy. They were burned at the stake, cut into two, crucified upside down and immersed in boiling oil all because they refused to decant their faith.

To avoid such horrible tortures, all they had to do was to tell the emperor that they there were no truths in their claims about Jesus and presto they will be released. But they chose death, indicating that they were not under mass hysteria but had really seen Christ resurrects from the death. This is a simple Christian defense; it stood unchallenged for thousands of years until Festinger discovered cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance explained that when prophecy fails, people will not leave their beliefs instead, they would create lies in order to justify the failed prophecy perhaps even to the point of death [19]. The apostles of Christ were expecting him to free Israel from bondage. This is the duty of the messiah. They expect Jesus to liberate Israel and establish a new Jewish kingdom. The apostles believed that Jesus was the messiah. They gave up everything in order to become Jesus’ disciples. They were promised to receive an important position in Jesus kingdom. They expect that the earth will be destroyed by fire and a new heaven and earth will be created. The kingdom of Jesus will be established in this new heaven and earth. The apostles will co rule with Jesus. But Jesus was killed and everything that they have believed turned to ashes.

Some left Jerusalem and started a new life. Others were left and continue to meet secretly. This gathering can be likened to the case of the doomsday cult, in which members did not go home and confessed their mistakes; instead, they change their behaviors, speeches and way of thinking to explain carefully their failed prophecy. They began attracting more followers despite of the fact that their prophecy failed. They engaged in pathological lying just to convince people that they were not wrong. If ordinary people in the doomsday cult had engaged in lying when prophecy failed, then it was also possible that the apostles had also lied.

Cognitive dissonance theory states that it was possible for the apostles not to recant their faith even until death. Hence, Christianity martyrdom defense is weak. After his death, his apostles claim that Jesus is coming very soon and judgment day is at hand. Like in the case of the doomsday cult, believers also had sold their belongings and give the money to the apostles. The apostles have all died but judgment day did not come. Despite of these, believers became more aggressive in recruiting new members and Christianity grew in numbers. Two thousand years have passed but Christ did not return and judgment day was nowhere to be found[20].

Yet, Pastors and priest were able to find plausible explanation for the delayed second coming and people really buy it. No offense to Christian readers, but after reading chapter five and Festinger’s original study, it was very hard for this writer not think that cognitive dissonance was really involved in Christianity. Cognitive dissonance is not just a simple social psychology experiment. It is a mind opener, a myth buster and a truth engine. If religious fanatics explore its basic concepts, they might leave their faith. Cognitive dissonance theory explained that humans would lie in order to avoid dissonance.

It is the best explanation why religious cults and organizations do not cease to exist even though their prophecy and beliefs fails or contradicts reasoning. Festinger’s theory is all about the tendency of humans to lie to avoid discomfort. It is about the selfishness of human nature. This is the only conclusion one can derive from his experiments. Humans are hypocrites and engage in all sort of mental gymnastic in order to justify their hypocrisy.


Slater believed in cognitive dissonance theory but disagree with Festinger’s revelation on the selfishness of human nature.

Do humans lie because of selfish motive, i. e. to avoid the pain of being a “schmuck” or was there something else. Festinger forgot to mention the good side of human nature. All he saw was its tendency to deceive and lie[21]. To show that dissonance is caused by other elements aside from selfishness, Slater told a story about Linda Santo. Linda Santo has a bed-ridden daughter named Audrey whom she takes care of for the past couple of decades. Her daughter got an accident when she was three and became bed ridden from that time on. Linda patiently took care of his daughter since then.

Her husband left her a few months of the accident. Linda took care of Audrey. Audrey though invalid is a miracle worker, Statues of Mary and Jesus were put near her and these statues produce miracle oil. The oil was used to heal sickness of any kind. Linda finds an explanation and was not mystified with the miracles. She knew that her daughter was a “saint, that God had chosen Audrey to be a victim soul, to take on the pains of other people so that they could be healed (121)” It’s a classic example of cognitive dissonance, the mother finding an explanation for her daughter’s dreadful fate.

It was not clear whether Linda manipulate the miracles and told people that her daughter takes away people pains. But according to Slater , if ever she lied, there was no selfishness in her heart, but love, which makes Festinger view of human nature somewhat wrong. People do not lie only because they avoid of being a schmuck but also because they are loving creatures. Linda was found to have breast cancer. She regularly underwent therapy. She now takes care of herself alone aside from taking care of her daughter. Slater wondered why Linda would not ask her daughter to heal her.

Perhaps she knew that the miracles were a fake. She simply told Slater that mothers do ask something from their child; it is they who give something to their child. Slater concluded that dissonance is not always about selfishness; it’s also about love. Slater was a mother and understands very well why Linda was doing all this[22]. Perhaps, there is another form of cognitive dissonance paradigm that Festinger failed to identity. To conclude, Festinger experiments were indeed convincing but he failed to consider the other aspect of human nature such as love and caress.

Some people engage in dissonance not because of cognitive pain but because out of love just in the case of Linda Santo.


  1. Brown, Richard, Social Psychology 5th Edition New York McGraw Hill. 2006. Cooper, John. Cognitive dissonance: 50 years of a classic theory.
  2. London: Sage publications. 2007. Gawronski, Brand. Cognitive consistency: A fundamental principle in social cognition.
  3. New York: Guilford Press. 2011. Myers, Steven. Social psychology .
  4. Toronto: Graw-Hill Ryerson. 2006. Petty, Ronald . The Meta-Cognitive Model (MCM) of attitudes: Implications for attitude measurement, change, and strength. Social Cognition. 2007. 25(5), 657686.
  5. Chen Mark Revisiting the Three Choice Paradigm Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2010. 99(4), 573. Slater, Laura Opening Skinner’s Box New York, Penguin Books. 2005.

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Cognitive Dissonance Classic in Psychology. (2016, Dec 22). Retrieved from

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