Communication Cognitive Dissonance
by
Natalie Jomini Stroud, Soohee Kim, Joshua M. Scacco
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0062

Introduction

Humans strive for cognitive consistency, at least according to the theory of cognitive dissonance and a host of consistency theories that emerged in the mid-20th century. The theory of cognitive dissonance was advanced by Leon Festinger in the 1950s. It proposes that inconsistencies among our beliefs, attitudes, knowledge, and/or behavior can give rise to the uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. Upon experiencing this feeling, humans are motivated to reduce it in order to return to a more consistent state. Although Festinger theorized that cognitive dissonance can occur, he did not suggest that cognitive dissonance always occurs when people are faced with inconsistency. He noted that the experience of dissonance depends upon three factors: (a) the number of consonant elements, (b) the number of dissonant elements, and (c) the importance of each element. A more important dissonant belief will cause more cognitive dissonance than a less important dissonant belief. One dissonant belief and many consonant beliefs will produce less dissonance than many dissonant and many consonant beliefs. The experience of dissonance can motivate people to engage in any of a number of dissonance reduction strategies. The objectives of these strategies are to (a) increase the number and/or importance of consonant elements and/or (b) to decrease the number and/or importance of dissonant elements. This can be done by changing one’s attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. This also can be done by seeking agreeable information and avoiding discrepant information. Over the years, many modifications to the theory have been proposed. Some researchers, for example, have argued that the theory works mainly with respect to cognitive elements related to the self. Despite proposed modifications, scholars continue to draw from the original theory. Although the theory was first introduced and examined by psychologists, it gained traction in the field of communication. The theory was helpful in explaining some earlier patterns observed by those researching the influence of communication, such as the seeming preference citizens displayed for like-minded information. In contemporary communication literature, the theory is most frequently referenced when scholars want to offer an explanation for why an effect may occur. Research is less frequently done specifically on the central tenets of the theory. This article focuses predominantly on articles that have been written in the field of communication rather than attempting to review the numerous studies that have been done on this topic in related fields, such as psychology and political science. Although research did yield articles from many different communication subfields, many citations were from the area of mass media as opposed to interpersonal communication, for example. This article emphasizes recent contributions and those that have garnered considerable attention through high rates of citation.

Core Texts

Cognitive dissonance emerged in the 1950s and inspired many studies that draw from its central tenets. The texts in this section represent the historical texts that introduced and refined the theory. The most-important texts in the cognitive dissonance tradition include two books by Leon Festinger. Festinger 1957 outlines the original version of the theory. Festinger 1964 includes numerous experiments with collaborators that probe the basic tenets of the theory. Festinger and Carlsmith 1959 is also noteworthy because of its counterintuitive findings that are anticipated clearly by cognitive dissonance theory. Later scholarship takes Festinger’s original theory as a starting point and provides new insights. Brehm and Cohen 1962, for example, focuses on the role of commitment in the experience of dissonance. Abelson, et al. 1968 offers numerous assessments, both critical and laudatory, of cognitive dissonance and clarifies the conditions under which dissonance occurs and how people respond to the experience of dissonance. Although Lazarsfeld, et al. 1944 was written before Festinger’s theory, it is important to include this reference because it illustrates the connection between communication research and cognitive dissonance. All these texts would be most appropriate for graduate students looking to gather insight into the historical ideas of the theory of cognitive dissonance. These texts are also notable in that they showcase the creative experimental methodology that was a central part of early research on cognitive dissonance. Although the texts are historical, they all contain insightful reflections on cognitive dissonance that continue to inspire more-contemporary scholarship.

  • Abelson, Robert P., Elliot Aronson, William J. McGuire, Theodore M. Newcomb, Milton J. Rosenberg, and Percy H. Tannenbaum, eds. 1968. Theories of cognitive consistency: A sourcebook. Chicago: Rand McNally.

    E-mail Citation »

    This edited volume reviews numerous takes on cognitive consistency theories. The chapters include critical views of cognitive dissonance and explorations of the moderators of cognitive dissonance, including commitment, time of decision, and individual differences. The book also examines attempts to resolve dissonance, such as selective exposure.

  • Brehm, Jack W., and Arthur R. Cohen. 1962. Explorations in cognitive dissonance. New York: Wiley.

    DOI: 10.1037/11622-000E-mail Citation »

    Highlights the role of commitment in the experience of cognitive dissonance. When one is committed to a position, one is more likely to experience dissonance when the commitment is challenged. The text also discusses the role of choice, the magnitude of dissonance, personality variables, and the strategy of rejecting the communicator to resolve dissonance.

  • Festinger, Leon. 1957. A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson.

    E-mail Citation »

    This seminal book is Festinger’s exposition of the theory of cognitive dissonance. It is essential reading for any scholar interested in the theory. After describing the theory, Festinger divides the book into four sections probing the implications of dissonance theory: consequences of decisions, effects of forced compliance, exposure to information, and the role of social support.

  • Festinger, Leon. 1964. Conflict, decision, and dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Reports a series of studies conducted by students and postdoctoral fellows working with Festinger at Stanford University, and is designed to expand our understanding of dissonance. Particular attention is paid in this text to the experience of dissonance before and after a decision is made.

  • Festinger, Leon, and James M. Carlsmith. 1959. Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology 58.2: 203–210.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0041593E-mail Citation »

    Based on the theory of cognitive dissonance, Festinger and Carlsmith find that attitude change is greater when people are asked to say something against their beliefs for a small incentive compared to a large incentive. This well-cited article showcases some of the unexpected findings predicted by cognitive dissonance.

  • Lazarsfeld, Paul F., Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet. 1944. The people’s choice: How the voter makes up his mind in a presidential election. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    For communication researchers, this text is important because it documents recognition of the outcomes of cognitive dissonance even before the theory was formally advanced. The text notes that partisans are more frequently exposed to like-minded messages in political campaigns.

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