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James Thomas Rhetoric Professor Schiappa 10/31/2012 Cognitive Dissonance Imagine that youre a believer in the theory that

the world will end on December 21, 2012. Now imagine further that December 21 arrives and passes, and nothing extraordinary happens. What would you do? Most reasonable people would admit that they were entirely wrong. However, Leon Festinger, who initiated the study of cognitive dissonance, found that many people are not so rational. The religious group that he infiltrated explained that the world had failed to end because God wanted to spare them so that they could spread their beliefs to the rest of the world. Never mind that their beliefs were at this point obviously false. This is a classic case of Festingers cognitive dissonance. The members of the religious group had centered their lives around their belief that world would end. When the world failed to end, their perception of reality and their firmly held beliefs directly conflicted that is, they experienced cognitive dissonance. As humans, we tend to believe that we are rational, so a fairly normal reaction to such cognitive dissonance is to try to come up with a third belief that explains away the dissonance rather than rejecting our old views as irrational. Today, I will cover some basics examples of cognitive dissonance, move to some famous experiments that involved cognitive dissonance, and then explain how someone can employ cognitive dissonance to persuade listeners. First, let me present two additional examples of cognitive dissonance. The first involves the fox from one of Aesops fables. In the story, the fox attempts to reach some high-hanging grapes. He tries repeatedly, but ultimately gives up. At this point of failure, the fox experiences cognitive dissonance on the one hand, he really wants the grapes, but on the other, he

recognizes that he cannot obtain them. If he allows this dissonance to remain in his mind, he will feel inadequate he cannot get what he wants. So, he decides to change his view of the grapes he convinces himself that the grapes are probably horrible and not worth eating, reducing his feelings of inadequacy and dissonance. This story is the origin of the term sour grapes, which generally describes individual who try to resolve cognitive dissonance in this manner. Another canonical example of cognitive dissonance can be found in smokers. Most people who smoke know that smoking increases the risk of lung cancer and other diseases. But they also think of themselves as rational people. So the dissonance emerges rational on the one hand, but irrationally and needlessly shortening their lives on the other. To reduce this dissonance, smokers might deny the evidence linking smoking to serious illnesses, citing examples of other smokers who have lived long lives. I would now like to cover some famous experiments that further illustrate the notion of cognitive dissonance. One notable experiment illustrate what Festinger calls the inducedcompliance paradigm of cognitive dissonance. A number of people were asked to perform extremely mundane tasks for an hour. For example, they had to turn pegs 90 degrees every 10 seconds. After the hour had passed, the subjects were split into three groups. The first group was paid $20 -- $150 in todays dollars to persuade new individuals that the tasks performed were actually very interesting. The second group was paid only $1 to do this, and the third was a control group that was paid nothing. At the end of the experiment, each group was asked to privately rate how interesting they though the work actually was. Surprisingly, the group that was paid $1 rated the task much more highly than the group that was paid $20. The explanation for this was that the $1 group experienced much more cognitive dissonance than the $20 one. The work was obviously boring, and they were being paid almost nothing to lie to people and tell

them it was actually interesting. People dont like to think of themselves as liars, so these individuals experienced cognitive dissonance. The solution to this dissonance was to actually convince themselves that the work was interesting. For the $20 group, the dissonance was much less: there was an obvious reason they were lying to the people whom they were supposed to convince they had received a hefty sum to do it. A second experiment illustrates the free choice paradigm of cognitive dissonance. In this one, subjects were asked to rate some items they wanted to purchase. Each then purchased the item he or she rated highest. After their purchases, they were asked to rate the items again. This time, their ratings for the products they purchased went up, and those for the remaining products went down. They wanted to convince themselves that their choice was actually a good one, so they found flaws in the products that they did not purchase and exaggerated the merits of the one they did purchase. Finally, the placebo effect can also be explained by cognitive dissonance. People like to think that the healthcare system is effective, so when they receive some sort of medication from their doctors, they assume it will make them feel better, and they actually perceive themselves as feeling better. This avoids the dissonance that would result if they continued to feel ill and their belief in the efficacy of medications was challenged. Lastly, I will describe how cognitive dissonance might be employed in persuasion. The basic idea here is that those who intend to persuade must create some sort of cognitive dissonance in their listeners and then frame their solution as a way to end that dissonance. For example, the motto of Hallmark greeting cards is When you care enough to send the very best. At a store, you might select one of the cheaper greeting cards. Then youll see the Hallmark motto and youll think to yourself, Well, I do care about the person Im sending this card to but it seems like Im buying a subpar card OK, well I guess Ill buy Hallmark then. People

want to think of themselves as caring, and Hallmark introduces some cognitive dissonance in customers, convincing them that purchasing a cheaper card indicates a lack of concern. So, next time you try to convince people of something, try to frame the matter as one of previously unidentified cognitive dissonance in your listeners. People may get a little uncomfortable, but they just might be swayed to your side.

References Festinger, L. (1962). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.