You are on page 1of 15

How does literature influence children?

Running head: How does literature influence children?

How does literature influence children?

Cognitive dissonance and Dr. Seuss

Jordan Dodson

Messiah College

One College Avenue Unit 5349

Mechanicsburg, PA

(443) 602-2213


* I am happy to present this in a panel session or present the research in a Poster format

FACULTY SPONSOR: Dr. Kate Simcox, Messiah College, Mechanicsburg, 717.796.1800 ext.

How does literature influence children? 2


The following document is a research paper regarding the topic of how children's literature

influences children. The focus of this paper is the influences children literature has on children's

decision making. Children literature has characters that change their mind when faced with

cognitive dissonance. My research argues that as children read these stories they learn to change

their mind when faced with similar dissonance. This paper was created for my Communication

Theory class in order for students to apply theories to their areas of interest.

KEYWORDS: Childrens Literature, Cognitive Dissonance, Decision Making

In submitting the attached paper or proposal, I recognize that this submission is considered a
professional responsibility. If this submission is accepted and programmed, I agree to register
for the 2015 ECA Undergraduate Scholars Convention, pay the $50 USC fee, and present in
Philadelphia. I understand that presenters with last minute emergencies must make
arrangements as possible for an alternate presenter as well as communicate their absences to
the Undergraduate Scholars Planner; no shows will be removed from the official program.
How does literature influence children? 3

How Does Literature Influence Children?

Cognitive Dissonance and Dr. Seuss

Once upon a time there was a book that had great power. It had the ability to influence

anyone who laid his or her eyes upon it. People all throughout the land fought to control this

book because in it laid the power to control others. This may seem like a fairy tale but there are

some truths in this story. Books have power; not physical power but the power to influence.

Religious books such as the Bible or Torah shape our values and beliefs. Schoolbooks teach us

what has happened in the past and allow us to reflect on the future. Books change how we view

the world and others. Childrens books are no exception. These pieces of literature influence

children when they are learning the most about the world we live in.

Childrens literature encompasses any literature that is written for children to read or

literature that a child selects to read (Susina, 2004). This form of literature is written, illustrated,

published, marketed, and purchased with the intent of entertaining and educating children. The

inspiration for this form of literature is a collaboration between what children want to read and

what the authors envision. Childrens literature is important because it educates children of the

ideologies of the culture they live in. It is also important to note that a society must recognize the

importance of children and create a substantial amount of literature for them. By writing and

reading childrens literature we as a society are showing we value our children and their well-

being. But, how exactly does childrens literature influence children?

It is evident that these childrens books do affect children in many different ways.

However little study has been done on how childrens literature affects decision-making. More

specifically how childrens literature teaches children what to do when faced with cognitive

dissonance. This paper will argue that childrens literature teaches children it is acceptable for
How does literature influence children? 4

them to change their minds when faced with dissonance. There may be skeptics who believe

children do not experience dissonance but Egan, Santos, and Bloom research demonstrates that

children do in fact experience it. This writing goes on to discuss the overarching principles of

cognitive dissonance and how they are applied to the story, What Was I Scared of? Followed

by reduction and elimination strategies and how they are present in all the characters of Horton

Hears a Who! This paper then focuses on two hypotheses that apply cognitive dissonance. The

first theory is selective exposure and this is applied to Dr. Seusss book Green Eggs and Ham.

The second theory is post-decision dissonance and this is applied to Dr. Seusss book How the

Grinch Stole Christmas.

By showing these books do have themes of conative dissonance this author suggests that

as children read and learn from these stories they learn that changing ones opinion when faced

with adversity is not a bad thing. In fact it is necessary that we admit that we are wrong in our

beliefs. As we see from the happy ending of these stories that changing ones mind is not a bad

thing. Sometimes we have to humble ourselves to have a happily ever after.

Literature Review

The topic how does childrens literature influence children has been researched by many

people over the years. The results show that children are influenced in many positive ways.

Following this paragraph are four studies each focused on a different aspect of how childrens

literature influences children?

Biskin and Hoskissons (1974) article focuses on how childrens literature can foster

moral development in children. They state, Childrens literature and stories can be used to

develop moral awareness (p. 153). This is necessary since children have their own ways of

thinking about values (p. 153). It can be said that a child is a moral philosopher who makes
How does literature influence children? 5

moral decisions every day. Because of this teachers need to choose teaching material that will

influence students moral development. The authors suggest the perfect way of accomplishing

this is using childrens literature. This is beneficial to the student because, childrens thinking is

influenced by the activities in which they are engaged, the use of childrens literature to stimulate

moral thinking and moral development has great potential (p. 155). It is this potential for moral

growth that makes childrens literature a necessary asset for a teachers curriculum.

Roberts and Crawfords (2008) article focus on how literature can be used as coping

strategies for children going through family stressors. They state, This article provides a

rationale and related practical suggestion for using literature as a support system for social-

emotional development as children cope with the stresses, anxieties, and feelings of loss that can

occur in family life (p. 12). Children have to deal with all sorts of stressors. Some of them are

small, like breaking toys, and others much larger, such as a death in the family. It is because of

these stressors that kids need to learn coping strategies to deal with difficult times so they can

develop a strong sense of self. One coping strategy is reading childrens literature. Because it is a

safe place for children to discuss real issues they are experiencing and how to cope with them.

Kara-Soteriou and Roses (2008) article discussed how reading childrens literature can

teach children positive character traits. Both authors developed a literature-based thematic unit

after they heard some of the children hurting others. They chose literature to solve the problem

because, Literature helps children deal with their emotions and encourages the development of

good character traits (p. 31). The books they chose to use were Janell Cannons books

Stellaluna, Verdi, Crickwing, and Little Yau. Each of these books contained different positive

character traits for the children to learn. These books engaged the children with desirable

character traits resulting in fewer negative interactions between them.

How does literature influence children? 6

Freemans (2014) study discusses how childrens literature can be used in bullying

prevention. The goal of this study was to assess the knowledge, perceptions, and attitudes of

bullying in preschool children and categorize childrens literature that taught character

education with a bullying theme (p. 306). Freeman found that bullying is becoming more

prevalent in preschool age children and that nearly all of the children that were studied had a

good understanding of what bullying was. The study continued by having the children listen to

childrens literature and go through activities that talked about the negatives of bullying and

character education. When the children were introduced to these topics they learned that

[bullying] is a serious problem that they may or may not face in their childhood (p. 311). They

are also given the strategies to deal with bullying behaviors. The authors hope that through this

education bullying will be prevented in the future.

Communication Theory

It is evident that childrens literature influences children in many different ways. Now we

will focus on how childrens literature influences childrens decision-making. More specifically

childrens literature teaches children it is acceptable for them to change their minds or behavior

when faced with cognitive dissonance. Before I analyze these stories I will give some

background on cognitive dissonance.

Dr. Leon Festinger published a book titled, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance in 1957.

He begins by stating that every individual has an innate desire for consistency, consonance, with

himself. Consonance is having beliefs that are in agreement with each other. When a person

comes in contact with a belief that is different than the one they hold the person experiences

dissonance (Griffin, 2012, p. 217). Dissonance can be brought on when opinions must be formed

or decision must be made (Festinger, 1957 p. 5). As we come in contact with these dissonances
How does literature influence children? 7

we attempt to explain them away. This is a basic human process that is similar to hunger in that

when we are hungry we eat to reduce our hunger pain and when we experience dissonance we

attempt to reduce it as well. However people are not always successful at rationalizing their

dissonance away. This causes psychological discomfort in the person. The more important the

issue is the greater the dissonance (Griffin, 2012). The greater the dissonance is the more

pressure there is to remove the dissonance (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999).

Some may be skeptical that children have the ability to understand cognitive dissonance

since it is too complex of a concept. However Egan, Santos, and Bloom (2007) ran an

experiment that shows that children experience cognitive dissonance. In their experiment they

had children rate how much they liked various stickers. The children were then given the option

of two stickers, A and B, which they liked equally. After they had selected their sticker the child

was presented with sticker C (a sticker of equal liking to A and B) as well as the unchosen option

of the first. What they found was that children demonstrated a decrease in preference for one of

two equally preferred alternatives after they had chosen against it (p. 982). This suggest that

children change their current preferences to fit with their past decisions otherwise known as

children experience cognitive dissonance (p. 982). But how can literature teach dissonance?


I will analyze four different childrens books including Green Eggs and Ham, What

Was I Scared of, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Horton Hears a Who. These books

have been selected because of their meaningful life lessons and popularity. These lessons include

but are not limited to accepting those who are different and learning to cooperate with those who

have conflicting beliefs to your own. Each book also has characters that experience cognitive

dissonance and change their behavior. The author of these books is Theodore Geisel, also known
How does literature influence children? 8

as Dr. Seuss, whose work has been read by thousands of children. His writings have had a

revolutionary impact on children as well as children literature (BBC 2004). When Dr. Seuss

began to write in the 1930s there was little imagination incorporated in childrens literature. His

books brought clever rhymes, plot twists and rebellious heroes who do the unexpected (BBC

2004). Because of this Life Magazine name Dr. Seuss a good example of imagination

illustration. It is a great honor and privilege that I am able to incorporate a literary genius such

as Dr. Seuss with the theory of cognitive dissonance.

This story What was I scared of? begins with the main character, who is never named,

stating, I saw nothing scary for I have never been afraid of anything (Seuss, 1961, p. 43). Then

he comes across pants floating in the woods. The main character attempts to hold his belief that

he is not scared of anything so he runs away from them saying he just doesnt like those kinds of

pants. The main character begins to see the pants wherever he goes. When he sees the pants he

tries to hold his belief he is not scared of them but he cannot. He states I do not fear those pants

with nobody inside them. I said, and said and said those words but I lied them (p. 55). Later in

the story the main character accidently grabs the pants then yells for someone to save him. But

then the pants begin to cry and the main character realizes, That I was just as strange to them as

they were strange to me (p. 60). Now the main character is no longer scared of the pants and

says hi to it when they pass.

What Was I Scared of is a prime example of someone experiencing dissonance. The

main character believes that he is not scared of anything but he becomes scared when he comes

in contact with the floating pants. This creates dissonance and the main character chooses the

strategy of avoidance to deal with overcoming his dissonance. Unfortunately for him every place

he goes he runs into the pants. The main character is left with a choice, continue to avoid the
How does literature influence children? 9

dissonance, change his behavior, or change his belief. As we see from the story the main

character chooses to change his behavior and interact with the pants. After doing this the main

character no longer believes the pants are scary and can continue with his belief he is not scared

of anything.

As we can see from the last story when people experience dissonance they try to reduce

it. Dissonance can be reduced by decreasing the importance of dissonant cognitions or by

increasing the importance of consonant cognitions (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999). Removing

dissonant cognitions, changing behavior or belief, and adding new consonant cognitions can

remove dissonance. We can see examples of reduction and elimination strategies in our next


Examples of reduction and removal strategies for dissonance can be found in the

childrens book Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss (1954). In this book Horton hears a small

speck of dust talk to him. When he looks closer he can see people on the dust. So he puts the

speck on a clover so it will remain safe. Then kangaroos come by and call Horton a fool for

talking to a speck of dust because nobody could live on something so small. After this Horton

contemplates putting the dust down, but decides not to because someone could hurt the people.

Then out of nowhere the Wickersham brothers come and steal the speck of dust and give it to

Vlad Vlad-i-koff the black-bottomed eagle. The eagle flew all night and dropped the speck of

dust in a field of flowers. Horton searches all day and finally found the flower with the speck of

dust. Then the kangaroo and Wickersham brother catch up to Horton. They try to tie Horton

down and boil the speck of dust. Horton tells people on the dust to yell as loud as they can in

order for everyone to hear. Finally the animals hear the dusts cries and they untie Horton. The
How does literature influence children? 10

Kangaroo and Wickersham brothers now believe that animals live on the speck of dust and they

protect it with Horton.

In this story dissonance was created in all the characters because of their conflicting

beliefs. Horton believed there were people living in the speck while the Wickersham brothers

and Kangaroo did not. Because of this each character attempted to reduce dissonance through

different strategies. Horton used the adding consonant cognitions strategy by reassuring himself

that he enjoyed talking to the people on the speck. He also increased the important of his

consonant cognition by reassuring himself that without his help the people on the speck will die.

He states, Should I put the speck down? ... If I do these small persons may come to great harm.

(Dr. Seuss, 1954, p. 16) The Wickersham brothers and kangaroo used different strategies. They

choose to eliminate dissonant cognition by holding to their belief that there is nobody on the

speck of dust. When the animals tie Horton up they reduced the importance of dissonant

cognition because they rationalize tying someone up and burning a speck of dust is not as bad as

talking to a speck of dust without any people on it. Finally the Wickersham brothers and

kangaroo use the dissonance reduction strategy of changing behavior. At the end of the book

instead of burning the speck they changed their belief and now protect it. We can see how to

reduce dissonance, but how can it be applied?

Dissonance can be applied in many ways but we will focus on two. The first is selective

exposure and the second is post decision dissonance. Selective exposure dissonance is the claim

that people avoid information that causes dissonance (Griffin 2012). This theory claims that

people tend to stay with others who have the same views as them. Post decision dissonances are

doubts experienced after making an important decision. There are three things that heighten post
How does literature influence children? 11

decision dissonance. They include importance of the issue, delay in making decision, and the

greater the difficulty of reversing the decision. How can this be seen in childrens literature?

The book Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss (1960) begins with Sam asking the main

character, who is never named in the book, if he liked green eggs and ham. The main character

then says, I do not like them Sam-I-Am. I do not like green eggs and ham (p. 12). Sam

proceeds to ask the main character various places that he would like to eat green eggs and ham

and the main character has the same reply, I do not like them Sam-I-Am. I do not like green

eggs and ham (p. 16). The main character walks away from Sam getting more and more

frustrated each time he asked. He even gets to the point when he says, Sam! Let me be (p. 34)!

Finally by the end of the book the main character agrees to Sams terms and tries them. The main

character then changes his mind stating, Say! I like green eggs and ham! I do! I like them, Sam-

I-Am (p. 59)!

This book is a classic example of selective exposure. The main character believes he does

not like green eggs and ham. So when Sam tries to offer him some he states his belief then

leaves. He leaves because of the dissonance caused by the conflicting beliefs of not liking green

eggs and ham and being offered some. This is an example of avoidance. However Sam persists

and asks the main character 16 times if he likes green eggs and ham. That is when the

dissonance becomes too much and the main character finally changes his behavior. Instead of

avoiding Sam he tries some green eggs and ham. He then changes his mind and determines that

he now likes green eggs and ham.

Another theory can be seen in the book How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Seuss, 1957).

In this book the Grinch hates everything about Christmas, the noise, the feast, and the singing. So

he came up with an idea. If he took away every tangible part of Christmas then Christmas
How does literature influence children? 12

wouldnt come. He then dressed up like Santa Claus and went down to Who-ville. He went into

every house and stole everything. Then he went up the highest hill to throw all the presents down

the hill but before he did he stopped and listened. He heard the people of Who-ville singing thus

showing he did not stop Christmas. So the Grinch changed his belief and went back to Who-ville

with all of the presents.

This book shows post-decision dissonance. After the Grinch made his decision to steal

everything from the people of Who-ville he stopped and listened. The Grinch stopped because

this was an important decision and it would be impossible to reverse the decision after he went

through with it. All of these factors caused a great amount of dissonance. So much so that he had

to use one of the removal strategies stated before. More specifically he chose the strategy of

changing ones behavior to remove dissonance. This is evident because the Grinch changed from

throwing the toys over the edge of a cliff to giving back the toys.


Through this analysis it is clear that cognitive dissonance is present in childrens

literature. It is also clear that children have the capability to experience and understand cognitive

dissonance. Through reading children books children see the different effects that cognitive

dissonance has on the main characters of the stories experience. Each character experienced

dissonance differently just like each child will experience dissonance differently in his or her

lifetime. The important message that holds true for all these stories is that when faced with

cognitive dissonance the main characters change their behavior or beliefs. This teaches children

that it is acceptable for them to change their minds when they are making decisions.

This is an excellent skill for children to learn for two reasons. The first is many times

people refuse to change their view and see anew. It is crucial that we reiterate to our children the
How does literature influence children? 13

importance of being open to different peoples ideas. This cannot be done if we hold tightly to

our own ideas and refuse to empathize with others. As we open ourselves up to new ideas we

may come to find that our own views are not the best and then change them. The second reason

is in life we make the wrong decision sometimes. When we choose the wrong path it is important

that we change our behavior and choose the right way. These are values that should be taught to

children. That is why reading childrens books that have these values are important.

This paper shows that the theory of cognitive dissonance can be used for more than

persuasion. Studies show minimum justification theory such as Festingers dollar test make

cognitive dissonance seem as though this theory is used solely for persuasion. However cognitive

dissonance can be used for educational purposes such as teaching children about decision-

making. The hope of this author is that theorist will use cognitive dissonance theory for reasons

that help educate and empower instead of persuade and deceive.

In conclusion I hope the reader of this paper will remember that children are wonderfully

curious creations that want to be filled with knowledge. I challenge the reader to foster children

through this wonderful time in their lives as they grow into adults. I challenge the adults of this

paper to stay as curious as the children they foster and for them to seek more knowledge because

childrens books are not just for children. Anyone can enjoy a good story.
How does literature influence children? 14

Works Cited

BBC. (2004, March 2). 10 facts about Dr Seuss. BBC News. Retrieved from

Biskin, D., and Hoskisson K. (1974). Moral Development Through Children's Literature. The

Elementary School Journal, 75.3, 153-157.

Egan, L. C., Santos, L. R., and Bloom, P. (2007). The Origins of Cognitive Dissonance:

Evidence from Children and Monkeys. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 18.11,


Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University


Freeman, G. G. (2014). The implementation of character education and childrens literature to

teach bullying characteristics and prevention strategies to preschool children: and action

research project. Early Childhood Educ, 42, 305-316. doi: 10.1007/s10643-013-0614-5

Griffin, E. (2012). A first look at communication theory (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill

Harmon-Jones E., & Mills J. (Eds.). (1999). Cognitive dissonance: progress on a pivotal theory

in social psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

Kara-Soteriou, J, and Rose, H. (2008). A Bat, a Snake, a Cockroach, and a Fuzzhead: Using

Children's Literature to Teach About Positive Character Traits. YC: Young Children,

63.4, 30-36.

Roberts, S. K., and Crawford, P. A. (2008). Real Life Calls For Real Books: Literature To Help

Children Cope With Family Stressors. YC: Young Children, 63.5, 12-17.

Seuss, Dr. (1960). Green Eggs and Ham. New York, NY: Beginner Books.

Seuss, Dr. (1954). Horton Hears a Who. New York, NY: Random House.
How does literature influence children? 15

Seuss, Dr. (1957). How the Grinch Stole Christmas. New York, NY: Random House

Seuss, Dr. (1961). The Sneetches and Other Stories. New York, NY: Random House.

Susina, J. (2004). Children's Literature. Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and

Society. Retrieved from