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Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

The theory of cognitive dissonance was first introduced to the world of social psychology
when Leon Festinger started studying rumor transmission after an earthquake devastated
India. Festinger noticed that people living outside the area where the earthquake
occurred, spread rumors about even greater earthquakes that had destroyed outlaying
regions, thus making people very anxious and worried. Although there was no coherent
truth to the rumors, Festinger hypothesized that the rumors were created to justify the
feelings of unease that individuals felt after the initial earthquake. “What Festinger
decided was that that the phenomenon of generating self-justifying cognitions was part of
a more general process of making cognitions fit and that if two cognitions do not fit, there
is pressure to make them correspond” .

Soon after these observations took place, Festinger introduced A Theory of Cognitive
Dissonance in 1957. In it, he postulated that individuals reach psychological stability only
when they have regularly consistent thoughts and attitudes. Although the theory appears
to be inherently broad, it is extremely important to the field of social psychology simply
because it is not limited to one specific topic, but instead can be applied to all cognitions,
be they personal or group-related. Festinger goes on to discuss that at times, due to the
introduction of new information, contradictions in the thought process can occur. When
the mind receives these unbalanced messages, dissonance develops, and the individual
strives to reduce this inconsistency. In order to combat this dissonance, Festinger
proposed three methods of reduction, while a fourth was later added by Harmon-Jones
and Mills (1999, 4).

Festinger first explained these four reduction methods by examining the thought process
of a smoker who recently found out that cigarettes are harmful to his/her health (Festinger
1957, 5). By applying a similar example that is currently appropriate, Festinger’s
hypothesis can be revealed. This example focuses on an individual who eats fast food
five times a week, but later finds out that fast food can be unhealthy when consumed in
large quantities and can produce sufficient weight gain.

Method 1. Remove dissonant cognitions: The individual chooses denial and believes that
eating fast food does not cause weight gain.

Method 2. Add new consonant cognitions – The individual decides that fast food is cheap
and it tastes good, thus negating it’s damaging attributes.

Method 3. Reduce the importance of dissonant cognitions – The individual reasons that
eating fast food isn’t as bad for his/her health as smoking cigarettes or drinking liquor.
Method 4. Increase the importance of consonant cognitions – The individual replaces the
negative cognitions with thoughts that reinforce the idea that the satisfaction and
enjoyment from eating fast food is an important part of his/her life.

As Festinger concluded through his research, the importance of his theory is not just to
reduce dissonance, but also to examine the behaviors that individuals use to combat this
dissonance, thereby confirming their original behavior.

Paradigms of Cognitive Dissonance

There are four accepted paradigms, or models, used to further the research and
understanding of dissonance reduction (Harmon-Jones & Mills 1999, 5).

1. The Free-Choice Paradigm:

Through the use of this model, the assertion can be made that once a decision has been
completed, dissonance will be produced, and the more difficult the decision, the greater
the dissonance. When a choice is made, dissonance occurs in one of two ways:

1. There are positive aspects of the item not chosen.

2. There are negative aspects of the item that is chosen.

In order to view the chosen item as desirable, dissonance has to be reduced by viewing
the cognitions in a biased way. Employing one of Festinger’s four reduction methods
listed on the background page can do this (Harmon-Jones & Mills 1999, 5).

J.W. Brehm was first to conduct experiments using the free-choice paradigm. In order to
produce valid market research, Brehm employed the help of women to test eight products
and rate them on their level of desirability. He then had one group make a difficult
decision, choosing between two products that they rated as similarly desirable and the
other group make an easy decision, choosing between two products that differed greatly
in desirability. Afterwards, he had the women re-rate the desirability of the products, and
remarkably, when it came to the difficult decision, women lowered the desirability of the
product that they rejected and increased the desirability of the product that they chose,
thus confirming the idea of the free-choice paradigm. Women who were asked to make
the easy decision, made little or no change in terms of their rankings (Harmon-Jones &
Mills 1999, 6).

2. The Belief-Disconfirmation Paradigm:

The second method utilized to understand cognitive dissonance, is the belief-
disconfirmation paradigm that explains that the presence of dissonance without being
reduced can lead to the rejection of the dissonance-causing information, thus making the
individual find acceptance for his/her beliefs by persuading others (Harmon-Jones &
Mills 1999, 7).
Perhaps the most intriguing example of this paradigm is illustrated in observations made
by Festinger, Riecken and Schachter. The men examined a group who emphatically
believed a prophecy that North America would be swallowed by water, and that they
alone would be spared from destruction and evacuated by a flying saucer. The theory was
supposedly transmitted to a woman in the group by space creatures. When the flood did
not take place, observations were made on group members who were alone and members
who were with others. Two very separate reactions took place:

1. Members who were alone denied their belief in the prophecy.

2. Members who were with others maintained their beliefs and attempted to convert
others to their faith (Harmon-Jones & Mills 1999, 7).

3. The Effort-Justification Paradigm:

The effort-justification model is used to explain people’s attempts to rationalize their
behavior when they engage in objectionable endeavors in order to receive some needed
result. By partaking in activities that are different from an individual’s normal behavior,
dissonance forms. To combat this discord, the individual must embellish the intended
outcome, thus adding consonance and diminishing dissonance (Harmon-Jones & Mills
1999, 7).
In 1959, Aronson and Mills tested the hypothesis of the effort-justification model by
utilizing two groups of women. In order to become a member of a certain crowd, group
one had to participate in a rigorous initiation that constituted participation in an
embarrassing activity, while group two was given a minor and boring task. As the effort-
justification paradigm states, women in the first group looked much more favorably upon
their entrance to the new crowd then did group two, purely because of their entry task
(Harmon-Jones & Mills 1999, 8).

4. The Induced-Compliance Paradigm (originally the Forced Compliance Paradigm by

The final model that helps to further cognitive dissonance research is the induced-
compliance paradigm. This idea is similar to the effort-justification theory, in that both
deal with individuals participating in behavior that is contrary to their normal system of
actions and beliefs. Rather than being concerned solely with the positive benefits from
engaging in behavior, the induced-compliance paradigm also helps to explain why people
participate in abnormal behavior in order to avoid certain negative consequences. This
type of reasoning helps justify behavior and diminish dissonance (Harmon-Jones & Mills
1999, 8).
In order to prove this theory, Festinger and Carlsmith developed an experiment in 1959
based upon the differences in dissonance reduction when various rewards are offered. A
group of men were asked to complete a relatively boring task and were then given either
$1 or $20, to tell an individual who had yet to complete the task, what an enjoyable
experience the task had been. The men were then asked to evaluate the boring task they
had completed. The results were as followed:

1. Men given $1 rated the task as most enjoyable.

2. Men who were given $20, or who were not asked to describe the task to another
person, rated the task less favorably.

These findings indicated what is now called the negative-incentive effect, in that the less
reward a person receives for doing a task, the more favorably they will look upon it,
because there is a greater amount of freedom associated with the task at hand (Harmon-
Jones & Mills 1999, 9).

Cognitive Dissonance in Advertising

Although Brehm and Wicklund state in their book Perspectives on Cognitive Dissonance
that “the most thoroughgoing applied extensions of the theory [of cognitive dissonance]
have been in the area of marketing research (288)," I believe that the theory has a solid
and direct application to the field of advertising. Consumers receive more information
about products than anything else in their daily lives, and generally these pieces of
information are not consistent with one another. Because of this, dissonance exists in
people's everyday lives and individuals are consistently trying to reduce these
inconsistencies, especially after a purchase has been made (Holloway 1967, 39). By these
terms, the basis for advertising is cognitive dissonance, i.e. making people question their
original thoughts by using a bombardment of messages to create dissonance, ultimately
ending in the consumption of products to curb such dissonance.

While there are two main instances wherein advertisers use cognitive dissonance, pre-
purchase and post-purchase, I have chosen to examine four recognized applications of
cognitive dissonance in advertising. The first three of these applications are used prior to
a purchase, while the last is actually used to combat cognitive dissonance after a purchase
has been made.

1. Producing Cognitive Dissonance in Pre-Purchase Advertising:

a. Paradox: Advertising can employ the use of seemingly different messages or images
within one advertisement in order to produce dissonance and thus curiosity, prompting
product/idea acceptance.

Example: The Altoids print campaign uses this type of advertising quite ingeniously,
making potential customers look twice at their ads. In one ad, the copy, “Share them with
a Fiend” is used. This play on words causes relatively harmless cognitive dissonance, but
just enough to make the ad memorable so that the next time the individual is in line at the
grocery store, perhaps they will pick up a tin of altoids due to the dissonance they
remember from the campaign.
b. Guilt: Advertisements in general are based on the assumption that individuals will feel
incomplete because they do not have the certain product that is being advertised.

i. Example: This type of advertising is portrayed in the Apple “Think Different”

campaign. In both the print and television ads, images of famous individuals who have
ignited change in the world are used with the tag line, “think different.” The target for
this ad is predominately non-apple users, thus making these individuals feel that without
a Macintosh computer they will be just like everyone else in the world, incapable of
creating change and thinking differently.
c. Recognition: Cognitive dissonance can also be created in the field of cause-related
advertising. Here, unvoiced opinions on certain issues are used to prompt individuals to
confront ideas that they generally do not outwardly express as being accepted. The main
motivation by creating dissonance through these types of campaigns is to get individuals
to think about things that they otherwise feel neutral towards.

i. Example: Recognition dissonance can be clearly seen in the most recent anti-drug
campaigns through the use of compelling and distressing storylines; people are prompted
to realize that marijuana is more dangerous than we all thought.

It reads: "On Saturday I watched my little brother, rehearse with the band, and helped
bribe a judge to release a man nicknamed 'The Butcher.'"

2. Curbing Cognitive Dissonance in Post-Purchase Advertising

a. Reinforcement: "Decision making almost always provokes dissonance because, after a

decision is made to choose one alternative, a person has to cope with the cognitive
elements concerning the attractive attributes of the rejected alternatives". The way in
which advertisers combat this cognitive dissonance is through the use of post-purchase
reinforcement. These types of "advertisements" are used to reassure individuals that the
purchase or choice that they have made is the correct one. These messages usually consist
of personal mailings or phone calls to individuals who have made the purchase, not
necessarily to the general public. Because advertisements will be seen that contradict the
purchase that has been made, companies know that they have to combat these counter-
advertisements through their own product support.
Example: Reinforcement is usually used with high-end purchases, such as automobiles. A
perfect example of this is the Saturn Corporation. The day customers buy a Saturn
automoblie, a thank-you note is automatically sent to the purchaser. Sales-consultants call
to follow-up every couple of months to get buyer feedback and to address any concerns
or questions. Cars are hand-washed free of charge during service to ensure that customers
feel comfortable driving their vehicles, and events are held throughout the year to allow
Saturn customers to get together and socialize (Marketing Magic).