Dissonance Theory

Klong! That Does Not Compute

Quick, listen.

I met my friend the test pilot, who had just completed an around-the-world flight by balloon. With the pilot was a little girl of about two.

“What’s her name?” I asked my friend, whom I hadn’t seen in five years and who had married in that time.

“Same as her mother,” the pilot replied.

“Hello, Susan,” I said to the little girl.

How did I know her name if I never saw the wedding announcement?

Take a minute to figure this one out then look at the end of this section for the answer. Were you right, or argh!

How could you have missed it. So obvious. So simple. So stereotyped. Mental prejudice, right?

In a very mild way, this little thought problem demonstrates an important human quality. We need consistency. Things must hang together and make sense. And when they don’t, we have a problem we must solve. Consistency theory has been proposed to explain what happens when things happen in inconsistent and unexpected ways.

(Answer: The mom and the daughter have the same first name, just like dads do with sons.)

Process Of The Theory

The Main Point of Dissonance Theory is this: People need consistency in their lives. The theory breaks down into three simple steps.

Step 1: People expect consistency.

This appears to be almost like a law of human nature. We have a strong preference for consistency in our lives. We want things to work the same way every time they happen. When we wake up in the morning we want to find the floor under our feet, the sun above our heads, and coffee in our cups. And just as we expect these kinds of physical consistency, we also expect psychological consistency. If we had marriages, families, and jobs yesterday, we expect to find them today in pretty much the same condition.

Thus, we have “mental worlds” of our expectancies about the world, the people in them, and our relationships with the world and other people. And the glue that holds all these mental relationships together is consistency. Why should we expect our spouses to love us tomorrow? Because it is consistent. Consistency becomes like a form of human gravity. It holds everything down and together. It helps us to understand the world and our place in it.

Step 2: Inconsistencies create a state of dissonance.

As much as we need consistency, however, there are many occasions where things occur in surprising and unexpected ways. There is an inconsistency between what we expected and what we got. It’s your wedding anniversary, you are expecting a “special gift” and you get an electric toothbrush. Your worst enemy compliments you on your outfit. You love your child, but you forget to attend the piano recital. What happens?

The state that arises following inconsistency is called, “dissonance” (pronounced DIS-AH-NENCE). Dissonance is simply a technical term for the cognitive, emotional, physiological, and behavioral state that arises when things do not go the way we expected them to.

One thing that almost immediately occurs when we experience dissonance is a mental state of mild confusion and interruption, “What? What? What was that? I don’t get it. Wait a minute.” We try to figure what we missed. Interestingly, we also begin to feel somewhat jangly and upset, almost like we are nervous or anxious. Finally, the physiology of our bodies changes when we experience dissonance. Our heart rates elevate, blood pressure goes up, and our hands get sweaty.

In sum, then, the state of dissonance is not a pleasant one. In fact, if there was a pill that gave people dissonance, no one would buy it. Dissonance is uncomfortable, a condition to be avoided if possible. It arises from inconsistencies.

Step 3: Dissonance drives us to restore consistency.

Given that dissonance is an unpleasant experience, when we have it, we want to get rid of it. We want to get back to the state of consistency, back where things makes sense and we don’t have that awful dissonance.

We have devised a number of different tactics for getting rid of dissonance. All of them essentially involve doing some mental work that permits us to change the way we think about things. That is, to get rid of dissonance, we must change the way we think.

First, deny it. Just pretend like it didn’t happen. Ignore it. It is not there, never was, and never will be. Next item. Now, some people are better at denial than others and if you are not good at it, it sounds almost unbelievable. For myself, I was not good at denial when I was younger, but as I have gotten older, I find it easier to do and very useful.

Second, swamp the dissonance. Sure this time things didn’t work out like we expected, but remember all those other times when it did? The goal here is to overload all that bad dissonance with a ton of good memories and thoughts. You can get a rough sense of just how much dissonance you are experiencing by how many “good” thoughts you must think of before you get rid of the dissonance. The longer it takes and the more thinking it requires, the greater the dissonance.

Third, change your expectancy. In the example of receiving an electric toothbrush, you could change your expectancy about the anniversary. “Gee whiz, there’ll be other days. It’s silly to get fired up about one particular day. This anniversary was not that special.” Some people would call this a form of rationalizing. With the previous options you did not really change reality. Here you are trying to alter in some real way something that really did happen.

Fourth, you could change your evaluation of the event. Again with the toothbrush. “Wow, what a beautiful electric toothbrush! It must of cost a fortune. Think how long my spouse had to shop around to find such a special gift.” Now, it is important to realize that this thinking is taken seriously. It is not the public face a person puts on when disappointed. Instead of responding with dissonant thoughts (“I can’t believe I got this lousy toothbrush.”), you actually change your evaluation and find the best possible outcome.

These are just four possible ways that we try to cope with dissonance. The key point, however, is that we are driven to these mental gymnastics because the dissonance is such an unpleasant state. No matter the method, we must lose the dissonance and restore the consistency.

Dissonance In Action

Selective Exposure. People who smoke do not usually read anti-smoking literature. Democrats typically will not watch Republican commercials. Generally speaking, we do not seek out information that might be contrary to our existing views.

Dissonance explains this. If you expose yourself to discrepant information (e.g. the smoker reads anti-smoking articles), you will probably produce inconsistencies which will lead to dissonance which will lead to mental work. To avoid all this trouble, people “selectively expose” themselves to information when possible. That is, they will seek out things they agree with, but will avoid things they disagree with.

This also explains why many public communication campaigns often have limited success. The people the campaigns are targeted at simply will not listen to them because to do so will create dissonance.

This also explain why direct influence and persuasion tactics often don’t work. When a source explicitly, openly, and directly confronts a receiver, the receiver will be immediately resistant because of dissonance.

Disconfirmation Effects. Recall the thought problem that started this chapter. I met my friend the test pilot. With the pilot was a little girl of about two. I ask my friend, whom I hadn’t seen in five years and who had married in that time, “What is the child’s name?”

“Same as her mother,” the pilot replies.

“Hello, Susan,” I say to the little girl.

How did I know her name if I never saw the wedding announcement? Easy, the test pilot is a woman and is Susan’s mother. Thus, mother and daughter share the same first name.

Some people have trouble getting this problem because we don’t expect women to be test pilots and because we don’t expect women to name their daughters after themselves. In other words, we have sex role stereotypes.

Okay, big deal. We miss this dumb problem because of stereotyped thinking. Well, imagine that the people who missed this problem were militant feminists who strongly believed in the equality of the sexes. A research study did just this to a group of feminists. The researchers had one group of feminists try to solve a sexist thought problem (which they all failed) while another group of feminists worked on a different task.

First of all, we can bet that the people who failed must have experienced some serious dissonance. There they are, advocates of equality and, zap!, they fall victim to stereotyped thinking. Klong! A major inconsistency. But, what happens next is the interesting part.

The researchers then had both groups of feminists read a transcript about a sex discrimination case. Their task was to decide who was wrong in the case and make an award. How do you think the feminists responded?

One might reasonably expect that the ones who failed the thought problem should have “logically” moderated their feminist beliefs. Obviously that failure indicated that they were not as clear thinking and free of bias as their feminist philosophy would demand. They should probably see themselves as less feminist now. Therefore, they should be less likely to see sex discrimination in the transcript and probably give smaller awards in the case.

Here’s what happened. The dissonant feminists were much more likely to find that sex discrimination had occurred and they gave much larger awards compared to a group of feminists who had not failed the thought problem. In other words, the feminist failures became even more feminist.

Follow this carefully. They fail the problem. That is an inconsistency, so dissonance is aroused. They must get rid of the dissonance, but how? I would argue that it would be almost impossible for these people to reduce their feminist beliefs because those beliefs are so important to them. They are “ego-involved” and it is very hard to change our core beliefs.

Counter-Attitudinal Behavior. One of the most surprising and interesting outcomes with Consistency Theory involves something called “counter-attitudinal behavior.” A counter-attitudinal behavior is a complicated way of describing an event where a person does something they do not really believe. The person behaved in a way that was counter to their true attitude. At first glance, this sounds like nonsense. Nobody behaves in ways that are counter to their true attitudes. Or do they? Think about this simple example.

You love your family, don’t you? And you have never forgotten a loved ones birthday or missed an important moment or done something that has caused them sorrow or pain, right?

We do perform counter-attitudinal behaviors all the time. Usually these actions are apparently unintentional, accidental, and largely beyond our control. But that doesn’t matter. Our need for consistency is so strong, that when things like this happen, dissonance is aroused and we must try to change.

One of the most common research methods for proving the counter-attitudinal effect is surprisingly simple. First, you survey people’s opinions on some topic, say capital punishment. Next you divide them into two groups. Now, both groups are going to write an essay on capital punishment that is against their true views (a counter-attitudinal behavior, right?) One group is “required” to write the essay, while the other group is asked to “volunteer” to write the essay. Both groups are then surveyed again for their opinions on capital punishment.

The required group shows almost no change in their attitudes on the topic. Even though they performed a counter-attitudinal behavior, it does not count because they were forced into it. The volunteer group, however, does show a change in attitude. They freely performed a counter-attitudinal behavior (writing an essay defending a position they disagree with). This action is inconsistent with their true beliefs and it therefore produces dissonance. They are then motivated to remove the dissonance. The way many people in this situation get rid of the dissonance is to change their opinion (“Well, I guess capital punishment is a better idea than I thought.”)

Reverse-Incentive Effects. One of the most outrageous and controversial effects with Dissonance concerns an odd prediction it makes about people. Under certain well-defined circumstances this theory predicts that people will show more attitude change when they are given smaller incentives and rewards for performing behaviors than when they are given larger incentives and rewards.

Take the essay-writing example we just looked at. We will focus only on the volunteer group and add another dimension. Let’s now divide the volunteers who are writing that counter-attitudinal essay into two groups. Both groups are going to be paid for writing the essays. The high incentive group will get paid $20 for their essays. The low incentive group will get paid only 50 cents for writing theirs. Now, when we survey all the writers again for their opinions about capital punishment, what will happen?

The quick and common sense reply is this: More incentive, more change. Therefore, the writers who got that nice $20 reward will show more change in their attitudes than the writers who only got a measly 50 cents. Pretty straightforward, right? But that’s not what typically happens. What usually happens is that the writers who got the 50 cents show considerably more change while the highly paid writers often show no change in attitude.

Let’s figure this out. Both groups of writers voluntarily performed a counter-attitudinal task (defending the “wrong” side of an issue). This is an inconsistency and we know it produces dissonance. How does the $20 group react to this? When they try to understand their odd behavior, they have an obvious and immediate explanation: I’m doing it for the money! Of course. Now, if they are only doing it for the money, then it means that this essay-writing stuff really does not represent their true attitudes and, if you think about, they really haven’t done a counter-attitudinal behavior. That $20 in a way forced them to write that essay. The dissonance disappears and there is no change.

But what about the writers who got 50 cents? Life is more complicated for them. Here they sit, looking at this beautiful essay they just wrote that attacks everything they truly believe. Why would they do such a thing? Good grief, they even volunteered to write this stuff. And how much did they get paid? A whole 50 cents. That’s no excuse. Well, it must be, as much as I hate to say it, it must be that my original position on capital punishment was a bit hasty and now I believe . . .

(Inflationary Side Bar: The dollar amounts in this example flow from an experiment published in 1959 by Professor Festinger and colleagues. If you took the amounts used in that study and updated them in 2005 dollars the experiment would now require $127, $6, and $3. Of course, a loaf of bread cost five cents back then, so it’s all relative.)

Dissonance In The World

Dissonance and all these many examples of it may seem rather removed from the workplace whether it’s in an office, a classroom, or factory floor. Sure, it is an interesting idea and it has some rather strange and quirky characteristics, but how does it apply to most work settings? Believe it or not, there are many applications.

Learning and Dissonance. If you think about it, the primary goal of teaching will often produce dissonance in many students. Before kids enter the classroom, they have a comfortable set of expectations about the world and how it works. Much of what we do as teachers is designed to try and change those existing expectancies. I want to make two points here.

First, inconsistency and dissonance is, in part, a minor explanation of why students sometimes do not want to learn. Learning can mean facing inconsistencies and we know that inconsistencies produce dissonance. When the inconsistencies are large and when the students cannot solve the dissonance with learning, you as the teacher have a problem.

Second, I still think a little dissonance is a good thing in the classroom. Dissonance creates attention and interest. It animates an internal drive to solve the dissonance-problem. Thus, artfully employed, dissonance can be an effective teaching tool. Here’s an example.

One very important aspect of communication is language and how people use words. Whenever I teach about how words have many meanings, I can start the unit off with this Thought Problem.

“Jack and Jill are dead. Their bodies are found lying on the carpeted floor of the living room. The carpeting is wet and around their bodies are shards of broken glass. Nearby there is a table under a window. Through the window, just a few feet from the house is a railroad track. My question to you is this: How did Jack and Jill die?”

At this point, I allow my students to ask me any question that can be answered with a “Yes” or a “No.” This goes on for five or ten minutes. If no one gets close, then I offer hints until the class cracks the Thought Problem. When they hear the solution, they have a vivid experience of how words have many meanings. The instructional unit now has their attention.

Now, how did Jack and Jill die?

Failed Persuasion. Think about this. Most of the time, when you directly try to persuade a someone to change (get to work on time, stop smoking, quit hanging out with “that” crowd, etc.), you are producing inconsistencies in the target. The better your arguments, the more inconsistency you produce. Now, here’s the real important part. If you do not get the target to change you have actually made things worse. You will have produced a state of dissonance, but since you did not get the person to change internal attitudes, the person must find another way to handle all that dissonance.

Do you recall the study with the feminists’ failure? They handled it by becoming more fanatical. They strengthened their feminist beliefs in the face of their own failures. Our persuasion failures can have the same effect on our targets. If we push too hard and do not get the results we seek, we may serve only to make the “problem” worse. (We see more evidence of this when we look at Inoculation Theory, too.)

Loyalty effects. Dissonance predicts a rather odd outcome. If you choose to work in an organization that produces a lot of struggle, disappointment, and even failure, you will probably feel more loyal and committed to your work and the organization. The classic illustration here is the Marine Corps (“What does not kill me, makes me stronger”) and other organizations that deliberately inflict significant privatation, pain, and suffering on its members. Groups like this typically experience incredibly high levels of committment and loyalty when a simple reinforcement analysis would predict the opposite. Now, this is a dangerous observation to make because it suggests that if you supervise others, you should run right out and make your people (employees, students, children, etc.) suffer as part of their “work.” We should realize from looking at the various applications of dissonance that things are not that simple or clear. Whatever “suffering” you deliberately cause cannot be understood or perceived by your targets. Recall that when people can make an external attribution for the negative consequence (“They made me write this hateful essay”) the dissonance effect disappears. Thus, you must make an artful delivery of the “suffering” so that it appears to arise from the deliberate and freely chosen actions of your targets.

I have to admit, that I personally lack the motivation to operate in such a sneaky way. I’ve never even conducted a dissonance research study because I fell squeamish about manipulating situations this way. You may feel differently. However, I will admit that I will always look for dissonance operating in people I work with and if they are experiencing it due to their own responsible actions, I’m willing to flow that dissonance in a direction I favor. For example, when I was directing research with graduate students, it was fairly commonplace for these projects to blow up or encounter significant failure, surprise, and disappointment. These young researchers would deliberately choose to do complex research projects – an enterprise that is more likely to fail than succeed because you are trying to invent or discover something unknown – and then, something bad happened. Research participants failed to show up. A promised resource was not delivered on time. Somebody forgot to make enough copies of a test. Worse still, the data disconfirmed every hypothesis. Many students felt miserable and dissonant at these times. When this happened I learned to keep the student “on the dissonance path” because it tended to strengthen their committment to research and their motivation to struggle against the odds. If, instead, one would try to console them or help them find external attributions for the failure, all that dissonance dissipated and the student just came away with a bad attitude toward doing research.

These dissonance bolstering effects are weird, interesting, and challenging. The worse it is, the more you like it, is one of those odd, counterintuitive findings that is compelling to study and understand. However, to do it well, you must be extremely clever and manipulative to use it as a standard influence tactic.

For myself, I tend to feel extremely comfortable using persuasion tactics (words to change attitudes in the information marketplace among freely choosing people), but when we get to influence (any source action that changes receiver behavior), I can get uncomfortable fairly easily. With persuasion, I think it is good to play the game with your elbows out like a contact sport. And, of course, it’s okay for the “other guy” to do the same. That’s what it means to interact in a marketplace of ideas with free people. There’s competition, open access to information, multiple sources of information, and the big one, free choices. As we’ve seen with the influence tactics (attribution, dissonance, CLARCCS cues, most applications of the learning theories), however, in many instances the tactic requires some kind of limitation, confusion, or powerlessness in the targets. I know what my own limits are and I can explain and justify them, if only for myself. The more important issue, however, is understanding your own limits. Think about it.

Outro from Dissonance

We started with a simple observation. People expect consistency. We then asked what happens when inconsistencies arise. What we found was the weird world of dissonance effects that occur under particular and specific circumstances. It is not merely inconsistency that produces dissonance, but rather inconsistencies plus negative consequences, internal attributions, and so on. Thus, dissonance is NOT an inevitable law of human nature, but rather a principle that arises under certain conditions. However, when those conditions do arise, the upside down world of dissonance emerges. Smaller incentives produce greater changes. We alter our evaluations of “the path not taken” and tend to downgrade options that once seemed alluring, but after we choose, now become ugly. Dissonance opens an interesting window on human nature and demonstrates a reasonable mechanism that people employ to make their crazy lives seem more acceptable and understandable.

Answer to the Thought Problems

Jack and Jill are fish. Their tank shook off the table under the window when a train went thundering down the tracks.

References And Recommended Readings

Cooper, J. & Fazio, R.(1984). A new look at dissonance. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 17, (pp. 229-266). New York: Academic Press.

Cotton, J. (1985). Cognitive dissonance in selective exposure. In D. Zillmann & J. Bryant (Eds.), Selective exposure to communication, (pp. 11-33). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sherman, S., & Gorkin, L. (1980). Attitude bolstering when behavior is inconsistent with central attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16, 388-403.