Cognitive dissonance refers to the situation in which an individual has conflicting or widely disparate thoughts, beliefs, opinions or attitudes that are discordant and require individual attitude or behavioral change in order to restore cognitive and emotional homeostasis.
First proposed in 1957 by Leon Festinger (1919– 89), the theory of cognitive dissonance is based on the principle that people prefer their cognitions, or beliefs, to be consistent with each other and with their own behavior in order to minimize anxiety or intrapsychic discomfort.
Inconsistency, or dissonance, among their personally held beliefs and attitudes makes people anxious and uncomfortable enough to shift these ideas so that they will achieve consistency. For example, social smokers forced to deal with the opposing thoughts, “I enjoy smoking cigarettes” and “smoking is a health hazard and may hasten my death” or “smoking is socially unacceptable and prohibited in public venues,” may alter one of them by choosing to quit smoking. Alternatively, one can diffuse dissonance by reducing its importance; for example, discounting the evidence against smoking and adopting the view that smoking will not do personal health damage, or adding new information that gives more weight to one of the dissonant beliefs or appears to reconcile them, such as deciding that smoking is less dangerous than the stresses it helps alleviate.
Children have shown similar responses to experimental situations involving cognitive dissonance. In one case, children were asked not to play with an appealing toy. One experimenter made this request mildly and politely while another one made it in a threatening fashion. Those children who had accommodated the polite request also became less attracted to the toy, since liking the toy and giving it up were conflicting and dissonance-producing experiences. In contrast, the children who were threatened felt no pressure to change their opinions about the toy since they had a logical reason for opting not to play with it.
Festinger proposed that some individuals have a higher tolerance for cognitive dissonance than others. Some research scientists have found correlations between various personality traits, such as extroversion, and the ability to tolerate dissonance.
See also Cognition ; Coping behavior ; Festinger, Leon.
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