A beautiful theory
Since this experiment numerous studies of cognitive dissonance have been carried out and the effect is well-established. Its beauty is that it
explains so many of our everyday behaviours. Here are some examples provided by Morton Hunt in his classic work 'The Story of Psychology':
• When trying to join a group, the harder they make the barriers to entry, the more you value your membership. To resolve the dissonance between the
hoops you were forced to jump through, and the reality of what turns out to be a pretty average club, we convince ourselves the club is, in fact,
• People will interpret the same information in radically different ways to support their own views of the world. When deciding our view on a
contentious point, we conveniently forget what jars with our own theory and remember everything that fits.
• People quickly adjust their values to fit their behaviour, even when it is clearly immoral. Those stealing from their employer will claim that
"Everyone does it" so they would be losing out if they didn't, or alternatively that "I'm underpaid so I deserve a little extra on the side."
Once you start to think about it, the list of situations in which people resolve cognitive dissonance through rationalisations becomes ever longer and
longer. If you're honest with yourself, I'm sure you can think of many times when you've done it yourself. I know I can.
Being aware of this can help us avoid falling foul of the most dangerous consequences of cognitive dissonance: believing our own lies.
When Prophecy Fails
An early version of cognitive dissonance theory appeared in Leon Festinger's 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails. This book gave an inside account of
belief persistence in members of a UFO doomsday cult, and documented the increased proselytization they exhibited after the leader's "end of the
world" prophecy failed to come true.
The prediction of the Earth's destruction, supposedly sent by aliens to the leader of the group, became a disconfirmed expectancy that caused
dissonance between the cognitions, "the world is going to end" and "the world did not end."
Although some members abandoned the group when the prophecy failed, most of the members lessened their dissonance by accepting a new belief, that the
planet was spared because of the faith of the group.
In a different type of experiment conducted by Jack Brehm, 225 female students rated a series of common appliances and were then allowed to choose one
of two appliances to take home as a gift. A second round of ratings showed that the participants increased their ratings of the item they chose, and
lowered their ratings of the rejected item.
This can be explained in terms of cognitive dissonance. When making a difficult decision, there are always aspects of the rejected choice that one
finds appealing and these features are dissonant with choosing something else. In other words, the cognition, "I chose X" is dissonant with the
cognition, "There are some things I like about Y." More recent research has found similar results in four-year-old children and capuchin monkeys.
Buyer's remorse, when evidence exists that it is justified, is a classical example of cognitive dissonance.
Buyer's remorse is an emotional condition whereby a person feels remorse or regret after a purchase. It is frequently associated with the purchase of
higher value items which could be considered unnecessary although it may also stem from a sense of not wishing to be "wrong".
In the phase before purchasing, a prospective buyer often feels positive emotions associated with a purchase (desire, a sense of heightened
possibilities, and an intimation of the enjoyment that will accompany using the product, for example); afterwards, having made the purchase, they are
more fully able to experience the negative aspects: all the opportunity costs of the purchase, and a reduction in purchasing power.
Also, before the purchase, the buyer has a full array of options, including not purchasing; afterwards, their options have been reduced to two: a)
continuing with the purchase, surrendering all alternatives, or b) renouncing the purchase.[dubious – discuss]
Buyer's remorse can also be caused or increased by worrying that other people may later question the purchase or claim to know better
Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 58, 203-10.
Examples in the news......
The psychological cost of Christmas
'Make someone happy'
Shopping does have an element of happiness about it.
But it can also sometimes be inked to a feeling of uncomfortable tension derived from experiencing conflicting thoughts - "Can I really afford
this?" - and the need to satisfy one's generosity - "It will really make someone happier at Christmas if I buy it".
This feeling of uncomfortable tension as a result of conflicting thoughts and actions has been explained as "cognitive dissonance" by psychologists.
This is particularly relevant in festive shopping when personal finances are being stretched.
At Christmas, people are challenged with what can be considered to be a moral form of cognitive dissonance, when people are torn between balancing
their finances and the wish to make others and themselves happier - which is the societal expectation of what Christmas is really all about.
Knowing they may well not be able to afford what they are buying, people freely enter into transactions encouraged by heavy marketing influences.
And they will try to reduce their internal psychological conflict in order to justify their actions.
They will explain that their happiness and that of others is more important than their debt, that others cannot do without when people around them are
receiving and being happy and that, above all, Christmas is a time for giving and sharing and the spirit of Christmas should be encouraged in a time
of nationwide gloom.
First Installment - The Halo Effect