Cognitive Dissonance Research Paper

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1. Foundations Of Dissonance Theory

The theory of cognitive dissonance is elegantly simple: it states that inconsistency between two cognitions creates an aversive state akin to hunger or thirst that gives rise to a motivation to reduce the inconsistency. According to Leon Festinger (1957), cognitions are elements of knowledge that people have about their behavior, their attitudes, and their environment. As such, a set of cognitions can be unrelated, consonant, or dissonant with each other. Two cognitions are said to be dissonant when one follows from the obverse of the other. The resultant motivation to reduce dissonance is directly proportional to the magnitude and importance of the discrepant cognitions, and inversely proportional to the magnitude and importance of the consistent cognitions. This tension is typically reduced by changing one of the cognitions, or adding new cognitions until mental ‘consonance’ is achieved. Festinger’s original formulation proved to be one of the most robust, influential, and controversial theories in the history of social psychology. Although a number of challenges and revisions have been suggested, the basic behavioral observation remains uncontested and continues to stimulate fresh research.

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Application of this theory has yielded many surprising and nonintuitive predictions. For example, conventional wisdom suggests that behavior follows from attitudes; dissonance theory, however, identifies conditions under which just the opposite occurs. An early and often replicated experiment illustrates the power and counterintuitiveness of the theory. In what is now known as the induced compliance effect, Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) asked individuals to perform 30 minutes of a mind-numbingly tedious activity, and then to persuade a waiting participant that the activity was in fact quite interesting. This situation created cognitive dissonance in most individuals—they believed that the task was boring, yet inexplicably found themselves arguing quite the opposite. Half of the participants were given a ready excuse for telling this lie—they were paid $20 to do so—while the other half, paid only $1, had no such excuse. Those with a clear justification for their odd behavior experienced no dissonance and, as one would expect, later reported that the task was rather boring. The other half, however, given insufficient justification for their behavior, experienced dissonance between the knowledge that the task was boring and the reality that they were misleading a fellow participant into believing the opposite. Rather than endure the aversive experience of believing one thing but saying another, these individuals changed their opinion and convinced themselves that the task was actually interesting. In other words, their attitude was shaped by their behavior.

Subsequent studies have confirmed the basic theory of cognitive dissonance and demonstrated its far-reaching impact. For example, cognitive dissonance explains the increased commitment so frequently observed following a severe initiation into a group. The theory also explains why, when faced with a choice among several desirable options, we observe the tendency to highlight positive aspects of the chosen option and negative aspects of the rejected alternatives after (and only after) the choice has been made. In the course of such studies, we have learned much about the boundary conditions associated with the theory and have identified anomalies not easily explained by the original theory. Since the 1960s, a number of theoretical revisions have sought to subsume these limitations under a unifying theory. This research paper summarizes briefly the leading reformulations of dissonance theory and speculates on future directions.

2. An Early Theoretical Challenge: Self-Perception Theory

Dissonance did not come quietly into psychology, nor did controversy begin over the finer points of the underlying process. Rather, the theory challenged the reigning theoretical paradigm of behaviorism of the 1950s by questioning the sovereign utility of basic learning theory. Rather than increased rewards leading to more positive attitudes, Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) had shown quite the opposite: participants who received a smaller reward for counter attitudinal advocacy developed more positive attitudinal responses. The majority of early criticisms, therefore, focused not on the details of the dissonance theory but rather on its fundamental legitimacy. During parts of the next two decades, one of the enduring intellectual feuds in social psychology debated whether dissonance phenomena were the result of complex cognitive processes in the mind of the participant, or whether they were merely the result of complex cognitive processes in the mind of the experimenter. Daryl Bem (1972) took the position that one could derive similar predictions through far more parsimonious behavioral processes. He argued that participants in dissonance experiments were not experiencing negative psychological tension due to inconsistency, but rather were simply inferring their attitudes from their behavior and the situation in which it occurred. In essence, he suggested that people view their own behavior as though they were outside observers, and infer their underlying attitude from an analysis of their behavior. In support of this position, Bem replicated Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) and demonstrated that independent observers, aware of the monetary inducements, attributed attitudes to the participants that were nearly identical to the participants’ actual attitudes. The critical test between these theories revolved around the search for physiological arousal. Festinger was quite clear that inconsistent cognitions created an aversive motivational state that could presumably be measured. Bem’s self-perception theory, by contrast, predicted neither psychological nor physiological tension. However, Zanna and Cooper (1974) found indirect evidence for physiological arousal by showing that if arousal were misattributed to an irrelevant source, the effects of dissonance disappeared. The debate over dissonance vs. self-perception was finally laid to rest by a series of experiments that identified the precise conditions under which each was operative. Fazio et al. (1977) found that small discrepancies between attitude and behavior (defined as those within a person’s latitude of acceptance) tended to elicit self-perception processes, but larger discrepancies (those that fall in the person’s latitude of rejection) were more likely to generate dissonance processes. Croyle and Cooper (1983) added direct support for Festinger’s original position by showing that engaging in counter attitudinal advocacy, at least outside people’s latitude of acceptance, is marked by measurable increases in people’s skin conductance responses. Ultimately, the importance of self-perception theory lay in its contributions to identifying boundary conditions of dissonance processes and in provoking research that established physiological arousal as one of the hallmarks of dissonance.

3. Introduction Of The Self

It may be that all cognitive inconsistencies are not psychologically equivalent. According to some theorists, inconsistencies that implicate aspects of the self-maintain a privileged position. This suspicion led Elliot Aronson (1968) and Claude Steele (1988) to consider the role of self-concept in the dissonance process. Aronson concurred with Festinger’s view that dissonance was caused by inconsistencies, but argued that it was a particular inconsistency that mattered most in arousing dissonance, i.e., the discrepancy between a person’s general expectations for the self and his or her actual behavior. In other words, the arousal due to dissonance came about when a person’s belief that he or she was a good and rational individual was called into question by behavior that was neither good nor rational. Aronson predicted that dissonance arousal would be more frequent and more powerful among those with high self-esteem—that is, among those whose past history had led them to believe that their high internal standards of behavior were likely to be achieved. By contrast, Aronson predicted that those with low self-esteem, who were accustomed to behaving less competently, would not be surprised or discomfited to find themselves once again behaving in an incompetent manner.

To illustrate his point, Aronson (1968) argued that the dissonance aroused in Festinger and Carlsmith’s (1959) experiment was not due to inconsistency be-tween the thoughts ‘I believe the task was dull’ and ‘I told someone the task was interesting.’ Instead, Aronson proposed that dissonance was aroused by inconsistency between cognitions about the self (e.g., ‘I am a decent and truthful human being’) and cognitions about the behavior (e.g., ‘I have misled a person … (and) conned him into believing something that just isn’t true,’ p. 24). Aronson concluded: ‘at the very heart of dissonance theory, where it makes its clearest and neatest prediction, we are not dealing with just any two cognitions; rather we are usually dealing with the self-concept and cognitions about some behavior. If dissonance exists it is because the individual’s behavior is inconsistent with his self-concept’ (1968, p. 23).

Claude Steele and his colleagues (1988) suggested a different interpretation of the role of the self in creating dissonance. Like Aronson, Steele viewed inconsistent cognitions as a threat to the self; but unlike Aronson’s self-consistency model, he suggested that the primary function of dissonance reduction was not to rescue the specific self-cognitions threatened by a behavioral outcome, but instead to restore the completeness of the overarching self-system. The difference, then, was not about the origin of dissonance arousal, but rather about the purpose and mechanism underlying dissonance reduction. Whereas Aronson focused on individual susceptibility to dissonance arousal, Steele’s self-affirmation theory focused on individual resilience to dissonance. Interestingly, from Aronson’s point of view, it is those individuals who have a positive self-regard that are most likely to experience dissonance arousal. Steele, by contrast, asserted that it is those same individuals—wrapped in their armor of self-resources—who feel immune from the need to reduce dissonance. Based on the data provided by Aronson and Steele, it is probably fair to say that those with high self-esteem are both more susceptible to dissonance arousal and more resistant to its effects because they can focus on their many other strengths. Holding all else constant, high self-esteem serves both as a catalyst that generates dissonance and as a buffer that mitigates the need to reduce dissonance.

4. A New Look At Dissonance

In 1984, Cooper and Fazio provided a comprehensive review of the dissonance literature and challenged the dominant assumption that dissonance was driven by a need for psychological consistency. According to their ‘New Look’ model, dissonance is aroused when people perceive that their behavior has been responsible for bringing about consequences that are unwanted or aversive. If there are no such consequences, then inconsistent behavior will not produce the state of dissonance. For example, Cooper and Worchel (1970) replicated Festinger and Carlsmith’s (1959) study with a condition in which the waiting participant was not convinced by the subject’s lie. In this condition, the aversive consequence of misleading a fellow participant was removed along with all evidence of the dissonance process. Cooper and Fazio concluded from this and many other studies that responsibility for an aversive event rather than cognitive inconsistency plays the vital role in producing cognitive dissonance.

5. Future Directions—Self-Standards Model Of Dissonance

Each of these reformulations of dissonance theory differs with respect to one major issue: what is the role of self-concept in dissonance processes? Is it a problem, a benefit, or completely irrelevant to the arousal and reduction of cognitive dissonance? There are data in favor of each position—data that are not easily reconcilable. However, a recent synthesis discussed by Cooper (1999) and Stone (1999) suggests that dissonance is caused by a discrepancy between the outcome of a behavioral act and the standard to which it is compared. According to the self-standards model, sometimes the standard that people use to measure their behavioral outcomes are personal and idiosyncratic. In such cases, people’s views of themselves will play a crucial role. At other times, the assessment of an act is based on broad, normative standards that are shared in the culture. At these times, the self will not play a role in the dissonance process.

In summary, it is still useful to think of dissonance as involving inconsistency among cognitive elements and to conclude that inconsistency produces motivation for change. It is also fair to conclude that the future of dissonance theory will include a role for behavioral consequences, an assessment of the self, and an analysis of the contextual variables that make different standards the basis of judgment for behavioral outcomes. The evolution of cognitive dissonance calls for an integration that will likely include insights from the currently dominant perspectives.


  1. Aronson E 1968 Dissonance theory: Progress and problems. In: Ableson R P, Aronson E, McGuire W J, Newcomb T M, Rosenberg M J, Tannenbaum P H (eds.) Theories of Cognitive Consistency: A Sourcebook. Rand McNally, Chicago
  2. Bem D J 1972 Self-perception theory. Advances in Experimental Psychology 6: 1–62
  3. Cooper J 1999 Unwanted consequences and the self: In search of the motivation for dissonance reduction. In: Harmon-Jones E, Mills J (eds.) Cognitive Dissonance: Progress on a Pivotal Theory in Social Psychology. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, pp. 149–73
  4. Cooper J, Fazio R H 1984 A new look at dissonance theory. Advances in Experimental Psychology 17: 229–62
  5. Cooper J, Worchel S 1970 Role of undesired consequences in arousing dissonance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 16: 199–206
  6. Croyle R, Cooper J 1983 Dissonance arousal: Physiological evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 45: 782–91
  7. Fazio R H, Zanna M P, Cooper J 1977 Dissonance and self-perception: An integrative view of each theory’s proper domain of application. Journal of Experimental Psychology 13: 464–79
  8. Festinger L 1957 A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Row, Peterson, Evanston, IL
  9. Festinger L, Carlsmith J M 1959 Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal Social Psychology 58: 203–10
  10. Steele C M 1988 The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self. Advances in Experimental Psychology 12: 261–302
  11. Stone J 1999 What exactly have I done? The role of self-attribute accessibility in dissonance. In: Harmon-Jones E, Mills J (eds.) Cognitive Dissonance: Progress on a Pivotal Theory in Social Psychology. American Psychological Association, Washing-ton, DC, pp. 175–200
  12. Zanna M P, Cooper J 1974 Dissonance and the pill: An attribution approach to studying the arousal properties of dissonance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 29: 703–9
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