The PR BlogMedia & PsychologySocial PsychologyCognitive Dissonance: Mental Harmony Above All Else

Cognitive Dissonance: Mental Harmony Above All Else

A cognitive bias that feeds on negative emotions.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

Cognitive dis­son­ance shapes our beliefs and decisions.

No one likes to feel uncom­fort­able. This is also true for com­mu­nic­a­tion; most people would rather do any­thing to avoid pro­cessing con­flict­ing inform­a­tion — wheth­er the uncom­fort­able inform­a­tion is true or not.

Today, we’re learn­ing more about cog­nit­ive dissonance.

Here we go:

Theory: Cognitive Dissonance

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Cognitive Dissonance

The the­ory of cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance, for­mu­lated by American social psy­cho­lo­gist Leon Festinger in the late 1950s, is a corner­stone concept in the field of psy­cho­logy, par­tic­u­larly in under­stand­ing human motiv­a­tion and behaviour. 

Cognitive dis­son­ance is a dis­tress­ing men­tal state in which people feel they are act­ing or hold­ing opin­ions that do not fit with their know­ledge or beliefs.”
Source: Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology 1Cooper, J. (2012). Cognitive dis­son­ance the­ory. Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology: Volume 1, 377 – 397. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​4​1​3​5​/​9​7​8​1​4​4​6​2​4​9​2​1​5​.​N19

The cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance the­ory pos­its that indi­vidu­als nat­ur­ally seek con­sist­ency among their cog­ni­tions (i.e., beliefs, opin­ions, and know­ledge). An incon­sist­ency between atti­tudes or beha­viours (dis­son­ance) cre­ates a state of psy­cho­lo­gic­al dis­com­fort, lead­ing the indi­vidu­al to attempt to reduce the dis­son­ance and achieve con­son­ance (con­sist­ency).

Emotions play a cru­cial role in main­tain­ing and chan­ging beliefs and atti­tudes, with cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance the­ory sug­gest­ing that neg­at­ive emo­tions can motiv­ate cog­nit­ive work to reduce cog­nit­ive incon­sist­en­cies.”
Source: Cambridge University Press 2Harmon-Jones, E. (2000). A cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance the­ory per­spect­ive on the role of emo­tion in the main­ten­ance and change of beliefs and atti­tudes. Cambridge University Press, 185 – 211. … Continue read­ing

Cognitive dis­son­ance can occur in vari­ous situ­ations, such as when a per­son’s beha­viour con­flicts with their self-image, new inform­a­tion con­tra­dicts deeply held beliefs, or when a decision con­flicts with altern­at­ive choices. 

Examples of irra­tion­al beha­viours when exper­i­en­cing dis­com­fort caused by dissonance:

  • Change the belief.
  • Justify the beha­viour by chan­ging the con­flict­ing cognition. 
  • Trivialize the inconsistency.
  • Seek new inform­a­tion that sup­ports the exist­ing belief or behaviour. 

The the­ory of cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance has been widely influ­en­tial in psy­cho­logy and fields like mar­ket­ing, pub­lic rela­tions, and decision-mak­ing stud­ies. It has helped explain vari­ous beha­viours, from small-scale per­son­al decisions to large-scale social and polit­ic­al attitudes.

Dissonance the­ory has regained pop­ular­ity in social psy­cho­logy, blend­ing cog­ni­tion and motiv­a­tion in a way that has­n’t been seen since the mid-1970s.”
Source: Psychological Inquiry 3Aronson, E. (1992). The Return of the Repressed: Dissonance Theory Makes a Comeback. Psychological Inquiry, 3, 303 – 311. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​2​0​7​/​S​1​5​3​2​7​9​6​5​P​L​I​0​3​0​4_1

Learn more: Cognitive Dissonance: Mental Harmony Above All Else

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A Reverse Relationship Between Actions and Attitudes

Traditionally, it’s been assumed that our actions dir­ectly res­ult from our beliefs and attitudes. 

However, the the­ory of cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance chal­lenges this notion, sug­gest­ing a reverse rela­tion­ship where actions can sig­ni­fic­antly influ­ence beliefs and atti­tudes. This concept implies that when indi­vidu­als engage in beha­viours incon­sist­ent with their beliefs, they often exper­i­ence psy­cho­lo­gic­al dis­com­fort. They may alter their beliefs to align more closely with their actions to alle­vi­ate this discomfort.

Cognitive dis­son­ance the­ory sug­gests that actions can influ­ence beliefs and atti­tudes, chal­len­ging the belief that actions are the res­ult of beliefs and atti­tudes.”
Source: The Western Journal of Medicine 4Harris, N. (1986). Cognitive dis­son­ance. The Western Journal of Medicine, 145 1, 105. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​4​3​3​7​/​9​7​8​1​8​4​3​7​6​8​7​0​8​.​0​0​021

This under­stand­ing is crit­ic­al, espe­cially in fields like pub­lic rela­tions, where influ­en­cing pub­lic beha­viour and atti­tudes is a primary goal. 

For instance, when people are encour­aged to take small actions in favour of a cause or brand, like par­ti­cip­at­ing in a cam­paign or using a sample product, these actions can sub­con­sciously alter their atti­tudes to be more favour­able towards that cause or brand.

Cognitive dis­son­ance is exper­i­enced as psy­cho­lo­gic­al dis­com­fort, which is alle­vi­ated by imple­ment­ing atti­tude change strategies, sup­port­ing Festinger’s concept of dis­son­ance as a motiv­a­tion­al state.”
Source: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 5Elliot, A., & Devine, P. (1994). On the motiv­a­tion­al nature of cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance: Dissonance as psy­cho­lo­gic­al dis­com­fort. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 382 – 394. … Continue read­ing

Cognitive Dissonance Feed On Negative Emotions

Cognitive dis­son­ance affects how indi­vidu­als per­ceive and react to inform­a­tion and influ­ences their inform­a­tion-seek­ing beha­viour, espe­cially under the influ­ence of neg­at­ive emotions. 

Cognitive dis­son­ance leads indi­vidu­als to seek con­gru­ent inform­a­tion and avoid coun­ter­at­ti­tu­din­al inform­a­tion, but only when exper­i­en­cing neg­at­ive emo­tions.”
Source: Media Psychology 6Tsang, S. (2019). Cognitive Discrepancy, Dissonance, and Selective Exposure. Media Psychology, 22, 394 – 417. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​1​5​2​1​3​2​6​9​.​2​0​1​7​.​1​2​8​2​873

Cognitive dis­son­ance becomes par­tic­u­larly pro­nounced when neg­at­ive emo­tions are involved. For example, in the con­text of a pub­lic rela­tions crisis, stake­hold­ers who feel anxious or upset about a situ­ation are more likely to seek inform­a­tion that con­firms their exist­ing per­cep­tions and ignore any con­tra­dict­ory evidence. 

This select­ive inform­a­tion pro­cessing, rooted in the desire to alle­vi­ate emo­tion­al dis­com­fort, can pose a sig­ni­fic­ant chal­lenge for PR pro­fes­sion­als.

It under­scores the need for care­fully craf­ted mes­sages that acknow­ledge and address these emo­tion­al states, ensur­ing that the com­mu­nic­a­tion strategy effect­ively pen­et­rates these cog­nit­ive barriers.

About Leon Festinger

Leon Festinger.
Leon Festinger. (Photo: Unknown)

Leon Festinger (1919 – 1989)

Leon Festinger was a prom­in­ent American social psy­cho­lo­gist, most fam­ous for devel­op­ing the the­ory of cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance in the late 1950s. Born on May 8, 1919, and passing away on February 11, 1989, Festinger made sig­ni­fic­ant con­tri­bu­tions to the field of social psy­cho­logy, leav­ing a last­ing impact through his innov­at­ive the­or­ies and research.

Festinger’s most not­able con­tri­bu­tion, the the­ory of cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance, revo­lu­tion­ized the under­stand­ing of human beha­viour and motiv­a­tion. This the­ory pro­poses that people exper­i­ence psy­cho­lo­gic­al dis­com­fort, known as cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance when they hold con­tra­dict­ory beliefs, atti­tudes, or beha­vi­ors. To alle­vi­ate this dis­com­fort, indi­vidu­als are motiv­ated to change their beliefs, atti­tudes, or beha­viours to achieve consistency.

Cognitive Dissonance is a real phe­nomen­on that leads to irra­tion­al actions like con­firm­a­tion bias and caus­al self jus­ti­fic­a­tions, as indi­vidu­als seek to reduce the incon­sist­ency between their beliefs and actions.”
Source: Perspectives on Psychological Science 7Boek, D. (2011). Cognitive Dissonance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 101 – 98. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​1​7​7​/​1​7​4​5​6​9​1​6​1​0​3​9​3​526

Beyond cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance, Festinger con­trib­uted sig­ni­fic­antly to social com­par­is­on the­ory and the study of social influ­ence and group dynam­ics. His social com­par­is­on the­ory sug­gests that people eval­u­ate their abil­it­ies and opin­ions by com­par­ing them­selves to oth­ers, espe­cially when object­ive bench­marks are unavailable.

Festinger’s work exten­ded to vari­ous oth­er areas, includ­ing research on the effects of group pres­sure on indi­vidu­al judg­ment, the determ­in­ants of beha­viour in social situ­ations, and the psy­cho­lo­gic­al under­pin­nings of pro­pa­ganda. His research meth­ods and the­or­et­ic­al frame­works con­tin­ue to influ­ence con­tem­por­ary psy­cho­logy, mak­ing him one of the key fig­ures in the his­tory of social psychology.

Learn more: Leon Festinger — The Psychologist Behind Cognitive Dissonance

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Please sup­port my PR blog by shar­ing it with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

PR Resource: More Psychology

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Cooper, J. (2012). Cognitive dis­son­ance the­ory. Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology: Volume 1, 377 – 397. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​4​1​3​5​/​9​7​8​1​4​4​6​2​4​9​2​1​5​.​N19
2 Harmon-Jones, E. (2000). A cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance the­ory per­spect­ive on the role of emo­tion in the main­ten­ance and change of beliefs and atti­tudes. Cambridge University Press, 185 – 211. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​7​/​C​B​O​9​7​8​0​5​1​1​6​5​9​9​0​4​.​008
3 Aronson, E. (1992). The Return of the Repressed: Dissonance Theory Makes a Comeback. Psychological Inquiry, 3, 303 – 311. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​2​0​7​/​S​1​5​3​2​7​9​6​5​P​L​I​0​3​0​4_1
4 Harris, N. (1986). Cognitive dis­son­ance. The Western Journal of Medicine, 145 1, 105. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​4​3​3​7​/​9​7​8​1​8​4​3​7​6​8​7​0​8​.​0​0​021
5 Elliot, A., & Devine, P. (1994). On the motiv­a­tion­al nature of cog­nit­ive dis­son­ance: Dissonance as psy­cho­lo­gic­al dis­com­fort. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 382 – 394. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​3​7​/​0​022 – 3514.67.3.382
6 Tsang, S. (2019). Cognitive Discrepancy, Dissonance, and Selective Exposure. Media Psychology, 22, 394 – 417. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​1​5​2​1​3​2​6​9​.​2​0​1​7​.​1​2​8​2​873
7 Boek, D. (2011). Cognitive Dissonance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 101 – 98. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​1​7​7​/​1​7​4​5​6​9​1​6​1​0​3​9​3​526
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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