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Cognitive Dissonance

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"Your best friend is having a beer bash tonight. Everyone you talk to indicated their positive intentions of going to the best beer bash of the millennium. However, you have a Psyc 135 final next morning that you haven't studied for. Your midterm scores have been low going into the final, but everyone claims that the final is easy every semester. Should you stay home and study for the final or go to this millennium beer bash and merrily consume alcohol?"

Above stated scenario raises several questions in my mind and lands me in a state of psychological tension. Having a choice of attending a social event or studying for the final exam puts me in a dilemma as to what to do next. Deciding to stay home and study for a test may very well anger my friends, but may also cause a terrible sense of well being of missing out on a social event. While deciding to go to the party instead, it leads me in a state of tension as the party time can be well spent on studying for the final exam next morning. This state of uneasiness or tension is easily understood as Cognitive Dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory, developed by Leon Festinger (1957), is concerned with the relationships among cognitions (Festinger, 1957). In this context, cognition can be perceived as a piece of knowledge that may inscribe an element of an attitude, an emotion, a behavior, a value, and so on (Festinger, 1957). For example, the knowledge that you like the color blue is a cognition. People hold a multitude of cognitions simultaneously, and these cognitions form irrelevant, consonant or dissonant relationships with one another.

Cognitive Irrelevance probably describes the bulk of the relationships among a person's cognitions. Irrelevance simply means that the two cognitions have nothing to do with each other. Two cognitions are consonant if one cognition fits with or is consistent with the other. People like consonance among their cognitions. We do not know whether this aspect is innate or is learned, but people do prefer cognitions that fit together to those that do not. It is this simple observation that gives the theory of cognitive dissonance its interesting form. And, two cognitions are said to be dissonant or incompatible if one cognition follows from the opposite of another (Festinger, 1957).

Continuing on with the scenario, having decided to attend the beer bash, it positions me in another unfortunate dissonant situation. With the increased peer pressure of alcohol consumption on one hand, and on the other, knowing the harmful effects that it may bring upon my exams performance, I face an important decision that needs to be made. One decision is to stay abstinent from alcohol or follow in the footsteps of my beer bash friends. Prescribing to any of the alternatives may lead to dissonance as drinking may deteriorate health and cause lower grades, while not attending the beer bash may give my best friend and peers a sense of their rejection.

What happens to people when they discover dissonant cognitions? The answer to this question forms the postulation of Festinger's theory. Festinger's theory of Cognitive Dissonance postulates that individuals, when presented with evidence contrary to their worldview or situations in which they must behave contrary to their worldview, experience cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). Dissonance can be simply understood as an "unpleasant state of tension." A person who has dissonant or discrepant cognitions is said to be in a state of psychological dissonance, which is experienced as unpleasant psychological tension (Berkowitz & Cotton, 1984). This tension state has drive-like properties that are much like those of hunger and thirst. When an individual has been deprived of food for several hours, he/she experiences unpleasant tension and is driven to reduce the unpleasant tension state that results (Berkowitz & Cotton, 1984).

The general sequence of a psychological tension is as follows, (a) conflict, (b) decision, (c) dissonance, and (d) dissonance reduction (O'Keefe, 1990). O'Keefe provides with some suggestions of reducing dissonance. One way of reducing dissonance felt after a choice is made, is to reevaluate the alternatives. "By evaluating the chosen alternative more positively than one did before, and by evaluating the unchosen alternative less positively than before, the amount of dissonance felt can be reduced drastically." (O'Keefe, 1990) In essence, by re-evaluating the alternatives, I may decide to spend some time at the beer bash to socialize and enjoy non-alcoholic beer. This in turn will help me alleviate my dissonance as I will have plenty of time to devote it for Psyc 135 final next morning.

O'Keefe explains cognitive dissonance as a relationship between two or more cognitive elements. Dissonance occurs when two cognitions are in a dissonant relationship. Dissonance is not something that people want in their lives. People try to avoid dissonance if they do come across. For example, Smoking cigarettes may taste good and look professional, but in fact it is known to cause smoking ailments like



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