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The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in Decision Making

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The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in Decision Making


When making decisions humans commonly fall victim to errors in logic and reasoning. Since the inception of the study of the mind, psychologists have endeavored to isolate the characteristics and causes of errors in human thinking. Researchers and theorists have developed categories of such errors: representativeness heuristics, availability heuristics, memory and hindsight biases, etc. . . . In other words, to err is human.

In 1957, Festinger identified another phenomenon in human cognition--cognitive dissonance. Festinger theorized that humans experience negative emotions when performing behaviors that are contrary to their attitudes. These negative emotions, collectively called "cognitive dissonance," have been shown to influence people's attitudes and behaviors in myriad situations. Is it possible that cognitive dissonance plays an important role in directing the illogical or irrational decisions that people often make? More specifically, can cognitive dissonance be partially responsible for the many common flaws in human thinking? As evidenced by his research, Festinger found that cognitive dissonance can provide a serious hindrance to proper decision making, and reducing dissonance may significantly improve decision making skills.

Characteristics and effects of cognitive dissonance

Festinger & Carlsmith's 1959 experiment explored the effects of dissonance on the subjects' subsequent attitudes concerning an unpleasant task. First, Festinger & Carlsmith required the subjects to complete a tedious and unexciting task. Following completion of the task, the subjects were given the option of convincing a confederate to participate in the task. The subjects were also offered a reward of varying values. Following the completion of this second task, the subjects were given a questionnaire to elicit their opinion of the first task. Festinger & Carlsmith found that those subjects that, for a small reward, convinced the confederate to complete the tedious task enjoyed the task more than those who received a greater reward. The subjects' negative attitude toward the original task conflicted with their persuasive behavior with the confederate. The subjects were thus forced to choose between changing their attitude about the task and changing their behavior. Since their persuasive behavior was only moderately rewarded, they could not blame money as the cause for their conflicting behavior. As a result, the subjects changed their attitude toward the original tedious task. This phenomenon was termed cognitive dissonance--a result of effort justification. In short, cognitive dissonance is a negative emotion that results when a person's behavior conflicts with their attitudes.

Cognitive dissonance as a cause of common errors in human thinking

It may be reasonable to attribute many errors in human thinking to cognitive dissonance. I will discuss, in purely theoretical terms, three common errors in decision making that can be directly or indirectly caused by cognitive dissonance. First, the representativeness heuristic is defined as the error in which people conjure up generalizations about a population or about the outcome of a scenario based on a small "representative" sample or stimulus (Plous, 1993). People develop attitudes about other groups of people based on individual encounters with members of that group. These attitudes are often difficult to change when negative or emotionally charged. The representativeness heuristic can help people avoid encountering situations that cause cognitive dissonance, and, thus, this "error" in human thinking persists.

For example, if a Minnesotan is insulted by a person from New York, the Minnesotan uses the representativeness heuristic--all New Yorkers are jerks--to avoid further injury when encountering another unfriendly New Yorker. To see how cognitive dissonance can give rise to this error in human thinking, consider the following line of reasoning: Assume that most individuals view themselves as the most important person in their own minds--the center of their own universe. However, they experience dissonance when they realize that they cannot know everything and their experience with the world is limited to a small sample. To reduce this dissonance, the representativeness heuristic is applied, thus placing everything into categories. Their small sample of the world is now representative of the whole, and dissonance is reduced.

Second, the availability heuristic is a result of the tendency of people to confuse probability with imaginability (Plous, 1993). For instance, the probability of being killed by electrocution is greater than that of being killed in an airplane crash. However, most people can imagine (from news reports) the tragedy of a plane crash more easily than electrocution while standing in a puddle of water in their bathroom. Thus, they falsely believe, through the availability heuristic, that it is more dangerous to fly to Europe than to use a hairdryer in the bathtub. We can see how dissonance theory can give rise to this error in human reasoning. Again assuming that most people view themselves as the center of the universe, they experience dissonance when they realize that things can happen to them over which they have no control. To reduce this dissonance, they create an availability heuristic that says that things will only happen to them with the probability which they can imagine those events occurring.

Third, the memory and hindsight biases show that humans reconstruct their memories at the time of recall, often embellishing the "facts" with incorrect perceptions and improbable viewpoints (Plous, 1993). This error in human thinking may sometimes influence a witness in a court hearing to add details at the crime scene based on evidence learned after the fact. The ever annoying "I knew it all along" phenomenon is also a result of the hindsight bias, inserting or altering past attitudes based on present interpretations or new information. The role of cognitive dissonance is clearly at work in memory and hindsight biases: Assume once again that most humans are at the center of their own universes. They experience dissonance when their omniscient view of the world is disrupted, and they realize that they cannot remember everything and cannot change past events, past behaviors, or past thoughts. This dissonance is assuaged with the memory and hindsight biases, which allow them to manipulate their memories of past events. They can erase, embellish, or even insert memories to reduce any incongruences.

Positive uses of cognitive



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