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The OCR Glossary

Cognitive Dissonance

Karen Freberg

Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable state of mind resulting from discrepancies between attitudes and past behavior or between two conflicting attitudes. Typically, people like to think that their attitudes are consistent or congruent with each other and with their behaviors. A person who values honesty should not cheat on an exam. When people behave in ways that are in contradiction with their attitudes or when they face two conflicting attitudes, they experience an unpleasant state of arousal, due at least in part to feelings of guilt and responsibility for contributing to a negative situation. People are motivated to reduce this stress. Dissonance can be reduced in a number of ways: (a) by changing the behavior, (b) by changing the conflicting cognition, (c) by changing the importance of the cognition, (d) by adding new cognitions, or (e) by ignoring or denying the information that produces conflict. Cognitive dissonance can be a powerful tool for influencing attitude and behavior changes, which, if done successfully by a firm, can affect a corporation’s reputation. The remainder of this entry provides examples of how dissonance can be reduced, how corporations can utilize cognitive dissonance to change stakeholders’ attitudes and behaviors, and how emerging media and endorsers can influence cognitive dissonance.

Applying these methods to the conflict experienced by an honest person who cheats on an exam, one might proceed as follows. The person might change the behavior by no longer cheating. The conflicting cognition may be changed by justifying the behavior (“Everybody does it”). The importance of the cognition may be downgraded (“Cheating on an exam is not a big deal—nobody is hurt by this”). New cognitions may be added to justify the behavior (“This teacher asks unfair questions anyway”). Finally, a person might simply deny or ignore the problem behavior causing the conflict (“What I did really doesn’t count as cheating”). An example of this related to reputation management was when the National Football League (NFL) went back and forth with its stance on domestic violence following the Ray Rice case in 2014. This incident sparked a reaction among fans, athletes, and sponsors who felt that the NFL was initially not taking a strong enough stance against domestic violence, which affected its overall reputation. This was a conflicting cognition on its reputation, and after public and media reaction swelled, the NFL altered its stance by drastically increasing punishment for its members involved in domestic violence.

Cognitive dissonance can be one of the most powerful tools for influencing attitude and behavior changes. If people can be encouraged to behave in a particular way, under the right circumstances, their subsequent attitudes will line up to match the behavior. If a brand encourages consumers to act in a certain way (e.g., corporate social responsibility, taking action, employees being brand ambassadors), these behaviors can greatly reflect and affect the company’s reputation in the minds of its other stakeholders while building a strong corporate culture. Making an important decision is virtually guaranteed to put a consumer into a state of cognitive dissonance. A consumer might be torn between purchasing several different models of new cars. However, once the decision has been made, the purchaser would find the cognition “I bought a lemon” to be very threatening. Instead, it is likely that the purchaser would feel more strongly than before that the car purchased was the best choice.

Cognitive dissonance is useful for understanding the phenomenon of spreading alternatives. If people are faced with an easy choice between a very desirable outcome and a much less desirable outcome, little attitude change results. However, if people must choose between two nearly equal alternatives, their attitudes are more likely to change significantly in response to their choice. A difficult decision faced just a few minutes ago is now a very clear-cut choice. If a person needs to travel a great distance to get a vaccination for the flu, the choice of skipping the vaccination becomes very simple, and attitudes about the need for vaccination would change very little. However, if a vaccination were offered for free during a routine physical and the person still refused, much more attitude change would be needed to reduce dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance produces greater attitude change in situations where people find it more difficult to justify their actions. Employee incentives (e.g., raises, acknowledgments, awards) can help incentivize these audiences to be prominent brand ambassadors and be the face of the company in other arenas that could affect the brand’s reputation. However, when people are paid large sums of money to do something that is in contradiction with their values, they show less attitude change than people who are paid small amounts of money. Being paid well allows the receiver to reduce the dissonance caused by the discrepancies between his or her values and behavior by saying, “I did it for the money.” Little other attitude change is necessary. In contrast, if you do something of your own free will that causes dissonance, perhaps doing something negative due to peer pressure, you are much more likely to change your attitudes to reduce dissonance. People need to find reasonable explanations for their behavior. A person who volunteers for one of the first Ebola vaccinations is likely to be a strong advocate for getting vaccinated, but a person who is paid well to get the vaccination in a clinical trial is less likely to feel strongly about it.

Constituents, audiences, markets, publics, and stakeholders will work very hard to avoid dissonance. Receivers can avoid dissonance by rating arguments that support their positions more favorably and discounting information that contradicts their positions. For example, people hearing messages about the importance of corporate social responsibility efforts to support recovery in the wake of a disaster (e.g., American Red Cross and Hurricane Sandy) will contribute more to society than others who receive aspects of the information that support their preexisting beliefs, attitudes, and values. This makes it very difficult to persuade audiences. It is important to instill just the right amount of dissonance for attitude change. If a message is too heavy-handed, the individual is likely to remove it as a cognition.

Emerging media platforms such as social media sites make it very easy for today’s audiences to control the information they receive, and by doing so, they easily avoid dissonance. If people can follow information sources online that overlap with their own beliefs, attitudes, and values, little dissonance will occur, and their attitudes will not change.

Cognitive dissonance is also relevant to understanding the impact of online influencers and other spokespersons. Not only do people judge their own motives for thinking and behaving (“I’m purchasing this product because I want to be perceived as being innovative”), but they also actively interpret the motives of others (“This spokesperson is telling me to buy this product because it’s his job and he is paid to do this”). Third-party endorsers, or people who simply offer their opinion without any ties or benefits from a particular organization, are among the most influential spokespersons today. Their impact on attitudes is so great that organizations need to disclose any benefits for “plugging” a product or service in a blog or other social media outlet. Because it looks like third-party endorsers have nothing to gain by stating their positions, the audience will perceive them to hold the attitude strongly, and that perception will be very influential.

Brehm, J. W. (1956). Post-decision changes in desirability of alternatives. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52, 384–389.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lord, C. G., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1979). Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 2098–2109.

See Also

Audiences; Constituents; Markets; Publics; Stakeholders; Third-Party Endorsements; Users

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