Cognitive consistency theory

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1. Name of theory: The Cognitive Consistency Theory
2. Originator and Professional Background: Leon Festinger was born in 1919 in New York, New York. He attended the College of the City of New York and received a B.S. in 1939. He attended the University of Iowa in Iowa City, receiving his Master's Degree in 1940 and his Ph.D. in 1942. He began his career at the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, as an instructor from 1943-45. He was Associate Professor of Psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge from 1945-48. He was Associate Professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor from 1948-51. He became a full Professor at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis in 1951-55. In 1955, he moved to Stanford University in Stanford, California as a Professor of Psychology. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Science (fellow). He was awarded the Distinguished Scientist Award of the American Psychological Association in 1959.
Kurt Lewin, Ph.D., University of Berlin, 1914, taught at the University of Iowa where he formulated the theory of cognitive dissonance. Leon Festinger developed and refined the theory. Dr. Festinger's interest in this theory evolved due to a paucity of theoretical models in social psychology.
3. Institution with which identified: Festinger's original research was done through a grant by the Behavioral Science Division of the Ford Foundation in 1951-52. The theory (originally called the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance) was further developed with funds and assistance of the Laboratory for Research in Social Relations of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. It was continued through grant-in-aid monies from the Ford Foundation in 1957, while Festinger was at Stanford University.
4. Purpose of the theory: The Theory of Cognitive Consistency states that behavior which is at odds with an established attitude demands change. This change usually takes the form of altering the original attitude to conform more with the actual behavior. Accordingly, when a person behaves differently, she/he will also change his/her attitude about him/herself.
5. Approximate year of origin: in 1951, Leon Festinger was asked by the Ford Foundation to do research on social influence and communication. The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance evolved from this research.
6. Circumstances that led to model development: As early as 100 A.D., the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, observed that men are not disturbed by things but by their perception of things. Then in 1911, Alfred Adler saw each person's behavior as being shaped by his notions of what constituted success and by the goals he set up to achieve it. This is the elementary form of cognitive theory: thinking shapes behavior.

In the 1920's and 1930's these ideas were widely accepted. During the 1950's, there was an increased interest in the human behavioral sciences. Several theories which helped elucidate human behavior were developed. Dr. Lewin's theories (Field theory and the beginnings of Cognitive Dissonance) were derived from Gestalt principles. Thus, Festinger became concerned with communication and social influence. In trying to sort out why anxiety-provoking rumors were listened to and accepted, he found the rumors provided people with information that was consistent with the way they already felt. As a result of these initial findings, Festinger arrived at the concept of dissonance and the hypothesis concerning dissonance reduction. This in turn led to the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, or what is known today as the Cognitive Consistency Theory (Festinger, 1957).

7. Key terms:

1. Anxiety - Reaction to a threat characterized by feelings of apprehension. Unpleasant emotional state cued off by the presence of a threat and associated with subjective feelings of tension and apprehension.

2. Cognition - The things a person knows about himself, his behavior, and about his/her surroundings. Knowledge, opinions, or beliefs about the environment, about oneself, or about one's behavior. The process of knowing in the broadest sense including perception, memory and judgment.

3. Conflict - The presence of antagonistic needs or goals forcing the individual to make a choice. Opposition or simultaneous functioning of mutually exclusive desires, impulses, or tendencies.

4. Consonance - Consistency in a person's attitude, beliefs, behavior and surroundings.

5. Defense Mechanisms - Also called security mechanisms. Behaviors for coping with threats to the personality.

6. Dissonance - Inconsistency. Disharmony. Dissonance exists when two cognitions occurring together are inconsistent with each other according to the expectations of the person.

7. Dissonance reducing changes - Changes in items of information that produce or restore consistency.

8. Forced compliance - Offer of reward for compliance of or threat of punishment for noncompliance.

9. Irrelevance - Two elements that simply have nothing to do with one another.

10. Motivation - Stimulate to action; provide with motive or incentive.

11. Reinforcers - Any condition that strengthens learning. Event, circumstances, or condition that increases the likelihood that a response will occur. Reinforcers can be positive or negative. If it is positive, its presence will increase behavior . If it is negative, its withdrawal will increase behavior.

8. Brief description of the theory: Cognitive Consistency Theory proposes that people are motivated to change and act consistently with their beliefs, values, and perceptions when there is psychological inconsistency or disagreement between two pieces of information. The conflict between the inconsistent factors produces dissonance. The person begins to doubt previously held rationales, beliefs, or values. These doubts produce uncomfortable feelings and may interfere with the ability to act. The pros and cons of each factor are examined. The resolution of the dissonance occurs when one factor is seen as more attractive than the other. Prior to the resolution of the dissonance, the dilemma between the conflicting factors prevents action. When dissonance is resolved, the person is better able to act in accordance with the more attractive factor because beliefs, values, and perceptions agree with the behavior (Haber, Leach, Schudy & Sideleau, 1982).

This modern theory of motivation--Festinger's Cognitive Consistency Theory (1957)--makes it clear that commitment to a decision is the beginning, not the end of conflict.

Dissonance is aroused in an individual when a person possesses two cognitive elements (information) about himself or his environment and where one is the opposite of the other. For example, knowledge that one has eaten a disliked substance would be clearly dissonant with the knowledge that the substance is liked.

Dissonance arouses tension and motivates individuals to seek ways of reducing the dissonance. The greater the magnitude of the existing dissonance, the greater is the motivation. The more important the cognitions are, the greater the magnitude of the dissonance. The greater the ration of dissonant to consonant cognitions already present, the greater is the magnitude of added dissonance.

Some means for reducing dissonance include: behavioral change, addition to evidence justifying one's decision, changing one's attitude about one's act, and distorting the information.

Limitations of the cognitive constancy theory occur in health education because it does not explain the relationship between knowledge, attitudes, and health behavior and, people appear to tolerate dissonance between personal cognition (knowledge) and behavior. People are also as likely to change their knowledge and attitudes to be consistent with their behavior as they are to modify their behavior to be consistent with new information.

Another limitation of the theory of cognitive consistency is that it does not take into account the effects of reinforcement and environmental factors. Someone may be cognitively and affectively predisposed to a health behavior, but physical and/or social environmental factors prevent the individual from engaging in the behavior. Or, someone can be cognitively and negatively predisposed against a behavior, but physical and/or social environmental factors shape the behavior.

Although the theory of cognitive consistency may not be extremely useful in explaining or understanding behavior fully, it has provided important information for health educators. Effective health education simultaneously should target knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors with the understanding that they interact in complex and dynamic ways.

How does dissonance arise?

A person finds themselves doing something that doesn't fit into their knowledge, opinions, beliefs or values.

Once there is dissonance they see a need to reduce it.

Example: When a smoker finds information that smoking is bad for his/her health, but doesn't quit this will cause dissonance. In order to reduce the dissonance the person needs to find new information to justify smoking isn't harmful.

Before reduction occurs you must decide on the relationship of the two elements.

Consider: 1) The motivation and desire behind the elements (what causes the dissonance?)

2) The magnitude of the dissonance (the magnitude determines the pressure to reduce the dissonance)
The Reduction of Dissonance

The presence of dissonance gives rise to reduce or eliminate the dissonance. Two cognitive elements which can be changed in order to remove dissonance.

1. Behavioral Cognitive Element - this can change by changing the action or feeling the element represents.

2. Environmental Cognitive Element - this can be changed by changing the situation the element represents.

If the elements are impossible to remove or change, the magnitude will need to be changed by adding new cognitive elements.
Resistance to Reduction of Dissonance

If the dissonance cannot be reduced or eliminated by changing one or more elements, you need to consider the reasons for the resistance to change.

Avoidance of Dissonance

Not always will there be a tendency to reduce dissonance.


If you want to buy a man's beliefs, how much should you pay him? This question was explored by Leon Festinger and J.M. Carlsmith, social psychologists at Stanford University. The following derivations of the theory of cognitive dissonance proposed by Festinger were tested.

1. If an individual is forced to act in a manner which is contrary to his private attitude, he will experience dissonance.

2. If the "external" forces which compel him to act contrary to his attitudes are overwhelmingly strong, the total magnitude of dissonance will be minimal; if the forces are weak--just barely strong enough to induce him to act--the dissonance will be maximal.

3. One way to reduce dissonance is for the individual to change his attitude to correspond with his action. Since the pressure to reduce dissonance is a function of the magnitude of the dissonance, attitude change should be greatest when the force used to induce the action is just minimally sufficient.

Three groups of 20 undergraduate students each were used as subjects. In the "One-Dollar" group, the subjects were first required to perform repetitive and monotonous tasks. They were then hired by the experimenter as an "assistant" and paid one dollar to tell a waiting fellow student that the tasks were enjoyable and interesting. In the "Twenty-Dollar" group, the subjects were hired for twenty dollars to do the same thing. Control subjects merely performed the monotonous tasks.

A postexperimental interview was held to learn the subjects' attitudes toward the tasks. The interviewer was identified as a member of the psychology department who was conducting a study of the experiments in which elementary psychology students were required to serve as subjects. The true purpose of the interview was to get valid expressions of the subjects' private attitudes.

The results confirmed the theory. The One-Dollar subjects had persuaded themselves that the tasks were really interesting and enjoyable. The Twenty-Dollar subjects had not changed their private opinions (as checked against the control group).

In simple terms, the results of this study may be interpreted as follows. If a man is said to act contrary to his beliefs and if the bribe is small, he will say to himself: "I have been bought for a paltry sum." To assuage his feelings that he is a "cheap bribe," he will tend to come to believe that he acted the way he did, not because of a paltry sum but because he really believed in what he did. On the other hand, if he has been bought for a large sum, he will tend to explain his conduct by saying to himself: "No one could resist such a great sum--everyone else would do the same," and therefore he will not find it necessary to counter the threat to his self-image by changing his attitudes (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959).

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