Saying What You Don’t Believe: A Case of Cognitive Dissonance

Guest Post by Rachel Castle

It is not unusual for a person to say or do something that goes against his or her internal beliefs, but there are almost always consequences for such contradictory actions. These consequences are not an actual punishment for acting out of line with one’s own opinions, rather the individual feels uncomfortable as he realizes that his actions do not match what he truly believes.

For example, an individual may believe he supports a campaign for animal rights, yet order a cheeseburger for lunch and eat grilled chicken for dinner. He now must explain to himself how he can possibly support animal rights while still eating meat.

The Basics of Dissonance

cognitive dissonanceLeon Festinger coined the phrase cognitive dissonance to describe this presence of two inconsistent thoughts and/or behaviors within an individual. The two thoughts clash with one another, as certain intervals in music create a dissonant sound when played simultaneously. In music, the tension is resolved by changing or removing one of the notes to create consonant harmonies.

When there is conflict between our thoughts, we typically seek to resolve the resulting discomfort so that we can relax and enjoy the world without such troubles weighing us down. When one’s actions and beliefs are at odds with each other and creating discomfort, what can be done to reduce tension and restore peace within our mind?

Because an action or its outcomes are often seen by others, it is difficult to go back and change the behavior. Instead, one’s internal beliefs are subject to change to resolve the dissonance between thought and action.

In the case of the man who supports animal rights but relies heavily on meat to meet his nutritional needs, he may justify his eating habits by emphasizing animal rights for household animals like dogs and cats. Alternatively, he may eat meat only from farms where he believes the animals are treated humanely. In both situations, he is changing his thoughts about animal rights to explain why he eats meat despite his belief in the importance of humane treatment of animals. The result is two consistent thoughts and resolution of the cognitive dissonance.

Saying What You Don’t Believe

Another interesting situation arises when an individual is offered a reward to say something contradictory to his own personal opinionsFestinger and Carlsmith (1959) created a study to understand the effects of a monetary award when one is asked to say something that clearly goes against what he truly believes.

To begin, all participants were asked to work on two incredibly boring tasks for an hour with the belief that their performance of these tasks was the entirety of the study. The key moments of the study actually occurred after the participants had completed the tasks.

Because the tasks were so monotonous, it was assumed that all participants would absolutely despise the tasks by the end of one hour. Once the hour was over, the experimenter announces that for some participants, a student employee enters the waiting area to tell the next participant that the tasks he had just completed were fun and enjoyable.

From this moment, the experimenter continues to one of two possible speeches. He tells some students that an introductory psychology student would like to interview them about the experience. Others are told that the student employee hasn’t shown up yet, but another participant is already waiting. For these students, the experimenter hesitantly asks if the participant would be willing to tell the next student a few things about the study in exchange for money (one or twenty dollars).

The waiting participant is, of course, an actor who does not have to complete the tasks. Finally, all participants completed a short interview that asked their opinions about the tasks.

Rationalizing Your Lies

While the design of this study is mildly complicated, each twist and turn was necessary to learn about the effect of the monetary reward on participant’s attitudes towards the tasks. Realistically, all participants should have said they found the tasks boring, yet their answers did not show this pattern.

festingerThe participants who were never asked to lie about the enjoyment of the tasks rated them as unenjoyable, unimportant for science, and not educational (unsurprisingly).

Students who were paid only $1 to lie later rated the tasks as more enjoyable and more important to science, while students who were paid twenty dollars answered similarly to participants who did not lie.

To return to theories of cognitive dissonance, the participants who were paid to talk to the actor said things that went against what they truly believed. Thus, they experienced two inconsistent thoughts and needed to find some way to resolve the tension.

Participants who were paid twenty dollars to lie could easily say they only did it for the money and therefore did not need to change their opinions about the tasks. Participants who were paid a single dollar, however, did not receive enough of a monetary reward to justify their actions and they needed to look elsewhere to resolve the conflict. These participants changed their attitudes towards the tasks to be more favorable, so that the thoughts aligned with what was said.

The Pain of Inconsistency

Changing one’s thoughts to align with behaviors that have already been completed is an effective way to resolve cognitive dissonance, though there are other methods that can be used depending on the situation. This is something we do to remain consistent in our everyday life and when we are placed in unusual circumstances.

Monetary rewards play an interesting role in resolving dissonance, as it provides an external explanation for the inconsistent thoughts and behaviors. If the reward is substantial, people do not feel the need to change their thoughts in response to inconsistent behaviors, because they feel the money justified their actions.

Rachel Castle wrote this article as a final writing assignment in my Attitudes and Persuasion class at the College of Wooster.


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