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One of Psychology’s Most Famous Theories Is Put to the Test

New research shows that cognitive dissonance theory is alive and well.

Key Points: Evidence for the power of cognitive dissonance comes from studies using the "free choice paradigm"—in which individuals tend to show clearer preferences for an option after they have chosen it. Despite criticism of this approach, a recent analysis suggests it is still a valid way to study cognitive dissonance.

You are undoubtedly familiar with the idea of cognitive dissonance, one of the most frequently used psychology terms. Perhaps you’ve used it to describe a difficult choice you made that you later regretted. You may also have used the term after you acted in a way that ended up hurting someone, even though you intended to be kind.

Choices or actions that seem to go against logic or your inner moral guideposts leave you with a sense of confusion and discomfort. These feelings are often the beginning of a process in which you gradually rationalize your behavior in order to feel better about yourself. The attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance becomes a motivational force in leading to this attitude change.

Cognitive dissonance is in the news after the February 13, 2021 acquittal of former president Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial. New York Times columnist Peter Wehner used this theory to explain how the Republicans who voted to acquit were able to justify their behavior: “For people who are not themselves deviant to publicly defend a person who is creates cognitive dissonance and psychological conflict. It puts people at war with themselves. But over time, one step at a time, people condition themselves to make compromises. They twist themselves into moral knots as a way to justify their stance. They create a community to reinforce their rationalizations. And with each step down the moral staircase, it gets easier.”

Wehner describes the cognitive dissonance process in which people try to reduce inner conflict by altering their beliefs, in this case to justify a behavior. Cognitive dissonance is clearly entrenched in everyday language. But is it still considered a valid explanation in academic psychology?

Reviewing the Evidence on Cognitive Dissonance and Choice

The answer, based on a newly published analysis of 43 studies with a combined total of almost 2,200 participants, appears to be “yes." The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Maya Enisman and colleagues (2021) delved into the validity of the cognitive dissonance theory by examining results from studies using a specific dissonance-inducing paradigm.

In their exploration of previous studies, they sought to find out whether people actually change their attitudes after making a difficult choice, or whether the choice actually reflected their prior beliefs, casting doubt on the entire premise of cognitive dissonance. In terms of Wehman’s posing of the problem, maybe those Republicans were actually “deviant” in the first place, and that’s why they voted as they did.

In their description of cognitive dissonance, Enisman et al. note that “an inconsistency between a held attitude and a past behavior is an especially substantial source of discomfort because the behavior cannot be undone. Thus, the need to alleviate the discomfort leads to attitude change to accommodate the behavior” (p. 16).

The experimental translation of this dilemma was developed in the mid-1950s in what is called the “free choice paradigm.” Put yourself in this situation and see what you might do. First, the experimenter provides you with a set of eight items that you are to rate in terms of desirability. They might be, as is true in the original study, a set of eight appliances. After you’ve made your rating, the experimenter now presents you with your two top choices (e.g. a desk lamp and a toaster) from which you now have to select one. This creates dissonance because you actually liked the two of them just about equally, but now you can only have one of them.

You make your choice, let’s say the toaster, and now you're asked to rate all of the items again. Because that dissonance is unpleasant, and the choice can’t be undone, it’s likely that you’ll rate the unchosen item (the lamp) as lower in desirability than you did in the first part of the experiment. People who aren’t in the high dissonance condition have it much easier because they were asked to choose between one item with a high rating and one with a low. No dissonance there.

In experimental terms, the change in your ratings between the before and after phases of the task reflects the “spreading of alternatives” effect in which what were two equally desirable choices to you now receive more lopsided ratings once you made the choice you can no longer take back.

You’ve probably gone through all of these choice experiences in your everyday life. In fact, online shopping provides the perfect opportunity for cognitive dissonance to arise. Suppose there are two sets of cabinet organizers that seem pretty similar to you, but you only want to buy one. As you stare at both of them in your cart, you decide that you’ve wasted too much time on this whole process and choose option A rather than option B. When you go back and examine the unchosen alternative, you decide that it would have been a terrible choice after all. The free-choice paradigm would suggest that you changed your views about option B because you had made a choice and cognitive dissonance was in operation.

Studies critical of the free-choice paradigm, however, maintain that the choice may not induce a change at all. You may have rated a toaster as 7 and a lamp as 6. If given a second chance to rate those same items, the lamp might go down to a 4 or 5. But making a choice, according to this view, wasn't necessarily what changed your ratings; that could be a function of the fact that you wanted the toaster more all along. The lamp seemed nice, but on second thought, maybe you don’t need it after all.

Enisman et al. conclude that despite this possibility, the free-choice paradigm evidence does provide support to cognitive dissonance theory. Since the “revealing of preferences artifact” was highlighted in 2010 by social psychologists Jane Risen and M. Keith Chen, subsequent researchers have done everything they can to remove its potential effects, such as by controlling what participants choose. Enisman et al.'s analysis showed that studies using these kinds of corrections still showed the spreading of alternatives effect.

Across those corrected studies, in other words, cognitive dissonance reduction remained as a viable explanation of the changes in attitudes that follow a choice that cannot be undone. From a methodological standpoint, the authors note that the free-choice method should include the Risen-Chen correction. Yet they conclude that the evidence suggests "the effect of choice-induced preference change is ... smaller than was previously assumed, but is still alive and kicking" (p. 24).

To sum up, with this in-depth look at this very common psychological term, you can now perhaps better understand why and how it occurs in your own life. To avoid taking those steps down the “moral staircase” that can occur when you act in ways inconsistent with your principles, the concept of cognitive dissonance suggests that you let your principles drive your behavior rather than the other way around.

References

Enisman, M., Shpitzer, H., & Kleiman, T. (2021). Choice changes preferences, not merely reflects them: A meta-analysis of the artifact-free free-choice paradigm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120(1), 16–29. doi:10.1037/pspa0000263.supp (Supplemental)

Risen, J. L., & Chen, M. K. (2010). How to study choice-induced attitude change: Strategies for fixing the free-choice paradigm. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(12), 1151–1164. https://doi.org/10 .1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00323

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