The theory of cognitive dissonance was developed by a social scientist Leon Festinger. The origin of the
theory dates back from late 50s as in 1957, Festinger published his work on
human behaviour and the decision-making process. He presented a theory that was
at its heart quite simple. It began with the idea of cognitions, the bits of
knowledge. According to Festinger, they can pertain to any variety of thought,
values, facts or emotions. For instance, the fact that I like ice cream is
cognition. So is the fact that I am a man. People have countless cognition in
their minds.

The theory is regarded as a milestone that changed the way
psychologists look at decision-making process and behaviour of human
beings.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Leon Festinger synthesized a set of
studies to distill a theory about communication’s social influences. Cognitive
dissonance enjoyed great popularity form the late 1950s through the mid 1970s.
Theoretical problems and conflicting findings lead to temporary replacement by
similar “self” theories in the early 1980ss, but cognitive dissonance regained
its place as the umbrella theory for selective exposure to communication by the
late 1980s.

CRUX OF THE THEORY
The basic idea behind cognitive
dissonance theory is that people do not like to have dissonant cognitions. In
fact, many people argue that the desire to have consonant cognitions is as
strong as our basic desires for food and shelter. As a result, when someone does
experience two or more dissonant cognitions, they will attempt to do away with
the dissonance.

CORE ASSUMPTION AND STATEMENTS
Originally cognitive
dissonance is adopted from social psychology. The title of the theory gives the
concept as cognitive is thinking or the mind and dissonance is inconsistency or
conflict. Cognitive dissonance is the psychological conflict.

The theory
suggests:
• Dissonance is psychologically uncomfortable enough to motivate
people to achieve consonance.
• In a state of dissonance, people will avoid
information and situations that might increase the dissonance.
• How
dissonance arises is easy to imagine. It may be unavoidable in information rich
society. How people deal with it is more difficult.
SCOPE AND
APPLICATION
Dissonance theory applies to all situations involving attitude
formation and change. This theory is able to manipulate people into certain
behaviour, by doing so these people will alter their attitudes themselves. It is
especially relevant to decision making and problem
solving.

EXAMPLE
Consider a driver who refuses to use a seat-belt
despite knowing that the law requires it, and it saves lives. Then a news report
or a friend’s car incident stunts the scofflaw into facing reality. Dissonance
may be reduced by
• Altering behaviour: Start using a seat belt so the
behaviour is consonant with knowing that doing so is smart.
• Seeking
informations that is consonant with the behaviour: Air bags are safer than seat
belts.
If the driver never faces a situation that threatens the decision not
to use seat belts, then no dissonance reduction action is likely because the
impetus to reduce dissonance depends on the magnitude of the dissonance
held.

UNRELATED COGNITIONS
Most cognitions have nothing to do with
each other. For instance, the two cognitions mentioned before (that I am a man
and that I like ice cream) are unrelated. Some cognitions, however, are related.
For instance, perhaps I have a sweet tooth and I like ice cream. These
cognitions are “consonant”, meaning that they are related and that one follow
from the other. They go together, so to speak.

RELATED
COGNITIONS
However, sometimes we have cognitions that are related, but do not
follow one another. In fact, they may be opposite. For instance, perhaps I like
ice cream but I am also trying to avoid it. These two are related but do not
follow one another.

ELIMINATING COGNITIVE DISSONANCE
There are
several key ways in which people attempt to overcome, or do away with, cognitive
dissonance. One is by ignoring or eliminating the dissonant cognitions. By
pretending that ice cream is not bad for me, I can have my cake and eat it too,
so to speak. Ignoring the dissonant cognition allows us to do things we might
otherwise view as wrong or inappropriate.

Another way to overcome
cognitive dissonance is to alter the importance (or lack thereof) of certain
cognitions. By either deciding that ice cream is extremely good (I cannot do
without it) or that avoiding a disease isn’t that important (I like to take
anyway), the problem of dissonance can be lessened. If one of the dissonant
cognitions outweighs the other in importance and the result means that I can eat
my ice cream and not feel bad about it.

CREATING NEW COGNITIONS
Yet
another way that people react to cognitive dissonance is by adding or creating
new cognitions. By creating or emphasizing new cognitions, I can overwhelm the
fact that I know ice cream is bad for my health. For instance, I can emphasize
new cognitions such as “I need calcium and dairy products” or “I had a small
dinner”, etc. These new cognitions allow for the lessening of dissonance, as I
now have multiple cognitions that say ice cream is okay, and only one, which
says I shouldn’t eat it.



IGNORING THE NEW INFORMATION
Finally perhaps
the most important way people deal with cognitive dissonance is to prevent it in
the first place. If someone is presented with information that is dissonant from
what they already know, the easiest way to deal with this new information is to
ignore it, refuse to accept it, or simply avoid that type of information in
general. Thus, a new study that says ice cream is more fattening than originally
thought would be easily dealt with by ignoring it. Simply avoiding that type of
information – simply refusing to read studies on ice cream, health magazines,
etc. can prevent further, future problems.

APPLYING COGNITIVE DISSONANCE
TO CONFLICT
Cognitive dissonance can play a tremendous role in conflict –
both in its perpetuation and in its elimination. Both large-scale and
small-scale conflict can be aggravated and/or lessened because of cognitive
dissonance.

Similar examples can be found on all levels of conflict.
Individuals on both sides of the abortions debate can be unwilling to look at
new information about the other side’s stance in an attempt to avoid cognitive
dissonance. This concept helps explain why people are so opposed to
counterarguments, especially when it regards a value or belief that is very
important to them,. Cognitive dissonance is so unpleasant that individuals would
often rather be close-minded than be informed and deal with the repercussions of
cognitive dissonance.

THE ROLE OF COGNITIVE DISSONANCE IN REDUCING
CONFLICT
In spite of people's desire to avoid it, the proper use of cognitive
dissonance can be a useful tool in overcoming conflict. Cognitive dissonance is
a basic tool for education in general. Creating dissonance can induce behavior
or attitude change. By creating cognitive dissonance, you force people to react.
In other words, a child can be encouraged to learn by creating dissonance
between what they think they know and what they actually do – drawing attention
to the fact that they know stealing is wrong even though they took a cookie,
etc. The same idea can be used in adults. By introducing cognitive dissonance
(pointing out the conflict between what people know and do), we can encourage a
change in thought or action.

Tuning to the conflict in Northern Ireland,
by pointing out the contradiction between religious beliefs and terrorism,
people can be forced to rethink their actions. A Protestant or Catholic
terrorist can participate in violent activities because they have dehumanized
the other side in their mind. This eliminates any dissonance between their
actions and their beliefs against murder or violence. By introducing new
information – perhaps emphasizing the humanity of the other side (their
families, their lives, letting the two sides meet in a casual environment, etc.)
a new dissonance is created between what they are doing and what they know to be
true. This forces a reaction. The individual must now either change their
actions or read just their thoughts to account for this new
information.

Similarly, in the abortion debate, the introduction of new
information to both sides can lead to reconciliation through understanding and
changes in both action and thought. Although individuals may never agree on the
politics and policy of abortion, the conflict – particularly violent conflict –
can be reduced and eliminated.

HOW TO PRODUCE COGNITIVE
DISSONANCE
Dialogue is one method to produce cognitive dissonance and thus
attitude change that has been used in both these and many other cases. The
Public Conversation Project, in Cambridge, Massachusetts (US) for instance, has
been running dialogues between pro-life and pro-choice abortion activities for
many years. While people do not leave these dialogues having changed sides, they
do come out of them with a new respect for people “on the other side” and an
understanding that logical, rational, “good” people can feel the opposite way
they do about this issue. This tends to tone down their approach to advocacy,
generally making it more constructive than it might otherwise have
been.

Disarming behaviours are another way to create cognitive
dissonance. This is done by supplying learning what the other side thinks of or
expects of you, and then doing something very different. For example, if you are
considered by the other side to be uncaring and cruel, make a small gesture that
demonstrates that you care about the other side’s feelings or situation. This
causes cognitive dissonance. Just doing this once may not be enough to change
anyone's attitudes or behavior, as they are likely to ignore the dissonant
information. If it is done several times, however, or if the behavior is visible
enough that it cannot be ignored, the results are sometimes striking. Two of the
best examples of this process were Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's unexpected
trip to Israel in 1977 and Soviet Premier Gorbachev's trip to the United States
in 1990. Both of these leaders had never visited the "enemy" country before, and
when they did, they were so personable that it changed the minds of the Israelis
and the Americans about the "goodness" and intents of "the enemy."