Cognitive dissonance theory


Mr. Jairam views the company’s pay level as too low. Will a substantial increase in his pay change his behavior to make him work harder? The answer to this question is, unfortunately, more complex than merely a “Yes� or “No.� Can we also assume from this consistency principle that an individual’s behavior can always be predicted if we know his or her attitude on a subject? In this article we are discussing the theory put forward by Leon Festinger to know the answer to the above poser.

In the late 1950s, Leon Festinger proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance. This theory sought to explain the linkage between attitudes and behavior. Dissonance means an inconsistency. Cognitive dissonance refers to any incompatibility that an individual might perceive between two or more of his or her attitudes, or between his or her behavior and attitudes. In the theory it is argued that any form of inconsistency is uncomfortable and that individuals will attempt to reduce the dissonance and, hence, the discomfort. Therefore, individuals will seek a stable state, in which there is a minimum of dissonance.

No individual, of course, can completely avoid dissonance. You know that cheating on your income tax is wrong, but you “fudge� the numbers a bit every year, and hope you’re not audited. Or you tell your children to floss their teeth every day, but you don’t. So how do people cope?

The theory would propose that the desire to reduce dissonance would be determined by the importance of the elements creating the dissonance, the degree of influence the individual believes he or she was over the elements, and the rewards that may be involved in dissonance.

If the elements creating the dissonance are relatively unimportant, the pressure to correct this imbalance will be low. A corporate manager, Vakil Jha believes strongly that no company should pollute the air or water. Unfortunately, Jha because of the requirements of his job is placed in the position of having to make decisions. This would trade off his company’s profitability against his attitudes on pollution. He knows that dumping the company’s sewage into the local river (which we shall assume legal) is in the best economic interest of his firm.

Clearly, Jha is experiencing a high degree of cognitive dissonance. Because of the importance of the elements in this example, we cannot expect Jha to ignore the inconsistency. There are several paths he can follow to deal with his dilemma. He can change his behavior or he can reduce dissonance by concluding that the dissonant behavior is not so important. After all “I’ve got to make a living, and in my role as a corporate decision maker, I often have to place the good of my company above of the environment or society.� A third alternative would be for Jha to change his attitude like “There is nothing wrong with polluting the river.� Still another choice would be to seek out more consonant elements to outweigh the dissonant ones like “The benefits to society from manufacturing our products more than offset the cost to society of the resulting water pollution.�

The degree of influence that individuals believe they have over the elements will have an impact on how they will react to the dissonance. If they perceive the dissonance to be due to something over which they have no choice, they are less likely to be receptive to attitude change.

If the dissonance producing behavior is required as a result of the boss’s directive, the pressure to reduce dissonance would be less than if the behavior was performed voluntarily. Although dissonance exists, it can be rationalized and justified.

Rewards also influence the degree to which individuals are motivated to reduce dissonance. High rewards accompanying high dissonance tend to reduce the tension inherent in the dissonance. The rewards act to reduce dissonance by increasing the consistency side of the individual’s balance sheet.

These moderating factors suggest that just because individuals experience dissonance they will not necessarily move directly toward reducing it. If the issues underlying the dissonance are of minimal importance, if an individual perceives that the dissonance is externally imposed and is substantially uncontrollable by him or her. If rewards are significant enough to offset the dissonance, the individual will not be under great tension to reduce the dissonance.

What are the organizational implications of the theory of cognitive dissonance? It can help to predict the propensity to engage in attitude and behavioral change. If individuals are required by the demands of their job to say or do things that contradict their personal attitude, they will tend to modify their attitudes in order to make it compatible with the cognition of what they have said or done. In addition, the greater the dissonance after it has been moderated by importance, choice, and rewards factors the greater is the pressure to reduce it.