What is Cognitive Dissonance theory?

Cognitive dissonance: Any incompatibility between two or more attitudes or between behavior and attitudes.

Can we assume from this consistency principle that an individual’s behavior can always be predicted if we know his or her opinion on a subject? The answer unfortunately cannot simply be a yes or a no.

Leon Festinger, in the late 1950s, proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance to explain the relationship between attitude and behavior. Dissonance in this case means 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 attitude. Festinger argued that any form of in consistency is uncomfortable and that individuals will attempts to reduce the dissonance and, hence the discomfort. Therefore, individuals will seek a stable state with a minimum of dissonance.

Of course, no individual can completely avoid dissonance. You know that cheating on your income tax is wrong, but you tell your children to brush after very meal even though you might not. So how do people cope? Festinger proposed that the desire to reduced dissonance is determined by the importance of the elements creating the dissonance, the degree of influence the individual believes he or she has over the elements and the rewards that may be involved. Let’s look at some examples of cognitive dissonance.

Suppose that the factors creating the dissonance are relatively unimportant. In this case, the pressure to correct the imbalance would be low. However, say that a corporate manager, believes strongly that no company should lay of employees.

Unfortunately, he is placed in the position of having to make decisions that would trade off her company’s strategic direction against her convictions on layoffs. She knows that, because of restructuring in the company some jobs may no longer be needed, and the layoffs are in the best economic interest of her firm. What will she do? Undoubtedly he is experiencing a high degree of cognitive dissonance. Because of the importance of the issues in this example, we cannot expect him to ignore the inconsistency. To deal with her dilemma, she can follow several steps. He can change his behavior (lay off employee) 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 decision maker, I often have to place the good of my company above that of individual organizational members). A third alternative would be to change her attitude (There is nothing wrong in laying off employees). Still another choice would be to seek out more consonant elements to out weight the dissonant ones (The long term benefits to the surviving employees from our restructuring more than offset the costs associated with the retrenchment effort).

The degree of influence that individuals such as above believe they have over the elements also will have an impact on how they react to the dissonance. If they perceive the dissonance to be uncontrollable something about which they have no choice – they are less likely to feel a need for an attitude change. If, for example, the dissonance producing behavior were required by the boss’s directive, the pressure to reduce dissonance would be less than if the behavior were performed voluntarily. Dissonance would exist but it could be rationalized and justified. For this reason it is so critical in today’s organizations for leaders to establish the ethical culture. Without their influence and support, reducing dissonance toward ethical behaviors lessened. Rewards also influence the degree to which individuals are motivated to reduce dissonance. High dissonance, when accompanied by high rewards tends to reduce the tension inherent in the dissonance. The rewards reduce dissonance by adding to the consistency side of the individual’s balance sheet.

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