It is suggested that counter-attitudinal behaviors may lead to changes in the attitudes if no sufficient external justification is provided for these behaviors. In this paper, two theories about such a situation will be discussed. The first of them, the theory of cognitive dissonance, explains the changes in attitudes (or behaviors) after performing a behavior that sharply contradicts one’s beliefs. The second one, the theory of self-perception, explains the case when one acts for which they only have a weak/uncertain attitude. After discussing each of the theories, a comparison of them is provided, and an empirical test, which may help to gain evidence in favor of these theories, is suggested.
Theory of Cognitive Dissonance
One of the theories that can be used to explain the mechanism in which people may change their attitudes after practicing counter-attitudinal behaviors is the theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959). This theory is based on the notion of cognitive dissonance, which refers to the state of discomfort that people experience after behaving in a manner that contradicts their attitudes and does not have a sufficient external justification (Sofroniou, 2013). The theory states that individuals tend to favor a state in which their opinions contradict neither one another nor these individuals’ behaviors; this is needed, in particular, to maintain a stable, favorable image of the self (Aronson, Wilson, Akert, & Sommers, 2016).
Therefore, if a person finds oneself in the state of cognitive dissonance, which, according to the theory, results from discordant attitudes and behaviors, they will unconsciously attempt to reduce the dissonance by reconciling the behavior and the attitudes that contradict one another (Stone & Cooper, 2001); one of the following three ways will be used: a) change the subsequent behaviors by one’s current beliefs; b) justify the behavior by changing or modifying one or more of one’s attitudes which contradict that behavior; c) create a justification for their behavior by inventing new cognitions that provide reasons for such behaviors (for instance, by looking for additional evidence that would support the behavior which one performed) (Aronson et al., 2016).
To provide a simple example, if a person believes that stealing from a store is bad, and then it happens that they steal a sweet while in a shop to taste it and see if they should buy more, they might experience the state of cognitive dissonance due to the contradiction between their attitudes and the behavior that they performed. The three main ways to deal with this dissonance is as follows: a) decide not to steal any more sweets in the future; b) justify the stealing by coming to a belief that shops will not suffer much from a loss of several sweets, so stealing is not that bad; c) justify the stealing by concluding that, while stealing is bad, it is not bad in this particular case because the person bought many sweets after stealing one, and would not have bought any otherwise, so the store gained profit in the end.
Three main methods were used to test this theory (Bem, 1967; Harmon-Jones, Harmon-Jones, & Levy, 2015). For example, in a situation when one had to make much effort to achieve a goal that was found not to be worth of that effort, in the end, one may wish to reduce the dissonance (and add value to the achieved goal) because they do not wish to see their effort as wasted; hence the effort justification model, when respondents are asked to achieve a certain valued goal which then turns out to be worthless (e.g., participate in an activity that is stated to be interesting but turns out to be very boring; individuals tend to say that it was quite interesting afterward) (Aronson et al., 2016; Harmon-Jones et al., 2015).
Another model is that of a difficult decision, when participants have to make a difficult decision (which, therefore, creates dissonance because of the positive features of the rejected option and the negative features of the chosen option) and tend to spread the alternatives apart afterward by evaluating the rejected option lower and the chosen option higher than they did before making the decision (Harmon-Jones et al., 2015). (For example, the study by Liang (2016), where customers read online reviews after deciding on a previously made purchase to confirm their choice, falls into this category.) Finally, in the induced compliance model, persons are asked to carry out an action that contradicts their attitudes, and are given a perception that they have a choice of doing or not doing so; such individuals then tend to change their attitudes to view the behavior they performed more favorably (Harmon-Jones et al., 2015).
On the whole, the three presented models used to confirm the theory seem to be only particular cases of that theory. Nevertheless, it is difficult to test the theory in its general form, so showing that it works in particular cases is probably a good way to demonstrate its validity. However, the theory does not work in all cases; for instance, Metzger, Hartsell, and Flanagin (2015) demonstrate that consumers of online news tend to rate sources as more/less credible depending on whether the news contained in these sources contradict or support their views, but they experience low levels of cognitive dissonance when reading any type of news; so dissonance does not emerge when people are faced with such attitude-challenging information.
Theory of Self-Perception
Bem (1967) offered an alternative explanation for some phenomena that could potentially be explained by the theory of cognitive dissonance proposed by Leon Festinger and his colleagues. On the whole, the model supplied by Bem (1967) assumes that the attitudes of individuals are caused by their behaviors rather than vice versa. The theory of self-perception asserts that based on the behaviors that they perform, people create a self-image by reviewing these behaviors and then inferring an inner state which led to them (unless there was a clear external justification for performing these behaviors) (Bem, 1967; Breckler, Olson, & Wiggins, 2006, pp. 132-133). Therefore, according to this theory, past behaviors of an individual are often employed to form attitudes towards the phenomena that the performed behaviors were related to, if the external motivation for those behaviors was weak or absent. Interestingly, evidence suggests that this theory works “the other way” as well: if a person’s behaviors have a strong external justification (such as money), then the internal justification for these behaviors tends to decrease (for instance, the behavior starts being perceived as work, even if it is e.g. professional sport, so it probably should be perceived as leisure) (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008, pp. 83-84).
To provide a simple example, if individuals are asked to give a speech in favor of a position that they do not adhere to, and perhaps even are opposed to, these people start supporting that position after delivering the speech (or, at least, their level of opposition to it reduces). Another example (and scientific evidence) is provided by Chaiken and Baldwin (1981); after being asked to complete questionnaires (of which there were two versions) about attitudes towards environmentalism/conservationism, people with a weak position towards this issue were more likely to identify as environmentalists if they completed the questionnaire that prompted them to respond in a conservationist fashion (e.g., with questions such as “I sometimes worry about the environment”), and were more likely to identify themselves as non-environmentalists if they completed the quiz which prompted them to reply in a non-conservationist fashion (e.g., with questions such as “I always worry about the environment”). Furthermore, Yee and Bailenson (2009) supply yet another instance in which the theory works; it is suggested that people who use attractive avatars (images) on the Internet tend to behave more friendly towards other participants of online communities than individuals using unattractive avatars.
The two pieces of evidence provided in the previous paragraph both support the theory of self-perception. However, the evidence given by Chaiken and Baldwin (1981) appears to be stronger than that offered by Yee and Bailenson (2009) (although the latter study did not explicitly seek to confirm the theory of self-perception). This is because people who completed the environmental quiz had not had a strong position towards the issue before the quiz, and developed it afterward (Chaiken & Baldwin, 1981), whereas at least some of the individuals who selected unattractive avatars probably already viewed themselves as less friendly (Yee & Bailenson, 2009). On the whole, however, the theory of self-perception has also been confirmed by numerous other studies (as cited in Baumeister & Bushman, 2008).
Comparison of the Theories
The two theories discussed above were initially viewed as competing, especially while little evidence existed to formulate them more clearly (Fazio, Zanna, & Cooper, 1977). However, it was later suggested that the theories should not be viewed as rivals, but rather as complementary explanations of changes in people’s attitudes or behaviors and that each of these theories pertains to their domain of application (Fazio et al., 1977). More specifically, Fazio et al. (1977) state that the theory of self-perception applies to behaviors that are within one’s range of acceptance, whereas the theory of cognitive dissonance explains the actions of individuals whose behaviors are within their range of rejection. Therefore, if an individual performs an action that is contrary to their beliefs, they are likely to experience cognitive dissonance, and change their initial beliefs or add new cognitions (or quit practicing the behavior – this option is, in fact, not present in the self-perception theory). Alternatively, if one performs an action that corresponds to a certain type of belief, but does not have a strong or well-defined position towards the issue in question, they are likely to develop the position which corresponds to the behavior that they performed.
It should once again be stressed that the theories only apply to the situation where there is no sufficient external justification for the behavior.
An Empirical Test to Compare the Theories
Because the theories are complementary, and the use of the methods described by them lead to the same outcome in most cases (a change in the attitude, unless the person decides to stop practicing a behavior as per the cognitive dissonance theory), it is probably difficult to create a test which would differentiate between the two theories. However, a test that would simultaneously check both theories can be created rather easily. It is needed to get individuals to perform a behavior towards which their attitude is neutral (to test the self-image theory) or opposing (to test the cognitive dissonance theory), and then to check their attitudes towards the issue after a while.
It is harder, however, to point out the situations in which the theories do not apply; Metzger et al. (2015) provide an example of a situation in which the cognitive dissonance theory does not work when consumers of information read attitude-challenging information, but generally do not develop cognitive dissonance (although it might be argued that reading an attitude-challenging text is not a very counter-attitudinal behavior; for example, one might read an attitude-challenging text just to find faults in it and confirm their initial beliefs).
On the whole, the two discussed theories can explain the change in one’s attitudes or behaviors after performing a counter-attitudinal behavior (the theory of cognitive dissonance) or the change in one’s beliefs after carrying out a behavior towards which they only have a weak or uncertain attitude (the theory of self-perception). The literature suggests that the two theories are not contradictory but complementary, describing further actions of individuals who have performed a counter-attitudinal behavior that is within their latitude of rejection (the theory of cognitive dissonance), and of individuals who have conducted a behavior that is within their range of acceptance (the theory of self-perception) (Fazio et al., 1977). Therefore, it is possible to use both theories simultaneously, but utilize them to describe and predict events in different situations. An empirical test to find evidence supporting both theories has also been suggested in this paper.
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