Cognitive dissonance presents a condition of an individual’s mental discomfort caused by a clash of two opposite beliefs, ideas, or values in an individual’s perception. Therefore, cognitive dissonance relates to the type of stress people experience when engaging in activities that contradict their beliefs, ideas, or values. The cognitive resonance theory presents one of the most prominent concepts in social psychology. This paper will explore the cognitive dissonance theory by observing the history of the theory’s development, discussing physiological occurrences in cognitive dissonance, and defining its impact on the emotional system.
The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance
The theory of cognitive dissonance was developed in the 1950s through the examination of dynamic forces which influence human social behavior. According to Cooper (2019), Kurt Lewis’ works on the influence of dynamic factors on humans provided a substantial foundation for Leon Festinger’s work on cognitive dissonance theory. Festinger proposed the idea that people who hold two psychologically inconsistent cognitions experience psychological discomfort, also known as cognitive dissonance. Furthermore, Festinger’s theory suggested that the state of psychological discomfort carries motivational properties focused on reducing the tension by changing the inconsistent cognitions until they become consistent. The theory provided an innovational approach to understanding factors influencing social behavior concerning the relevant theory of social comparison at that period. Festinger’s theory also explained the mechanisms of cognitive dissonance’s influence on an individual’s attitude and defined a magnitude of dissonance, which contributed to the theory’s innovational character and success (Cooper, 2019). Therefore, the theory presented a significant innovation in social psychology as it thoroughly explained a cognitive dissonance state’s influence on attitude.
Next, the main physiological discomfort concept within the state of cognitive dissonance introduced by Festinger’s theory is dissonance arousal. According to Ploger et al. (2021), dissonance arousal or physiological tension presents the central point of cognitive dissonance experience. The concept explains the physiological occurrences during dissonance, particularly increased skin conductance and heart palpitations. The dissonance arousal concept allows measuring the influence of cognitive dissonance, its longevity and exposure to dissonance reduction. Therefore, dissonance reduction measures can potentially be evaluated using a physiological approach and measuring the skin conductance and heart rate variability. However, according to Ploger et al. (2021), experiments in involuntary exposure of participants to counter-attitudinal communication cannot reflect cognitive dissonance occurrence in real-life conditions. Therefore, even though a substantial body of knowledge in social psychology focuses on physiological occurrences during dissonance and the physiological component of dissonance discomfort, there is no opportunity to examine the dissonance arousal.
Furthermore, considering the cognitive dissonance’s emotional impact, there is a wide range of emotional responses and feelings with different intensity levels that cognitive dissonance can cause. The emotional impact of cognitive dissonance mainly includes negative emotions, such as distress and anger. According to Izuma and Murayama (2019), the brain processes and neural activity of cognitive dissonance take place in the “posterior medial frontal complex, anterior insula, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex” (p. 228). Moreover, cognitive dissonance is associated with the brain’s left frontal cortical activity structure, which responds to the human emotions of anger (Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2019). Therefore, the emotional impact of dissonance is partially caused by neural activity. Lastly, the emotional impact of dissonance includes the emotional consequences of attitude change that people utilize to bring consistency to their perceptions. Thus, people affected by cognitive dissonance may experience a range of negative emotions in managing the cognitive dissonance, such as sadness, shame, and guilt.
The measures focused on reducing cognitive dissonance generally target emotional regulation and change people’s perception of their actions and beliefs. There are many cognitive dissonance reduction strategies which could be applied depending on the cognition’s importance, social context, individual characteristics, and desired outcome. For example, according to Cancino-Montecinos et al. (2020), for unimportant cognitions, the potential outcome can be simply forgetting about them. Moreover, an individual may choose one more suitable cognitive dissonance reduction strategy at a time, meaning that the dissonance reduction strategies can work as an exclusive switch (Cancino-Montecinos et al., 2020). Thus, the choice of dissonance-reducing strategies depends on the combination of many important factors, including the individual’s specific characteristics such as age and the final goal of the dissonance reduction strategy application. Festinger suggested that cognitive dissonance reduction strategies can utilize three primary approaches. The first approach focuses on changing one of the dissonant cognitions or congaing the attitude, while the second approach prioritizes adding consonant cognitions to decrease the overall inconsistency (Cancino-Montecinos et al., 2020). The third approach centers on rationalizing the behavior by reducing the importance of cognition in a specific situation.
In conclusion, this paper explored the theory of cognitive dissonance and its primary aspects. Firstly, the paper explored the importance of cognitive dissonance theory and its innovation in social psychology by providing the historical background of the theory’s development. Next, the paper defined the main mechanisms of cognitive dissonance’s impact on physiological occurrences and emotional systems. Lastly, the paper defined the three primary approaches to dissonance reduction and factors influencing the choice of dissonance reduction strategy.
Cancino-Montecinos, S., Björklund, F., & Lindholm, T. (2020). A general model of dissonance reduction: Unifying past accounts via an emotion regulation perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1-14. Web.
Cooper, J. (2019). Cognitive dissonance: Where we’ve been and where we’re going. International Review of Social Psychology, 32(1), 1-11. Web.
Harmon-Jones, E., & Harmon Jones, C. (2019). Understanding the motivation underlying dissonance effects. In E. Harmon-Jones (Ed.), Cognitive dissonance: Reexamining a pivotal theory in psychology (pp. 63–84). American Psychological Association.
Izuma, K., & Murayama, K. (2019). Neural basis of cognitive dissonance. In E. Harmon-Jones (Ed.), Cognitive dissonance: Reexamining a pivotal theory in psychology (pp. 227–245). American Psychological Association.
Ploger, G., Dunaway, J., Fournier, P., & Soroka, S. (2021). The psychophysiological correlates of cognitive dissonance. Politics and the Life Sciences, 40(2), 202-212. Web.