Festinger’s Research on Cognitive Dissonance

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Cognitive Dissonance – Definition: The concept was developed in the 1950s by American psychologist Leon Festinger. It is the mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. The unease or tension that the conflict arouses in people is relieved by one of several defensive maneuvers: they reject, explain away, or avoid the new information; persuade themselves that no conflict really exists; reconcile the differences; or resort to any other defensive means of preserving stability or order in their conceptions of the world and of themselves. People need to maintain consistency between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Simply put, once we form an opinion on a particular topic, we refuse to believe anything contrary to our beliefs; even going as far as to reject factual information to rationalize our own opinion (Medium).

Experiment No 1- Mrs. Keech’s flying saucer: Festinger posed as believer to a group of followers to a Mrs Keech who thought extraterrestrial beings would rescue true believers. He wanted to see how the group would react in case her prophecy didn’t materialize; in fact, the more committed members started to proselytize through newspapers ” as enlisting social support for their belief to lessen the pain of its disconfirmation.”

Experiment No 2 – The forced-compliance paradigm: participating subjects performed a series of repetitive and boring mental tasks and then were asked to lie to the “next subject” (actually an experimental accomplice) and say that the tasks were interesting and enjoyable. Some subjects were paid $1 for lying, while others were paid $20 (…) the subjects who were paid $1 for lying later evaluated the tasks as more enjoyable than those who were paid $20. The subjects who were paid $20 should not have experienced dissonance, because they were well rewarded and had ample justification for lying, whereas those paid $1 had little justification for lying and should have experienced cognitive dissonance. To reduce the dissonance, they reevaluated the boring task as interesting and enjoyable.

Experiment No3 – Pigeons: Festinger used cages where various obstacles hid the watering tubes or their feed troughs. While some pigeons were disoriented, others became more alert; when confronted with dissonant circumstances, the birds had developed a capacity to focus on the dissonance itself. Festinger believed that humans, like other animals, become more cognitively alert by struggling with complicated realities, rather than walking away from them* (R. Sennett: Building and Dwelling, Penguin Books, 2019, pp. 157)

*Remember Neuroplasticity and the comparison between taxi and bus drivers

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