The Need to Justify Our Actions: The Costs and Benefits of Dissonance Reduction

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The Need to Justify Our Actions:

The Costs and Benefits of Dissonance Reduction

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Slide 15 Dissonance Reduction Video

Slide 26 Lowballing Video

Slide 45 Hazing Video

Slide 51 External Justification Video

Heavens Gate Cult

  • Believed that a space ship was coming to transport them

  • Needed to rid selves of “current containers” (own body)

  • Spaceship failed to appear behind Hale-Bopp Comet

  • Continued with plan anyway

  • Mass suicide

  • Extreme example of Need to Justify Actions

Maintaining a Stable, Positive Self-Image

  • As humans, we strive to maintain a favorable view of ourselves

  • When confronted with unfavorable view of self

  • Experience discomfort

The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

  • Feeling of discomfort caused by performing an action that runs counter to one’s customary (typically positive) conception of oneself is referred to as cognitive dissonance.

The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Festinger, 1957)

Three Ways to Reduce Dissonance

  • Change behavior

  • Justify behavior by changing one of the dissonant cognitions

  • Justify behavior by adding new cognitions

Figure 6.1
How We Reduce Cognitive Dissonance

There are three basic ways of reducing dissonance: change your behavior, change your cognition, or add a new cognition.


  • Bolster the self-concept

  • Reducing dissonance by adding a cognition about other positive attributes

  • E.g., smoker who fails to quit

  • Not very smart of me to be smoking, but, I’m really a very good mathematician!

Impact Bias

  • The tendency to overestimate the intensity and duration of our emotional reactions to future negative events.

Teenagers who smoke usually justify their actions with such cognitions as “Smoking is cool”; “I want to be like my friends”; “in movies, everyone smokes”; “I’m healthy; nothing is going to happen to me”; or “adults are always on my back about stuff I do”
Source: Powell John/Prisma/Age Fotostock

Why We Overestimate the Pain of Disappointment

  • Why does impact bias occur?

  • Process of reducing dissonance is largely unconscious

Self-Esteem and Cognitive Dissonance

  • High self-esteem

  • Strive to keep behavior consonant with view of self

  • Work harder to reduce dissonance than people with average self-esteem

Dissonance Reduction Video

Click on the screenshot to watch Dr. Tavris discuss how dissonance reduction is often oriented toward protecting self-esteem.

Rational Behavior Versus Rationalizing Behavior

  • Need to maintain our self-esteem

  • Associated with rationalizing instead of rational thought

  • Process information so that it fits with pre-existing beliefs

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

  • Every time we make a decision, we experience dissonance.

  • Chosen alternative has some negative aspects

  • Rejected alternative has some positive aspects

Once he is hooked on getting a truck, this young man will reason that “it certainly would be safer than a small car, and besides, the price of gasoline is bound to drop by the time I’m 40.”
Source: Jeremy Woodhouse/Blend Images/Age Fotostock

Postdecision Dissonance

  • Dissonance aroused after making a decision, typically reduced by enhancing the attractiveness of the chosen alternative and devaluating the rejected alternatives.

Reducing Post-Decision Dissonance

  • Distort likes and dislikes

  • Downplay

  • Negative aspects of chosen alternative

  • Positive aspects of rejected alternative

Permanence and Importance of Decision

  • More important decisions = More dissonance

  • Greater permanence = More dissonance

  • Permanence of decision

  • How difficult it is to revoke

All sales are final. When will this customer be happier with her new flatscreen TV: ten minutes before the purchase? Ten minutes after the purchase?
Source: Newscast/Alamy

Creating the Illusion of Irrevocability

  • When decisions are permanent (irrevocable)

  • Dissonance increases

  • Motivation to reduce dissonance increases

Creating the Illusion of Irrevocability

  • Lowballing

  • An unscrupulous strategy whereby a salesperson induces a customer to agree to purchase a product at a very low cost, subsequently claims it was an error, and then raises the price.

  • Frequently, the customer will agree to make the purchase at the inflated price.

Creating the Illusion of Irrevocability

  • Create illusion of irrevocability to induce motivation to reduce dissonance!

Lowballing Video

Click on the screenshot to watch Dr. Cialdini briefly explain how car salesmen use lowballing to increase their sales.

The Decision to Behave Immorally

  • When is it okay to lie to a friend?

  • When is an act of stealing, and when is it borrowing?

After he cheats, this student will try to convince himself that everybody would cheat if they had the chance.
Source: Pixtal/Glow Images, Inc.

The Decision to Behave Immorally

  • Moral dilemmas

  • Implications for self-esteem

  • Dissonance reduction

  • People may behave either more ethically or less ethically in the future

The Decision to Behave Immorally

  • Example—Cheating on a test

  • Dissonance

  • Positive view of self inconsistent with dishonest behavior

  • How to reduce dissonance?

  • Change attitude about cheating

  • “Not a big deal, everyone does it”
  • Future behavior—less ethical

Figure 6.2
The Cheating Pyramid

Imagine two students taking an exam. Both are tempted to cheat. Initially, their attitudes toward cheating are almost identical, but then one impulsively cheats and the other does not. Their attitudes will then undergo predictable changes. (Created by Carol Tavris. Used by permission.)

The Decision to Behave Immorally

  • Example—Cheating on a test

  • Change behavior

  • Do not ever cheat again

  • Future behavior—more ethical

The Decision to Behave Immorally

  • Example—Decide NOT to cheat

  • Post-decision dissonance

  • “Would have received better grade if cheated”

  • Reducing dissonance

  • Change attitude

  • To justify giving up a good grade, you convince yourself that cheating is even worse than you previously felt it was
  • Attitude becomes more extreme

Dissonance Reduction and Personal Values (Mills, 1958)

  • Measured 6th graders attitudes about cheating

  • Gave opportunity to cheat in a game

  • Easy to cheat

  • Cheating almost necessary to win

  • Believed cheating could not be detected

Dissonance Reduction and Personal Values (Mills, 1958)

  • Cheaters

  • Became more lenient toward cheating

  • Noncheaters

  • Became less lenient toward cheating

Dissonance, Culture,
and the Brain

  • Dissonant information

  • Reasoning circuits of brain shut down

  • Dissonance is reduced

  • Emotion circuits activated

  • Primates also show changes in what is valued after making a decision

Dissonance and Culture

  • Process of dissonance reduction

  • Culturally universal

  • Content of dissonance reduction

  • Cultural differences

  • What thoughts are added, changed differ by culture

Justifying Your Effort

  • Example

  • Suppose you expend a great deal of effort to get into a particular club and it turns out to be a totally worthless organization

  • How would you reduce this dissonance?

  • How would you justify your behavior?

The harsh training required to become a marine will increase the recruits’ feelings of cohesiveness and their pride in the corps.
Source: moodboard/Fotolia

Justifying Your Effort

Effort Justification
(Aronson and Mills, 1959)

  • Cover story

  • College students volunteered to join a group that would be meeting regularly to discuss various aspects of the psychology of sex

Effort Justification
(Aronson and Mills, 1959)

  • IV

  • Severity of group initiation

  • 1/3 participants extremely demanding & unpleasant initiation

  • 1/3 mildly unpleasant

  • 1/3 admitted to group without any initiation

  • DV

  • Liking of group after admitted

Effort Justification
(Aronson and Mills, 1959)

  • Mild initiation or no effort less liking of group

  • Severe initiation more liking of group

Figure 6.3
The Justification of Effort

The more effort we put into becoming members of a group, and the tougher the initiation, the more we will like the group we have just joined—even if it turns out to be a dud. (Adapted from Aronson & Mills, 1959.)

Hazing Video

Click on the screenshot to watch a video on the topic of hazing. While hazing may increase affiliation with a group, it can also be dangerous.

The Psychology of Insufficient Justification

  • Example

  • If you tell a friend that you like her ugly dress very much, do you experience much dissonance?

  • Many thoughts are consonant (consistent) with having told lie

  • E.g., it is important not to cause pain to people, not hurt feelings

The Psychology of Insufficient Justification

  • Believing it is important not to cause pain to people you like provides ample external justification for having told lie

The Psychology of Insufficient Justification

  • What if there is no good external justification for lying?

The Psychology of Insufficient Justification

  • Internal Justification

  • The reduction of dissonance by changing something about oneself.

  • E.g., one’s attitude or behavior

The Psychology of Insufficient Justification

  • If there is insufficient external justification for counterattitudinal advocacy, the attempt to reduce dissonance may result in attitude change!

External Justification Video

Click on the screenshot to watch an example of how a woman uses external justification to explain why she engaged in counterattitudinal advocacy.

Festinger and Carlsmith (1958)

  • Cover story

  • The effect of “interest instructions” on performance on a boring task

Festinger and Carlsmith (1958)

  • IV = $ for telling a lie

  • $ 20.00 large external justification “sufficient”

  • $ 1.00, small external justification “insufficient”

  • control no $, no lie

  • DV = enjoyment of the task

Festinger and Carlsmith (1958)

  • Students paid $20 for lying—for saying that the tasks had been enjoyable

  • Rated the task as dull and boring

  • $20 was sufficient external justification for lying

  • $20 reduced dissonance between positive view of self (honest person) & behavior (lying)

  • Lied because was paid to do so

Festinger and Carlsmith (1958)

  • Students paid only $1 for lying (saying the boring task was fun)

  • Rated the task as significantly more enjoyable

  • External justification was insufficient

  • Reduced dissonance via internal justification

  • Changed attitude about task

  • Believed the lie they told

Punishment and

  • If threat of punishment for engaging in a forbidden behavior is severe

  • There is sufficient external justification for refraining from behavior

  • If punishment is less severe

  • There is insufficient external justification

  • Creates greater need for internal justification

  • Change attitudes via self-persuasion

Punishment and

  • Insufficient Punishment

  • The dissonance aroused when individuals lack sufficient external justification for having resisted a desired activity or object, usually resulting in individuals’ devaluing the forbidden activity or object.

Punishment and

  • When external justification for resisting an object or activity is insufficient:

  • Dissonance is aroused

  • Reduce dissonance by

  • Self-persuasion

  • E.g., devaluing forbidden activity or object

Parents can intervene to stop one sibling from tormenting another right at the moment of the incident, but what might they do to make it less likely to happen in the future?
Source: Shannon Fagan/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Forbidden Toy Study
(Aronson and Carlsmith 1963)

  • Children rated the attractiveness of toys, then were forbidden to play with toy they found most attractive

  • IV = Severity of threatened punishment

  • ½ children threat of mild punishment if they disobeyed & played with toy

  • ½ children threat of severe punishment

  • DV = Rating of toy attractiveness

Forbidden Toy Study
(Aronson and Carlsmith 1963)

  • Threat of severe punishment

  • Forbidden toy remained highly attractive

  • No change in attitude

  • Had sufficient external justification for resisting toy

Forbidden Toy Study
(Aronson and Carlsmith 1963)

  • Threat of mild punishment

  • Forbidden toy was rated as less attractive

  • External justification was insufficient

  • Resolved dissonance through internal justification

  • Change attitude about toy

Figure 6.4
The Forbidden Toy Experiment

Children who had received a threat of mild punishment were far less likely to play with a forbidden toy (orange bar) than children who had received a threat of severe punishment (blue bar). Those given a mild threat had to provide their own justification by devaluing the attractiveness of the toy (“I didn’t want to play with it anyhow”). The
resulting self-persuasion lasted for weeks. (Based on data in Freedman, 1965.)

Punishment and

  • Self-Persuasion

  • A long-lasting form of attitude change that results from attempts at self-justification.

Figure 6.5
External versus Internal Justification

As this graphic summarizes, insufficient punishment or reward leads to self-justification, which in turn leads to self-persuasion and lasting change. Larger rewards or punishments may produce temporary compliance, which rarely lasts.

The Hypocrisy Paradigm

  • Induce hypocrisy

  • Make person aware of conflict between

  • Attitudes

  • Behavior

  • Hypocrisy creates dissonance

  • Reduce dissonance by changing behavior

  • E.g., attitudes about condoms and use of condoms

Figure 6.6
The Hypocrisy Paradigm

People who are made mindful of their hypocrisy (blue bars)—in this study, being made aware of the discrepancy between knowing that condoms prevent AIDS and other STDs but not using condoms themselves—begin to practice what they preach. Here, more of them bought condoms, buying more condoms than did students in other conditions—those who were simply given information about the dangers of AIDS, or who promised to buy them, or who were made aware that they weren’t using them. (Adapted from Stone, Aronson, Crain, Winslow, & Fried, 1994.)

The Hypocrisy Paradigm

  • Students in the hypocrisy condition were subsequently more likely to buy condoms than students in any of the other conditions.

Justifying Acts of Kindness

  • Dissonance theory predicts that when we dislike someone, if we do them a favor, we will like them more

  • Behavior is dissonant with attitude

  • Change attitude about person to resolve dissonance

  • “The Ben Franklin Effect”

Figure 6.7
The Justification of Kindness

If we have done someone a personal favor (blue bar), we are likely to feel more positively toward that person than if we don’t do the favor (orange bar) or do the favor because of an impersonal request (yellow bar). (Based on data in Jecker & Landy, 1969.)

Justifying Cruelty

  • Cruel behavior is dissonant with view of self as a decent human being

  • Resolve dissonance by changing thoughts about victim

  • Davis and Jones (1960)

  • Participants told a young man (confederate) they thought he was shallow, untrustworthy, boring.

Justifying Cruelty

  • Participants convinced themselves

  • They didn't like the victim

  • He deserved to be hurt

The American guards at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison treated their prisoners with a casual brutality that scandalized the world. What does dissonance theory predict about the consequences for the guards of dehumanizing the enemy?

Dissonance and the Iraq War

  • President Bush’s decision to initiate a “preemptive” war against Iraq was dissonant with:

  • The fact that Iraq not involved in 9/11 attack on USA

  • Iraq not an immediate threat to USA

Dissonance and the Iraq War

  • To resolve dissonance

  • Search for evidence consonant with decision to start war

  • Try to find WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction)

  • However, WMD not found

  • Dissonance reduction unsuccessful

Dissonance and the Iraq War

  • Resolve dissonance by adding cognitions

  • Change reason (justification) for war

  • Operation “Iraqi Freedom”

  • Instead of preemptive strike to protect USA from WMD

These athletes blew a big lead and lost the game. Will they make excuses, or will they learn from their mistakes?
Source: Jose Carlos Fajardo/MCT/Newscom

Summary and Review

  • Cognitive Dissonance

  • Self-affirmation and self-esteem

  • Post-decision dissonance

  • Self-Justification

  • Justification of Effort

  • Insufficient and sufficient external justification

  • Hypocrisy Paradigm

  • Dissonance, Kindness, and Cruelty

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