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Cognitive dissonance refers to the feelings of discomfort we tend to have when confronted with conflicting beliefs, ideas, or values. We tend to seek consistency between our expectations and our reality. Leon Festinger’s (1957) Cognitive Dissonance Theory says that when individuals become psychologically uncomfortable, they will seek to reduce their dissonance, as well as actively avoid situations and information that might cause or increase dissonance. This video explains how cognitive dissonance was studied in 1959 and what researchers inferred from its findings:
A related study, “Obedience,” by Yale University psychology professor Stanley Milgram in 1962 looked at people’s willingness to obey authority figures. The study was inspired by the Nuremberg Trials where many Nazis justified their immoral actions by saying that they were just following orders. Milgram wanted to understand why people will physically hurt other people if told to do so by an authority figure. Here’s a 5-minute introduction with actual footage from the study. I do want to warn you that there are a few scenes of the Nazi extermination camps at the start of the clip:
Here are the findings from Milgram’s study, which showed that only 35% of the people refused at some point to give people painful and even life threatening electric jolts when told to do so by a person claiming to be the study director (and wearing a white lab coat!). Instead, 26 out of 40 test subjects were willing to give life threatening electric jolts to people when told to do so. The study was replicated with similar results around 2009 in Great Britain. Getting permission to do these kinds of studies is virtually impossible because of the mental anguish incurred in the participants who are asked to be “teachers” and to administer the jolts.
Communication research from the Asch studies, the Festinger Cognitive Dissonance research, and the Milgram studies indicate that humans have strong mental structures that dictate attitudes and behaviors. Even when people experienced “cognitive dissonance” through immoral commands to hurt another person, they could still justify this behavior if they gave up responsibility for their personal behavior by giving that responsibility to an authority figure.
As you read the about this theory in our course materials, think about the “intrapersonal” dialogue that goes on when we feel an internal conflict. (Intrapersonal communication is the internal dialogue we have inside our own minds.) Indeed, we so dislike psychological discomfort or a sense of inconsistency between our values and our actions that we actively seek to NOT feel cognitive dissonance.
Because of their internal discomfort, people who experience cognitive dissonance are relatively easier to motivate to behave a particular way. They are looking for ways to reduce their internal discomfort. The four assumptions of CDT are pretty clear, so spend a little time absorbing the ideas about “magnitude of dissonance,” “coping with dissonance,” and “minimal justification.”
Once you have reviewed the video clips and please address the following:
1. An important aspect of this theory is how it applies to the way we “manage” our perceptions through selection. Can you think of ways that you look for information that is consistent with your values and world view?
2. What makes CDT difficult to test is not that it can be proved, but that it is difficult to disprove. Why does that happen when researchers look at CDT? What is it hard to disprove the theory? Can you think of a test that you could perform that would yield more definitive results?
3. How could you relate Cognitive Dissonance Theory to hegemony theory, as it is presented in the Encyclopedia of Communication Theory’s discussions of Cultural Studies. In other words, can Cognitive Dissonance Theory be applied to larger social/political theories?
Please write a cogent, coherent response; make sure to support your remarks with researched evidence. Do not hesitate to add to our knowledge by sharing the links to any authoritative resources on this topic that you may discover on the Internet.