Essay on Cognitive Dissonance: Analysis of The Free Choice Paradigm and Theories

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What is cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance, coined by Festinger (1957) refers to an unpleasant psychological state in which an individual's beliefs and knowledge do not align with their actions. Cognition refers to people's ideas and knowledge about the external world, their immediate environment, and aspects about themselves which include attitudes, emotions, behaviours and beliefs. Persons seek to reduce unpleasant states brought about by their inconsistent cognitions.

Measuring Cognitive Dissonance


D*- total magnitude of dissonance experienced.

D- Sum of dissonant elements with the element in question.

C- Sum of the consonant elements with the same element.

For example, Maharaj was a People’s Partnership supporter (PP) but voted for a People’s National Movement (PNM) in the last election which created in him cognitive dissonance. He sought to reduce his total dissonance by adding the consonant condition with the PNM candidate in his region which supported many of his ideologies such as building a highway that connected Penal to San Fernando around the swamp instead of destroying parts of the swamp for road works, new housing scheme in safe environments, diversification of the economy than the candidate for the PP. Therefore, you add the consonant element to the denominator, thus reducing the magnitude of dissonance.

The magnitude of dissonance determines the pressure the person feels to reduce dissonance.

  • The lower the magnitude, the less pressure the person feels.
  • The greater the magnitude, the more pressure the person feels.
  • When the magnitude of dissonance becomes small enough to be bearable, it motivates no further action besides avoidance of situations and information that can add dissonant elements.
  • The degree of dissonance is inversely proportional to external pressure. If there is too much external pressure then there is too much justification for behaviour, therefore the person experiences little or no dissonance. A person may seek to rationalize their actions or thoughts.

(Festinger et al., 1957)

Ways people reduce cognitive dissonance.

Persons may reduce cognitions in the following ways to eliminate any inconsistencies from the original conflicting cognition:

  1. Method
  2. Definition
  3. Example

Direct Method

Changing one’s behaviours to align with one’s thoughts or changing one’s thoughts to align with one’s behaviour. Whether the behaviour or thought is changed depends on the level of resistance of the behaviour or thought.

Tristan was pro-life (i.e. she believed abortion is wrong under all circumstances and the foetus is a life and should be given a chance) so she voted for a Republican candidate (conservative and pro-life) to become President.

Two years later, Tristan was forced to have an abortion because her child had too many complications and could have killed her. After she aborted her foetus, she reduced her dissonance by becoming pro-choice (i.e. a woman could keep her unborn child or abort her unborn child if she wants because it’s her body) so she voted for a Democratic candidate (liberal and pro-choice) to become President.


Attempting to explain away inappropriate behaviour so it may be appropriate especially when the thought and/or behaviour are too resistant to change.

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An alcoholic or a heavy daily drinker may say his habits are relaxed after he had a long day at work instead of admitting that he is an alcoholic who is drunk every evening.


Attempting to reduce the importance of the dissonant behaviours or thoughts by using cognitive framing (people think they will profit from their actions or thoughts) and distortion.

A promiscuous guy knows that he should get tested for any sexually transmitted diseases but does not do it because he sees it unnecessary since he slept with decent people, he thought it was better to not know since it might alter his activities then tells himself his previous partners and himself will be fine.

Social Support

Seeking others who share the same outlook on life as them.

Jimmy is a white man who is internally racist yet his best friend is a Latino woman so he joins the Klu Klux Klan who was known for killing blacks and burning down black churches in the past. The Klu Klux Klan denies killing black people at present. Jimmy joins the Klan and seeks comfort in their ideologies which include ‘ Make America white again, Build a wall to prevent the Mexicans from migrating to the USA, The white race is superior so the whites should keep the race pure which means no interracial interaction or relationships with the outside world.’

  1. Element
  2. Definition
  3. Example


  • When a person perceives one element follows logically from another.
  • Leroy is a Rastafarian government minister in Jamaica who secretly smokes weed so when the parliament was voting for the legislation of marijuana, he was in support of the bill. Since he smoked weed he was in favour of legislation of marijuana.


  1. When a person perceives the opposite element follows from another.
  2. It will be amiss of Leroy who is a marijuana smoker to be against the legislation of marijuana.


  1. When a person perceives one element does not follow from another nor is it dissonant.
  2. No dissonance will be created if Leroy who is Rastafarian marries a woman with completely shaved hair.
  3. Testing Cognitive Dissonance
  4. The Induced Compliance Paradigm
  5. Principle: Get people to say or do something against what they will normally do.
  6. Procedure: Festinger organized persons int o three groups: 1.control group/non-dissonance group 2. The group that was paid $1 3. Group that was paid $20.
  7. The two experimental groups were given a boring task to complete in 30 minutes. The person who was paid $1 told the other person in that group the task was fun whereas the person who was paid $20 told the other person that the task was boring.


The group that was paid $1 for the task reported the task more favourable than the group that was paid $20.

The Free Choice Paradigm (Brehm, 1956)

Firstly, Brehm invited adult women to evaluate eight common household products, a coffee maker, lamp, radio, etc. Then the women inspected each product and rank-ordered them from least desirable (a ranking of 1) to most desirable (a ranking of 8) when they were placed in two conditions. In one condition, Brehm gave participants a choice between two highly ranked products, one ranked 5, 6, or 7 and the other ranked one point lower. In another condition, the choice was between a highly ranked product (5, 6, or 7) and a product ranked two or three points lower. After participants made their choice, Brehm wrapped the gift for the participants to take home and continued the study. Participants read consumer reports of four products they had evaluated, including the two products from which they had to choose only one. After reading the consumer reports, Brehm asked participants to rank all eight products a second time. This procedure provided participants with a context and rationale for re-evaluating the products and a variety of positive and negative qualities about the chosen and rejected items that might facilitate participants’ justification of their choice which reduces their dissonance.

Moreover, the women who were forced to make a tough choice between two highly ranked products experienced more dissonance than those who did not, and thus they were more motivated to change their evaluations of the chosen and rejected items after the fact, apparently to justify their decision and reduce their dissonance (e.g., Steele, Spencer, & Lynch, 1993; Stone, 1999).

Revisions of the theory

  1. 1. Self-consistency Theory (Aronson, 1960)

Dissonance in Aronson’s theory is believed to be a conflict between any two relevant, important cognitions and when the inconsistent cognitions involve important elements of a person’s self-concept. Aronson studied how individual differences accounted for how sensitive people are to situations that arouse cognitive dissonance based on how manipulative they were or their preference for consistency.

Manipulators versus non-manipulators

Non-manipulators display significantly greater attitude to ensure that their once dissonant behaviour aligns with their attitude. On the other hand, manipulators should only experience dissonance under conditions where they might get what they desire by lying.

Preference for consistency (PFC).

Based on the studies conducted by Cialdini and colleagues, individuals who score high on the PFC scale generally behave consistently with dissonance theory, showing the typical dissonance reducing attitude change following counter-attitudinal behaviour under high choice; whereas those scoring low in PFC either show significantly less attitudinal-behavioural consistency than high PFCs (Nail et al., 2001), none at all (e.g., Cialdini et al., 1995), or even anti- consistency (Guadagno et al., 2001). Festinger (1957) originally conceived the need for cognitive consistency as a nomothetic motive, meaning one applying to people, in general.

  1. 2. Self-perception theory (Bem, 1967)

In Bem’s (1967) self-perception theory, he believed that people are often unsure of their attitudes, feelings and behaviours. People often monitor their behaviour then infer after the fact what their attitude was based on the particular situation.

  1. 3. Self-affirmation Theory (Steele, 1988)

Steele proposed that dissonance occurs when one learns or behaves in a way that threatens one’s perception of self-integrity. Thus, attitude change in the induced-compliance paradigm occurs to restore one’s overall sense of a good, competent, and stable self-image.

Steele found that persons with high self-esteem experience less dissonance than persons with low self-esteem because they have a positive self-image and self-concept from their wealth of knowledge about themselves.

Self-standards model of cognitive dissonance

Stone and Cooper (2001) developed the self-standards model of cognitive dissonance from self-affirmation theory and self-consistency theory to explain the complex relationship between self-esteem and the experience of cognitive dissonance. The self can serve either as to be a resource that can buffer self-threats or be a standard that one may or may not have lived up to. Persons with high self-esteem use the self as a buffer against self-threats whereas persons with low self-esteem use the self as a standard that they may not have lived up to.

Evaluation of cognitive dissonance theories.


Applicability/ Usefulness

  • Fostering more successful child-rearing (e.g., Lepper, 1973; Mills, 1958)
  • Increasing condom use among sexually active college students (Aronson et al., 1991; Stone, Aronson, Crain, Winslow, & Fried, 1994).
  • Promoting pro-community behaviours such as water conservation (Dickerson, Thibodeau, Aronson, & Miller, 1992), increasing community service and charitable donations (e.g., Howard, 1990; Kraut, 1973; Sherman, 1980).
  • Reducing racial prejudice (e.g., Leippe & Eisenstaedt, 1994; Son Hing, Li, & Zanna, 2002).
  • Providing insight into the treatment of phobias (Cooper, 1980).
  • The success of therapeutic interventions more generally (e.g., Axsom & Cooper, 2004; Cooper & Axsom, 1982).

Heuristic Value

  • The heuristic value of a theory refers to its ability to generate testable, empirical hypotheses. • Festinger’s original theory had high heuristic value. Later versions of dissonance theory added even more heuristic value since those revisions were able to explain individual differences.


  • The efficiency of a theory refers to the ratio of phenomena explained by the theory of the theory's complexity.
  • No one version of dissonance theory can explain all of the data.
  • Festinger's theory was more comprehensive.
  • Aronson's theory was more effective in integrating individual differences.


  1. Cognitive dissonance cannot be physically observed so we cannot objectively measure it, thus the measure of dissonance is somewhat subjective.
  2. There is uncertainty about dissonance since it creates more guilt.
  3. Not everyone acts or reacts in the same way when presented with dissonant elements due to their differences.
  4. Cognitive dissonance theories may have low ecological validity.
  5. The majority of experiments used students as examples instead of different groups of people. Therefore, the experiments do not accurately represent the majority of populations of different groups of people (biased sample).


  1. Alcock, J., & Sadava, S. (2014). An introduction to social psychology: Global perspectives. London: Sage.
  2. Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. (2017). Social psychology and human nature (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
  3. Breckler, S., Olson, J. & Wiggins, E. (2006). Social psychology alive. Belmont, CA: Thompson/Wadsworth.
  4. CHADEE, D. E. R. E. K. (2019). Theories in Social Psychology. S.l.: WILEY-BLACKWELL.
  5. Cognitive dissonance theory. (n.d.). Retrieved from 0767430344/student_view0/chapter7/index.html
  6. Cooper, J. (2007). Cognitive dissonance: 50 years of a classic theory. London: Sage.
  7. Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  8. McLeod, S. A. (2018, Feb 05). Cognitive dissonance. Simply Psychology.
  9. Nail, P.R., & Boniecki, K. A. (2011). Inconsistency in cognition: Cognitive dissonance. In D. Chadee (Ed.), Theories in social psychology (pp. 44-71). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  10. Sanderson, C. A. (2010). Social psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
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