Cognitive Dissonance: Reexamining a Pivotal Theory in Psychology - Eddie Harmon-Jones 2019



Elliot Aronson, University of California, Santa Cruz

Joshua Aronson, New York University, New York

Kenneth E. Barron, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA

Jean-Leon Beauvois, Université de Nice, France

Skylar M. Brannon, University of Texas at Austin

Geoffrey Cohen, Stanford University, Stanford, CA

Joel Cooper, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

Patricia G. Devine, University of Wisconsin—Madison

Andrew J. Elliot, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY

Bertram Gawronski, University of Texas at Austin

Cindy Harmon-Jones, The University of New South Wales, Australia

Eddie Harmon-Jones, The University of New South Wales, Australia

Keise Izuma, University of Southampton, United Kingdom

Robert-Vincent Joule, Universite de Provence, France

Ian McGregor, University of Waterloo, Canada

Judson Mills, University of Maryland, College Park (deceased)

Brian M. Monroe, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa

Kou Murayama, University of Reading, United Kingdom, and Kochi University of Technology, Japan

Paul R. Nail, University of Central Arkansas, Conway

Ian R. Newby-Clark, University of Guelph, Canada

Stephen J. Read, University of Southern California, Los Angeles

John M. Tauer, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN

Kristen M. Vance, United States Air Force (retired)

Mark P. Zanna, University of Waterloo, Canada


“This is more like what I had in mind” could easily be what Leon L. Festinger would have said about this volume had he lived to see it. He would not have been referring to the two appendices that report his own words—the first being his early, unpublished formulation of dissonance theory, the second, his comments on the state of dissonance theory 30 years after its publication. In earlier comments about the state of social psychology, after having been away from the field for several years, he had said, in effect, “It’s not exactly what I had in mind.”

This is a volume that Leon Festinger surely would have loved to see. It presents a variety of ideas and clever research from a collection of investigators located in Canada, France, and Japan, as well as in the United States, and almost all intended to produce a better understanding of the phenomena of cognitive dissonance. Whereas the common thread is dissonance theory as first stated by Festinger, the common concern starts with the assumption that the theory must be taken seriously. From that point, these chapters fan out into a diverse array of suggestions, propositions, qualifications, and additions for the original theory.

This book contains the medication required for all those people who, quite rightly, became bored with dissonance theory in the later 1960s or early 1970s. The present collection demonstrates clearly and convincingly that the problem was not with the theory but rather with the research that was largely confined to conceptual replications of some of the major implications of the theory. Although the issues addressed in some of the chapters have been around for several years (e.g., the role of the self in the instigation of dissonance and the role of aversive consequences), even in those cases there are new and revealing programs of research reported.

What we also find in this new volume are attempts to make the theory more precise in certain respects, a summary of an ambitious research program centered on the justification of behavior, and a report of carefully crafted research to reveal dissonance arousal due to discrepancy between perception and behavior in the absence of negative consequences. There is as well a contribution that takes up the issue of multiple modes of dissonance reduction and how they are determined and interact, and then, for more formal and general points of view, there are two contributions on mathematical formulations that help to place dissonance processes in a larger conceptual context.

Finally, there are contributions that address dissonance as an affective state; one emphasizes the advantage of measuring the feeling of dissonance in pinning down how dissonance processes work, whereas the other attempts to demonstrate the connection between dissonance and ambivalence and how that connection promises to give us a much broader understanding of dissonance effects. All of these reports are preceded by a concise history of the early supporting research as well as of the theoretical and methodological controversies stirred up by the original publication of the theory.

In 1976, in his Foreword to the Wicklund and Brehm, Perspectives on Cognitive Dissonance, Edward E. Jones wrote, “We may now have reached a less flamboyant stage of tidying of loose ends and charting out relations between dissonance theory and other psychological conceptions. . . .” Twenty years later, what this volume demonstrates is not a neat, tidy, theoretical and empirical package to which the practitioner can turn for help, but rather a remarkably exciting and growing set of research questions about how the human mind works. It is a most enticing invitation to behavioral scientists of all kinds to explore the expanding frontiers of cognitive dissonance.

Jack W. Brehm

University of Kansas


Every science has a defining moment—and a defining theory that signifies that it has truly come of age. Arguably for our discipline, social psychology, the development of cognitive dissonance theory over 60 years ago represents that critical moment, as confirmed by the voluminous research this theory has stimulated ever since. The outstanding collection in this book reviews the most recent developments in this dynamic field and, at the same time, provides a timely and welcome reminder of the profound debt our field owes to dissonance theory.

The modern discipline of psychology would be unimaginable without the theory of cognitive dissonance. Dissonance theory, and the experiments it stimulated, is responsible for some of the most significant, exciting, and enduring findings in our discipline. Classic dissonance experiments remain the mainstay of contemporary psychology textbooks, and every year, new generations of students continue to be stimulated and challenged by these findings.

The theory of cognitive dissonance has been a trailblazer in our field in at least three different ways. By postulating that an internal, cognitive, and motivational conflict state can play a determining and often counterintuitive role in the production of manifest behaviors, cognitive dissonance and the theoretical thinking it triggered were the first attempts to focus attention on the complex internal processes of the person. In a fundamental sense, dissonance theory was the first truly influential cognitive paradigm and, as such, the harbinger of the later “cognitive revolution” that so profoundly altered all of psychology.

Dissonance theory and research also played a pioneering role in a second way. By highlighting the often paradoxical and even self-defeating ways that humans frequently deal with the world, dissonance theory was the first comprehensive model to focus our attention on the landscape of human irrationality and the genesis of suboptimal judgments and behaviors. The voluminous modern literature on judgmental errors and heuristics, subliminal processes, fluency and priming effects, and motivated distortions in the way the world is represented owes a great deal to the kind of thinking first pioneered and later developed by dissonance researchers, as contributions to this book amply demonstrate.

Although not widely appreciated, the early demonstration of dissonance processes also paved the way for the emerging focus on the role of universal adaptive and evolutionary mechanisms in life. The kind of cognitive and motivational processes producing dissonance effects can now also be seen as part of a larger domain of evolutionarily determined and universal “mind modules” that characterize our species.

These mechanisms are broadly adaptive in many circumstances, but they can also produce manifestly incorrect and even dysfunctional reactions in some situations. Contemporary evolutionary models, such as error management theory, show a great deal of affinity with the ideas first developed by dissonance researchers six decades ago. It is becoming apparent that dissonance research anticipated and stimulated many of the insights later systematized in evolutionary theorizing about the development and fundamental characteristics of the “social mind.”

There is no doubt that dissonance research has given rise to a rich and thriving paradigm that continues to define our field. The first edition of this book has made a landmark contribution to our understanding of dissonance research. With the passage of almost two decades, the present volume offers a welcome and much-needed revision and an update featuring the latest developments in dissonance research.

Some of the classic chapters included in the first edition are reproduced here, as their relevance is as great today as it was then. Part I of the book deals with research that is based on the classical formulations of dissonance theory. Chapters in Part II discuss the crucial role of the self in dissonance processes. Part III takes dissonance theory to a new level, by focusing on neural processes, mathematical models, and the role of affective processes in dissonance mechanisms.

The contributors are internationally renowned researchers, and the new chapters present the most recent theoretical ideas and findings. The structure of the book has also been substantially revised to take better account of how research has evolved in the past two decades. All chapters deal with either classical work, or describe important theoretical advances in dissonance theory, and the book provides a comprehensive overview of the most recent empirical discoveries in this area.

Interest in dissonance theories has continued unabated for over 60 years now, and the influence of this paradigm remains undiminished in a variety of fields of social psychology. A theory as important as cognitive dissonance does require the periodic publication of integrative reviews and summaries, and this is precisely what this book provides. Researchers, students, and practitioners interested in all aspects of thinking and behavior will welcome this book as a definitive summary of the current status of dissonance research. As was the case with the first edition, this book is also destined to become an essential reference work for years to come.

Joseph P. Forgas, AM, DPhil, Dsc (Oxford), FASSA

Scientia Professor

The University of New South Wales

Sydney, Australia


Over 60 years ago, Leon Festinger (1957) published the book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Festinger’s book outlined a theory that has had a tremendous impact in psychological science and beyond. Then, over 20 years ago, Judson Mills and I coedited the first edition of this book to assess the state of research and theory on cognitive dissonance. That book was a landmark title in the APA Science Volumes series.

Since then, much has happened in relation to the theory of cognitive dissonance. For example, research has delved into the minimal conditions necessary to evoke dissonance, how dissonance processes relate to large bodies of psychological research that may have previously seemed unrelated, and the neural correlates of dissonance processes. Chapters in this second edition expand on these important issues. Moreover, the theory continues to generate interest in empirical, theoretical, and practical ways. This new edition highlights those advances (e.g., E. Harmon-Jones & C. Harmon-Jones, Chapter 4; Gawronski & Brannon, Chapter 5; Read & Monroe, Chapter 10; Izuma & Murayama, Chapter 11; McGregor, Newby-Clark, & Zanna, Chapter 6). In addition, other chapters that already presented important advances in the first edition have been updated with coverage of more recent research supporting these original advances (J. Aronson, Cohen, & Nail, Chapter 8; Cooper, Chapter 9; Devine et al., Chapter 12). Finally, some chapters were reproduced verbatim from the first edition—these chapters were either written by authors who are now deceased (Mills, Chapter 2) or have since retired (Beauvois & Joule, Chapter 3; E. Aronson, Chapter 7). Thus, the book provides an important assessment of the current status of the theory, and it presents the theoretical controversies and the recent research on important questions about the dissonance process.

For this book, we are fortunate to have contributions from the prominent scientists who have made major contributions to research and theory on cognitive dissonance We feel honored to be able include unpublished material by Leon Festinger (which was also included in the first edition). These works present his earliest version of the theory and his final public comment on the theory. Festinger’s first paper on the theory, “Social Communication and Cognition: A Very Preliminary and Highly Tentative Draft” (Appendix A, this volume), was distributed to students in his University of Minnesota winter quarter 1954 graduate seminar, which included Jack Brehm and Judson Mills. Festinger’s last words on dissonance theory (Appendix B, this volume) were transcribed from a tape recording of comments he made as a discussant in “Reflections on Cognitive Dissonance: 30 Years Later,” a symposium conducted at the 95th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1987. We would like to thank Trudy Festinger for giving us permission to publish these important materials.

Part of the inspiration for the first edition of this book came from a conference held at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) in the winter of 1997 (organized by Eddie Harmon-Jones and Judson Mills). This conference, designed to discuss the current status of cognitive dissonance theory and research, included an international group of researchers and was attended by approximately 70 faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students. Although the first edition of this book did not represent the proceedings of the conference, it was an outgrowth of the conference.

The first edition of this book and the conference were aided immensely by UTA and the Science Directorate of APA. We would like to thank the staff at APA who were involved with the project. We also would like to thank UTA Dean Vern Cox and Psychology Department Chair Roger Mellgren for financial support and assistance with the logistics of organizing the conference. Additionally, we received assistance with the conference from UTA staff members Pauline Gregory, Susan Sterling, and Karen Twohey; UTA students Bruce Frankel, Victoria Swanson, and Tracy West; and Professor Bob Schatz from Texas A & M University—Corpus Christi. Further, we received assistance with the book from Todor Gerdjikov and Cindy Harmon-Jones, who helped in numerous ways. We are most grateful for their generous assistance. Others were invaluable and contributed to the success of the conference, and their efforts are greatly appreciated.

On a more personal note, since the publication of the first edition, two legends and mentors of mine have passed away. Judson Mills, who made several important contributions to the theory and coedited the first edition, died in May 2008. Jack Brehm, who also made several important contributions to the theory and wrote the Foreword for the first edition, died in August 2009. They are both sorely missed and fondly remembered. This second edition is dedicated to their memories.