Reflections on Cognitive Dissonance
30 Years Later
Let me try to touch a little on various things that have been mentioned, going back to history. I will try to be as amusing as I can be. Actually this isn’t the 30th anniversary, it’s perhaps the 31st or something like that. The manuscript of the book was finished in early 1956. I had signed a contract with Row, Peterson, who were very enthusiastic about publishing it. But by the time the manuscript was finished, the enthusiastic part of Row, Peterson had left that company, and Row, Peterson’s enthusiasm diminished incredibly. After about eight months had gone by since they had the manuscript, I phoned them, expressed a bit of displeasure, and I was told in a very sympathetic terms that they had to put off production because a more important book had come in that they had to get out. Then the book appeared with a very flimsy cover and no slipcover at all, and when I complained about that, I was assured that was the new style in books. Then, after two years they let it go out of print, and there were no plans to reprint it. Fortunately, there was a captive press, that is, Stanford University Press. I was on the faculty committee, and they were persuaded to reprint it. So it came to life and continued living as a book.
I have never really thoroughly understood the early reactions to the theory of cognitive dissonance. The first thing I realized was the great wisdom of the decision of American Psychological Association to have a journal called Contemporary Psychology. Before Contemporary Psychology appeared, almost every APA journal carried reviews, and it is true that some books never got reviewed and some books got two or three reviews, but with the journal Contemporary Psychology, you were assured that there would be one and only one review of a book. The editors in their wisdom chose as their reviewer a gentleman called Solomon Asch, a great believer of human rationality, and he wrote a marvelous review. He approached the thing as a moral dilemma, and after considerable discussion, he came out with the Scottish verdict not proven, implying that the alternatives were guilty or not guilty. But the reaction to it was more general than that. He was not alone. Others also went to great pains to try to demonstrate that the theory was incorrect. Which is OK. At least that was a more scientific approach. At that time at least, and I don’t know whether it still exists today, there was a bit of an illness in social psychology, because people took more delight in countering rather than in exploring and questioning and conceivably supporting. I hope social psychology isn’t that way any longer.
Other theories were also proposed, and there were a whole slew of inconsistency theories. For example, balance theory attempted a very, very elegant mathematical formulation of inconsistency at least among triads; you know, if A likes B and B likes C and A doesn’t like C, that was imbalanced. I well remember several times protesting that it was demonstrably wrong because, for example, I like chicken, chickens like chicken food and I don’t like chicken food. But everyone treated it as a joke, and nobody took it seriously. It’s a rather serious criticism.
As I say, I never really understood the emotionality of the controversy. One result of that was that experiment after experiment on the part of the dissonance movement was oriented toward proving again and again and again that there is a process of dissonance reduction that occurs under certain conditions. They showed that it occurs here and it occurs there and perhaps, undoubtedly, it was very necessary at the time, but it was also a huge waste of effort of a lot of talented people who should have been devoting their efforts to clarifying the concepts, improving the definitions and changing it. No theory is going to be inviolate. Let me put it clearly. The only kind of theory that can be proposed and ever will be proposed that absolutely will remain inviolate for decades, certainly centuries, is a theory that is not testable. If a theory is at all testable, it will not remain unchanged. It has to change. All theories are wrong. One doesn’t ask about theories, can I show that they are wrong or can I show that they are right, but rather one asks, how much of the empirical realm can it handle and how must it be modified and changed as it matures?
As a lot of people know, I ended up leaving social psychology, meaning dissonance theory, and I want to clarify that. Lack of activity is not the same as lack of interest. Lack of activity is not desertion. I left and stopped doing research on the theory of dissonance because I was in a total rut. The only thing I could think about was how correct the original statement had been. Let me give you an example. When Jack Brehm and Bob Cohen produced their excellent book, Explorations in Cognitive Dissonance, one of the things they highlighted was the necessity of choice. I’ve never said this to Jack before. If you’re eavesdropping you’ll hear it now. I said to myself, what kind of a contribution is this? It says in the original book that in order for dissonance to be large enough to exist there has to be minimal pressure on the person to do what the person does. If there is too much pressure, there is too much justification for having done it and it is all consonant with having done it, there is no dissonance. Doesn’t that encompass the idea of choice? Isn’t choice one part of that? I said to myself, these wonderful people whom I like and respect are taking one operation and elevating it to the status of a construct and it’s terrible. I may have been right, I may have been wrong. But that is to illustrate to you how every word in that book was perfect. So to me, I did a good thing for cognitive dissonance by leaving it. I think if I had stayed in it, I might have retarded progress for cognitive dissonance for at least a decade.
It seems to me that all of that controversy is documented and today there is a much more normal course of events. I think the talk by Joel Cooper is a very fine illustration of what ought to be and what should have been going on for decades and decades. Trying to explicate, trying to pin down boundary conditions and not just in a way that says, well if this condition is fulfilled you get dissonance reduction and if this condition isn’t fulfilled you don’t get it, but to understand why and broaden the theory and elaborate it. In addition, the demonstration that there is some physiological evidence for arousal I think is an extremely important finding and needs more research done. Recent stuff that has started exploring alternative modes of dissonance reduction is perhaps some of the most encouraging work I think that is going on. The early experiments emphasizing predictions from the theory that were counterintuitive generally blocked off every conceivable avenue of dissonance reduction that we could block off, so that whatever effect there was would show itself in attitude change. But in the ordinary world and if the experimenter is not very careful, a little bit sloppy, there are lots and lots of avenues of dissonance reduction, and those have never been explored. I still think that one of the major avenues of dissonance reduction is to change your behavior. When I think of examples, I even go back to examples that are in the book. If somebody is in a room, wants to leave the room, and just walks straight into a wall where there is no door, I would think there was considerable dissonance. And the usual way in which that dissonance is reduced is the person looks around and says, O my God, the door is there, and he walks out the door. And that’s not very remarkable. But there are also many other avenues of cognitive dissonance reduction aside from attitude change. There is intricate restructuring of whole kinds of networks and relations among cognitions. Somebody can remember what his grandmother told him when he was two years old which solves everything, et cetera. Exploration of that kind of thing is very, very important. I’m glad it’s going on.
I am quite sure that there is enough validity to the theory, and as changes are made, emendations are made, there will be even more validity to the theory, that research on it will continue, and a lot will get clarified. One thing that I think has to be done is for more research to go on on dissonance producing situations and dissonance reduction processes as they occur in the “real world.” I put it “real world” because Elliot is quite correct. In the good old days when you did laboratory experiments, we created a real world in the laboratory. I don’t know how we would have gotten anything through ethics committees. One of the things about laboratory experiments is that you can only get out the stuff that you put into it and any good experimenter who is concerned in testing a part of the hypothesis is going to try to eliminate from that laboratory experiment all of the unwanted stuff that generally floats around, and dissonance arousing and dissonance reducing processes are not the only things that affect man, using man in the generic sense. I think we need to find out about how dissonance processes and dissonance reducing processes interact in the presence of other things that are powerful influences of human behavior and human cognition, and the only way to do that is to do studies in the real world. They’re messy and difficult. You don’t expect the precision out of those studies that you can get in the laboratory. But out of them will emerge more ideas which we can then bring into the laboratory to clarify and help to broaden and enrich the work.
This is a transcript of remarks Leon Festinger made as a discussant in the symposium Reflections on Cognitive Dissonance: 30 Years Later at the 95th Annual Convention of the American Psychology Association. The other members of the symposium were Elliot Aronson, Jack Brehm, Joel Cooper, and Judson Mills.
From Reflections on Cognitive Dissonance: 30 Years Later (Unpublished manuscript), by L. Festinger, 1987. Copyright 1987 by Leon Festinger. Reprinted with permission.