Dissonance Now: How Accessible Discrepancies Moderate Distress and Diverse Defenses - Perspectives Employing the Original Version of the Theory

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

Dissonance Now: How Accessible Discrepancies Moderate Distress and Diverse Defenses
Perspectives Employing the Original Version of the Theory

Ian McGregor, Ian R. Newby-Clark, and Mark P. Zanna

The evolution of Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory was shaped by its research methods. In its early years, behaviorally based inductions indirectly demonstrated that experimentally implanted “non-fitting cognitions” (p. 3) could cause surprisingly irrational reactions. These indirect methods involved elaborate social interactions, however, that invited revisions that moved the theory away from its core proposition that cognitive inconsistency, per se, is aversive enough to cause such reactions. Here we describe research on two phenomena related to Festinger’s dissonance construct—ambivalence (Jamieson, 1993; Luttrell, Stillman, Hasinski, & Cunningham, 2016) and discrepancy detection (Hirsh, Mar, & Peterson, 2012; Proulx, Inzlicht, & Harmon-Jones, 2012; Randles, Inzlicht, Proulx, Tullett, & Heine, 2015). Research on both of these kindred topics supports the original claim of dissonance theory—that mere cognitive inconsistency is psychologically uncomfortable. Moreover, when dissonance and these kindred phenomena are considered in light of research on the simultaneous accessibility of cognitive elements (Bassili, 1994), a more complete perspective comes into view of dissonance theory’s historical development and contemporary relevance. What becomes clear is that discomfort arising from inconsistent cognitive elements is moderated by their simultaneous accessibility/salience.

In what follows, after reviewing the evolution of classic dissonance and related literatures from the perspective of simultaneous accessibility, we describe how the same perspective can illuminate recent advances in research on psychological threat and defense. We then outline how accessible conflict may be modulated by two basic motivational systems related to accessible conflict and approach motivation, and review research on how people use personal and social phenomena to leverage approach motivation for relief from the distress arising from accessible conflict.

Across paradigms and perspectives, accessible cognitive conflict is revealed as the essential, active ingredient in various psychological threats. Moreover, it is what motivates diverse, defensively extreme reactions, including religious extremism (Hirsh et al., 2012; Jonas et al., 2014; McGregor, 2006a; Proulx et al., 2012). This relevance of dissonance-related processes to important real-world outcomes brings the theory back full circle to one of its original intents. It reconnects dissonance with the important question of why people so regularly hold the dubious beliefs that sustain enigmatic social phenomena (Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1956).


The arrival of cognitive dissonance theory excited social psychologists for at least two reasons. First, it challenged the relatively bland version of reinforcement theory that was popular at the time (Aronson, 1992, p. 303). Second, it lent scientific support to the notion of motivated thinking, which had been percolating in other disciplines for many years. In philosophy, Schopenhauer (1818/1883) claimed that desire “is the strong blind man who carries on his shoulders the lame man (reason) who can see” (p. 421). In psychoanalytic psychology, rationalization was presented as a prevalent defense mechanism. The outcomes of the first high-impact dissonance studies demonstrated that people’s opinions sometimes just reflect what they want to believe, for self-defensive reasons.

Early high-impact studies cleverly demonstrated participants’ tendency to justify the counterattitudinal behaviors they had been subtly tricked into performing. In most experiments, however, inconsistent cognitions were only assumed to follow from behaviors that implied an inconsistent position, and psychological discomfort was inferred from attitude change. Festinger’s core proposition, that inconsistent cognitions cause psychological discomfort, was not directly tested. Reliance on behavioral induction and indirect assessment of dissonance via attitude change opened the door for challenges to the epistemic basis of the theory.

The first major challenge came from Bem’s (1967) self-perception theory. Bem argued that attributional processes could explain attitude change in conventional dissonance paradigms and that no aversive motivational state need exist. Participants noticed themselves behaving in a particular way, and because no external reason for their behavior was apparent, they inferred that their behavior must have arisen from internal factors (i.e., attitudes consistent with the behavior). The cognitive dissonance interpretation prevailed over the self-perception challenge after it became clear that if participants have an opportunity to misattribute dissonance arousal to another source, such as a pill (Zanna & Cooper, 1974) or an unpleasant environment (Fazio, Zanna, & Cooper, 1977), attitude change does not occur. Eventually both theories found their appropriate domain of applicability. Dissonance processes are operative when counterattitudinal behaviors are outside the range of what participants can imagine endorsing; self-perception processes are operative when counterattitudinal behaviors are within that latitude of acceptance (Fazio et al., 1977).

Self-perception theory challenged dissonance theory at the back end of the counterattitudinal behavior paradigm, that is, it questioned Festinger’s (1957) contention that psychological discomfort mediates the attitude change following counterattitudinal behavior. A second set of challenges to the original conception of cognitive dissonance theory came at the front end of the paradigm. Most notably, self-consistency (E. Aronson, 1968; see also Chapter 7, this volume), self-affirmation (Steele, 1988; see also Chapter 8, this volume), and the new look (Cooper & Fazio, 1984; see also Chapter 9, this volume) perspectives questioned whether inconsistent cognitions were sufficient or even necessary to produce discomfort and attitude change.

E. Aronson proposed that inconsistent cognitions are uncomfortable only when they impugn the self-concept. For example, most people believe that they are competent and good. Thus, when they are tricked by a dissonance researcher into doing something stupid or bad, they experience discomfort. According to E. Aronson, discomfort arises, not because, for example, a counterattitudinal essay is inconsistent with a prior attitude. Rather, it arises because the behavior of writing in support of the wrong cause is inconsistent with a positive self-concept. Two subsequent revisions took E. Aronson’s focus on stupid or bad actions even further and contended that inconsistency is not even a necessary condition for dissonance to be experienced. Cooper and Fazio (1984) proposed a new look for dissonance theory, arguing that psychological discomfort in dissonance experiments occurs because people feel personally responsible for the production of aversive consequences. Similarly, Steele’s (1988) self-affirmation revision posited that it is threat to global self-integrity, not inconsistency that causes the discomfort in dissonance experiments. New look and self-affirmation perspectives proposed that people simply rationalize behaviors that imply their guilt, incompetence, or immorality, and Abelson (1983) concluded that dissonance reduction is primarily a social strategy for saving face following experimentally engineered embarrassment. These perspectives viewed cognitive dissonance as a misnomer and saw the discomfort in “dissonance” paradigms as arising from social, not epistemic, factors.


Conventional dissonance experiments made an important contribution to the field’s understanding of social behavior and motivated cognition, but invited revisions that deemphasized the theory’s initial focus on epistemic motivation. Ambivalence research complements conventional dissonance work by investigating implications of native inconsistencies (i.e., naturally occurring inconsistencies that are not behaviorally induced by a researcher). A direct technology for assessing inconsistency, developed by Scott (1966) and later by Kaplan (1972), separately measures both the positive and negative aspects of a given attitude (holding aspects of the opposite valence constant) and provides the means for direct assessment of native discrepancies within attitudes.

Using this technique, Thompson, Zanna, and Griffin (1995) found that intra-attitudinal discrepancies were associated (r = .40) with the experience of felt ambivalence—or feeling “torn and conflicted,” as measured by Jamieson’s (1993) scale. Jamieson’s felt ambivalence questions refer to experienced conflict between issue-related elements. The conflicts could be cognitive (e.g., confusion about thoughts while making up mind), affective (e.g., feeling torn by the directions of feelings), or mixed (e.g., head and heart disagree). Felt ambivalence is accordingly a measure of targeted dissonance, specific to an issue under consideration. Although devoid of the provocative outcomes and high-impact appeal associated with the original dissonance tradition, ambivalence research (and later, discrepancy-detection research) reaffirmed the epistemic core of Festinger’s proposition that had been deemphasized by the new look and self-affirmation revisions. Inconsistent cognitions, whether native or implanted via dissonance experiments, are experienced as uncomfortable and can activate areas of the brain that process discrepancy-related distress (Luttrell et al., 2016; Proulx et al., 2012; Randles et al., 2015; van Veen, Krug, Schooler, & Carter, 2009).

At around the same time as this research on the link between potential and felt ambivalence was being conducted, conventional dissonance research was further bolstering Festinger’s original epistemic conception. E. Harmon-Jones, Brehm, Greenberg, Simon, and Nelson (1996) found that dissonance (directly measured by skin conductance) was aroused and attitude change occurred after “freely” chosen counterattitudinal expression, even if participants discarded their counterattitudinal statements before anyone else could see them. This finding contradicted the new look revision’s requirement that negative consequences be present. In another experiment, Elliot and Devine (1994) found that counterattitudinal expression increased self-reported psychological discomfort (bothered, uneasy, uncomfortable) and that the discomfort was alleviated by attitude change.1

How can the reassertion of the original conception of dissonance theory be reconciled with the various revisions? The revisions may have capitalized on factors that influence the simultaneous accessibility (Bassili, 1994) of inconsistent cognitions. If inconsistent cognitions are not accessible at the same time, dissonance discomfort will be minimized. On the other hand, if inconsistent cognitions are simultaneously accessible, dissonance discomfort will be maximized. Indeed, according to Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter (1956), one way to reduce dissonance is to “forget or reduce the importance of those cognitions that are in dissonant relationship” (p. 26).


E. Aronson’s (1968) original claim that dissonance will occur only when the dissonant cognitions are self-relevant can be understood in terms of accessibility. According to the self-reference effect, information related to the self is recalled more easily than non-self-related information (Rogers, Kuiper, & Kirker, 1977). Dissonance may be heightened when self-related cognitions are involved because the two cognitions may be more likely to remain simultaneously accessible and less likely to drift out of awareness.

Cooper and Fazio’s (1984) new look revision can similarly be explained in terms of accessibility. The perception that one has just done harm to an audience that does not deserve it is likely a relatively novel and unexpected realization for most participants. The increase in attributional activity (Pyszczynski & Greenberg, 1981; Wong & Weiner, 1981) that accompanies such an experientially striking realization may very well render the behavior, and the inconsistent cognition the behavior implies, hyper-accessible. In addition, guilt associated with a bad behavior might motivate an attempt to suppress awareness of it, which could cause rebound hyper-accessibility (Wegner, 1994), and anxiety arising from the guilt might motivate further self-focus and accessibility (Todd, Forstmann, Burgmer, Brooks, & Galinsky, 2015). Note also that in the E. Harmon-Jones et al. (1996) research in which dissonance ensued without the presence of aversive consequences, the “recall-task” cover story may have inadvertently ensured that the original attitude and the counterattitudinal expression remained simultaneously accessible (participants were told at the outset that they were to remember what they wrote).

The self-affirmation revision of dissonance theory is also amenable to an accessibility interpretation. “Stupid” or “bad” behaviors are more likely to remain accessible because of self-reference and heightened attributional activity. Moreover, Steele and Liu (1983) demonstrated that affirmation can alleviate dissonance but did not demonstrate that dissonance discomfort necessarily arises from threatened self-worth. We propose that affirmation ameliorates dissonance because it activates powerful cognitive processes related to approach motivation (E. Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2008; Jonas et al., 2014) that mute accessibility of the inconsistent cognitions (E. Harmon-Jones, Amodio, & Harmon-Jones, 2009). This muting or shielding function may be why participants prefer to affirm themselves in domains unrelated to the dissonant elements (J. Aronson, Blanton, & Cooper, 1995; Blanton, Cooper, Skurnik, & Aronson, 1997).

Steele and Liu (1983) attempted to rule out muting and distraction accounts of their results by demonstrating in a counterattitudinal essay study that affirmation still reduces attitude change (and therefore dissonance) even when participants are reminded of their dissonant essay after the affirmation and before the attitude measure. The reminder procedure simply required participants to write down three key words from their earlier essay, however, and so may not have been enough to return the inconsistent elements to simultaneous accessibility. It is unlikely that they would have mentioned with those three words, anything about their original attitude.


The importance of accessibility as a moderator of cognitive dissonance was supported by experimental results from the early days of cognitive dissonance research. Several studies demonstrated that dissonance reduction through attitude change depends on whether participants are distracted from or confronted by the dissonant cognitions. In one of these first salience experiments, Brock (1962) found that after being induced to “freely” write an essay about why they would like to become Catholic, non-Catholics’ attitudes became more favorable toward Catholicism if they focused on essay convincingness as opposed to grammatical structure in the interval between the essay writing and attitude assessment. Thus, extra attention to inconsistent elements apparently increased dissonance. In contrast, one of the first distraction experiments (Allen, 1965) found that when participants engaged in an absorbing technical task between a free-choice behavior and the assessment of attitudes, the dissonance-reducing spread of alternatives was eliminated (see also Zanna & Aziza, 1976).

In these early experiments, all avenues of dissonance reduction were closed off except attitude change, and the inconsistent cognitions were highly salient (unless a distraction was introduced). This state of affairs maximized the likelihood of finding self-justificatory attitude change but obscured investigation of distraction as a natural route of dissonance reduction. According to Rosenberg and Abelson (1960), people follow a principle of least effort when attempting to restore cognitive consistency. Because changing one’s attitude presumably takes some cognitive work, Hardyck and Kardush (1968) proposed that stopping thinking, a form of self-distraction, might be the preferred strategy for coping with dissonance. A research technique was needed that would incorporate the spontaneous distraction that presumably occurs in real life.

The forbidden-toy paradigm (E. Aronson & Carlsmith, 1963) is unique in that during the “temptation period,” in which children are forbidden to play with a well-liked toy, they can easily take their minds off their cognitive dilemma by playing with toys that are not forbidden. Thus, in contrast to other kinds of dissonance procedures in which participants are left to simmer in their counterattitudinal behavior, participants are free to immerse themselves in other engaging activities. This provides a relatively naturalistic setting for the dissonance-reduction strategy that Pallak, Brock, and Kiesler (1967) referred to as throwing oneself into one’s work. Carlsmith et al. (1969) augmented the built-in distraction feature of the forbidden-toy paradigm with two manipulations of forced attention. In one experiment, a “janitor” made the forbidden toy salient by walking into the room during the temptation period and incidentally asking the children why they were not playing with it. In the other experiment, the forbidden toy was made salient by a “defective” lamp, which flashed on and off above it. The general procedure and results were as follows.

Each child was brought into a room, shown how to use six attractive toys, and asked to rank the attractiveness of the toys. The experimenter then explained that he had to run an errand and that while he was gone, the child was forbidden to play with the second-ranked toy (which was placed on a different table). In the mild-threat condition, the experimenter said, “If you play with the [second-ranked toy], I will be a little bit annoyed with you.” In the severe-threat condition, he said instead, “If you play with the [second-ranked toy], I will be very upset and very angry with you, and I’ll have to do something about it.” The experimenter then left the room for a 6-minute temptation period, during which the forced-attention manipulations occurred for those in the experimental conditions. After the temptation period, the experimenter asked the children to rerank the toys. Thus, both experiments had a simple 2 (mild threat vs. severe threat) × 2 (forced attention vs. control) format.

In both experiments, two main effects resulted. There was more derogation of the second-ranked toy in the mild-threat conditions than in the severe-threat conditions, and there was more derogation in the forced-attention conditions than the control conditions. Carlsmith et al. (1969) had expected that attention would increase derogation, but only when dissonance existed in the first place, that is, in the mild-threat condition. Zanna, Lepper, and Abelson (1973) conducted a follow-up experiment, to see whether the expected interaction (forced attention increasing derogation only under mild threat) might result if forced attention was directed simultaneously toward both of the inconsistent cognitions (“I’m not playing with the desirable toy” and “there’s no strong reason not to”) instead of just the one (“I’m not playing with the desirable toy”). They reasoned that the absence of an interaction in the first two experiments might be due to the fact that, although the blinking light or janitor’s comment focused the children’s attention on the fact that they were not playing with a valued toy, it did not simultaneously remind them of the initial justification for that compliant behavior. For dissonance to occur, both cognitions would have to be simultaneously accessible.

To accomplish forced attention to both cognitions, the janitor experiment was modified in two ways. First, after the threat manipulation, the experimenter placed a sticker marked with an X on the side of the forbidden toy. Children were told that this sticker was being put on the toy as a reminder that the experimenter would either “be a little annoyed” or “very angry and upset” (depending on the threat condition) if they played with the forbidden toy. Second, in the high-accessibility condition, when the janitor entered the room in the middle of the temptation period, instead of simply calling attention to the forbidden toy, he said, “What’s this toy doing over here on the table?” and “How come this toy has a sticker on it?” These two modifications apparently succeeded in simultaneously focusing children’s attention on both of the dissonant cognitions. The expected interaction between potential dissonance (severe vs. mild threat) and simultaneous accessibility (control vs. reminder) resulted, with the greatest amount of dissonance reduction (toy derogation) in the high-reminder-mild-threat condition, suggesting that the experience of dissonance does seem to be moderated by the simultaneous accessibility of the potentially dissonant cognitions. These studies underscore how easily inconsistent elements can become inaccessible when distraction opportunities are present.


The early experiments suggest that simultaneous accessibility can play an important role in dissonance processes, but like most dissonance research in the counterattitudinal behavior paradigm, interpretation is vulnerable to the revisionist critiques mentioned above. Further, the early experiments manipulated salience. Although it is likely that salient elements will also be highly accessible, it would still be desirable to measure accessibility directly. The rise of social cognition in the 1980s brought new techniques for manipulating and measuring accessibility of knowledge structures (e.g., Bassili & Fletcher, 1991; Fazio, Sanbonmatsu, Powell, & Kardes, 1986). In three studies, we used Bassili’s (1996) technique for measuring whether psychological discomfort may be influenced not just by the existence of ambivalent cognitions but also by the simultaneous accessibility of those cognitions (Newby-Clark, McGregor, & Zanna, 2002). These studies are described below.

Recall that Thompson et al. (1995) found that intra-attitudinal inconsistency was correlated at 0.40 with Jamieson’s (1993) measure of felt ambivalence (i.e., how torn people felt about that attitude issue). This finding is consistent with the core of Festinger’s (1957) original thesis that the existence of non-fitting cognitions leads to psychological discomfort. In the following two studies, we were interested in whether simultaneous accessibility of inconsistent cognitions would moderate the relation between the existence of inconsistent cognitions (what we call potential ambivalence), as measured by the Kaplan (1972) technique,2 and felt ambivalence, as measured by Jamieson’s (1993) scale. We hypothesized that felt ambivalence would be highest when inconsistent cognitions not only existed, but were available to awareness at the same time. We recorded how long it took participants to answer the Kaplan questions about the favorable and unfavorable aspects of each issue and used these latencies to calculate an index of simultaneous accessibility.3 Our contention is that potential ambivalence is experienced as felt ambivalence when contradictory cognitions are highly and equally accessible.

In the first study, we telephoned 187 undergraduates and asked them questions about two issues: abortion and capital punishment. As expected, there was a significant positive relation between felt ambivalence and potential ambivalence for both attitude issues. Further, the interaction between potential ambivalence and simultaneous accessibility was significantly associated with felt ambivalence for abortion and marginally associated with felt ambivalence for capital punishment. These results supported our hypothesis that the relation between potential and felt ambivalence would be moderated by the simultaneous accessibility of the relevant cognitions.

In a computerized replication, 69 undergraduates responded to the same questions as in Study 1, but the questions were presented on a computer screen, and response latencies were more automatically recorded. Results were similar. Again, potential ambivalence and felt ambivalence were significantly correlated, and again, the interaction between simultaneous accessibility and potential ambivalence was significantly associated with felt ambivalence for abortion and marginally for capital punishment. Meta-analyses across the two studies yielded significant interactions for both attitude issues. For descriptive purposes, we also combined participants from the upper and lower quartiles of simultaneous accessibility from both studies, and (a) calculated the correlation between potential and felt ambivalence and (b) regressed felt ambivalence on potential ambivalence. For participants high in simultaneous accessibility, the correlation between potential and felt ambivalence about abortion was 0.73; for those low in simultaneous accessibility, the correlation was only 0.32. Viewed another way, the slope of felt ambivalence (standardized) about abortion regressed on potential ambivalence (low = −2 SD, high = 2 SD) was steeper for those in the upper (as compared with the lower) quartile of simultaneous accessibility.

In the third study, to move past the correlational findings in these first two studies, we experimentally manipulated simultaneous accessibility by randomly assigning participants to either repeatedly express (or not) their potential ambivalence with a procedure that significantly increased simultaneous accessibility (on the manipulation check). To further underscore the epistemic nature of the expected effect we had also assessed participants’ aversion to discrepancies with a trait scale—preference for consistency (PFC) that was created to moderate cognitive dissonance phenomena (Cialdini, Trost, & Newsom, 1995). For high PFC participants, the results mirrored those found in the first two studies: potential ambivalence interacted with manipulated simultaneous accessibility to predict felt ambivalence about abortion. In contrast, there was no interaction for low PFC participants. Overall, the highest felt ambivalence was experience by high PFC participants with substantial and simultaneously accessible cognitive conflict.

The results from these three ambivalence studies demonstrate that felt ambivalence arising from the existence of inconsistent cognitions is moderated by the extent to which both cognitions are readily and equally accessible. Consistent with distraction-salience findings from conventional dissonance paradigms, the results support the more general conclusion that simultaneous accessibility of inconsistent cognitive elements is an important factor in determining how much epistemic discomfort will be experienced. We see simultaneous accessibility as an essential and underemphasized aspect of dissonance theory that can not only help explain and integrate the revisions described earlier, but that can also help make sense of how dissonance-related processes operate in the real world to affect outcomes other than behavioral justification. We now turn to some of these extensions.


Understanding the role of simultaneous accessibility helps make sense of other phenomena with important social implications. It helps explain how people manage to maintain desired but irrational opinions by appealing to other unrelated beliefs of transcendent importance (trivialization); it helps explain the prevalence of hypocrisy; and it also helps explain the appeal of alcohol. Trivialization, hypocrisy, and (at least some of) the pleasures of alcohol all revolve around dynamics of simultaneous accessibility.


Simon, Greenberg, and Brehm (1995) demonstrated that participants often resolve dissonance by trivializing counter-attitudinal behavior. Imagine that you are a participant in a trivialization experiment. You have just freely completed a counterattitudinal essay and are experiencing dissonance discomfort as a result. Four questions are now provided by the researcher that essentially ask whether it is really so important in the grand scheme of things that you wrote a counterattitudinal essay. Might you not gladly agree with this suggestion and use it as a way to become less preoccupied with the counter-attitudinal behavior? In essence, the four questions suggest not to worry about it, it doesn’t really matter all that much. It seems plausible that trivialization works because it gives participants permission to forget about their inconsistent behavior. Trivialization may relieve dissonance by decreasing the simultaneous accessibility of the inconsistent cognitions. The loss of importance may allow the conflicting cognitions to wander from awareness more easily (see Krosnick, 1989, for the link between importance and accessibility).


Hypocrisy researchers demonstrated that after being made mindful of their hypocrisy, individuals reduce dissonance by changing their future behaviors and intentions (e.g., Stone, Wiegand, Cooper, & Aronson, 1997). In the typical hypocrisy experiment, after participants publicly advocate a prosocial attitude (e.g., condom use, water conservation, recycling), they are reminded of their past failures to practice what they have just preached. Participants caught in this dilemma, of high simultaneous accessibility of an advocated attitude and awareness of past behavioral shortcomings, resolve the predicament by acting and intending to act in a manner consistent with the advocated attitude. But it is only when participants are reminded of their past behavior that they experience dissonance. Remarkably, even when asked to think about behaviors of friends or roommates that are inconsistent with the advocated attitude, intentions and behaviors do not change, indicating that participants’ own contradictory past behavior somehow eludes awareness. The hypocrisy paradigm highlights an impressive capacity to limit accessibility of personal inconsistencies under normal circumstances.


According to Steele and Josephs’s (1990) alcohol myopia theory, alcohol intoxication makes people able to focus only on the most salient cue in the environment. If so, this should make alcohol an ideal solution for dissolving simultaneous accessibility. Indeed, Steele, Southwick, and Critchlow (1981) found evidence that alcohol relieves discomfort from internal inconsistencies, presumably because alcohol myopia reduces attentional breadth and permits awareness of only one element of the inconsistency.

Based on this alcohol myopia theory and research, and animal research specifically linking alcohol to relief from conflict-related distress (reviewed in Gray & McNaughton, 2000), two experiments tested whether people would spontaneously drink more when confronted with simultaneously accessible cognitive conflicts (reported in McGregor, 2007). In the first study, 199 undergraduates first completed the PFC scale (described above in the ambivalence studies) to assess trait aversion to cognitive conflict. They were then randomly assigned to either ruminate and write about both sides of a difficult personal dilemma, or to write about a decision they had already made. They were then given the chance to taste-test sample as much of various kinds of beer and sports drink (in the afternoon during the work day) as necessary to be able to rate how much they liked the drinks. Results revealed that for experienced drinkers (self-reported in a pretest) the cognitive conflict manipulation caused high PFC participants to drink more beer (residualized on sports drink consumption).

In the second experiment, 100 undergraduates completed a measure of implicit self-esteem (low scores on which have been associated with self-focus and reactivity to cognitive conflict; McGregor & Jordan, 2007). They were then all reminded of uncertainties and conflicts about close personal relationships, and then randomly assigned to conduct the same taste test described in the previous study while either sitting in front of a large mirror (to increase self-focus and presumably rumination about the conflicts) or not. Results revealed a significant interaction with highest alcohol consumption (residualized on sports drink) among participants with low implicit self-esteem in the mirror condition. These studies suggest that people spontaneously turn to alcohol as a way to dodge the simultaneous accessibility of conflicting cognitions. The capacity of alcohol to myopically limit focus to only a single cognition may be what makes it such a potent and attractive means of escape from simultaneously accessible conflict.


Contemporary theory and research on various forms of psychological threat and defense can also be integrated from the perspective of this chapter. It is now clear that, as in dissonance and ambivalence research, various threats cause distress and defensiveness to the extent that they highlight cognitive conflicts. Conflict is the active ingredient that motivates the defenses, and the defenses serve to mute accessibility of the conflicts.

One of the basic motivational systems governing goal regulation is dedicated to managing salient conflicts. When conflicts or uncertainties are detected, the behavioral inhibition system (BIS) initiates three responses designed to help the organism reorient toward less conflicted courses of action: anxious arousal, loss of interest in current goals, and diffuse vigilance (Gray & McNaughton, 2000). Together, these responses can encourage switching to more viable goals in the face of conflict. BIS activation makes people agitated and volatile as a way to disrupt conflicted goals and facilitate change. Importantly, the BIS responds to either behavioral or cognitive conflicts (Hirsh et al., 2012).

When the BIS is experimentally activated by deliberative mind-set instructions that require participants to ruminate about both sides of an intractable personal dilemma, mood, self-esteem, and optimism become depressed (Taylor & Gollwitzer, 1995). Deliberative mind-set clearly highlights simultaneous accessibility of important conflicts. Importantly, the epistemic discomfort it arouses mediates a decrease in self-control. In a large preregistered experiment, deliberative mind-set (vs. a value-affirmation comparison condition) increased participants’ self-reported feelings of BIS-related agitation that in turn mediated loss of persistence on an anagram task. Participants in the deliberation condition were significantly more likely than participants in the affirmation condition to drop out of the experiment, and for those who stayed in the experiment the BIS-related agitation predicted poor performance on the anagram task (Alquist et al., 2018). It is important to note that the measure of BIS-related agitation was derived from dissonance and self-discrepancy research findings (by McGregor, Zanna, Holmes, & Spencer, 2001, Study 1) and included the dissonance thermometer items: bothered, uneasy, uncomfortable (from Elliot & Devine, 1994).

In contrast to the BIS-related agitation and volatility arising from salient conflict, singular focus on implementing goals one has already committed to elevates mood, self-esteem, and optimism (Taylor & Gollwitzer, 1995). Implemental goal commitment activates a companion motivational system to the BIS—the behavioral approach system (BAS), which bolsters tenacity and determination by providing a kind of motivational tunnel vision that mutes the salience of inconsistencies and discrepancies (C. Harmon-Jones, Schmeichel, Mennitt, & Harmon-Jones, 2011; E. Harmon-Jones et al., 2009). The BAS operates reciprocally with the BIS (Corr, 2004; Nash, Inzlicht, & McGregor, 2012), which means it could be expected to shield people from distractions directly, but also indirectly by muting the diffuse vigilance of the BIS. Importantly for our argument here, commitments that activate the BAS could thus be turned to for merely palliative and defensive purposes, for relief from the distress and demotivation arising from simultaneously accessible conflicts (Jonas et al., 2014; McGregor, Nash, Mann, & Phills, 2010). This tendency for people to seize on BAS-activating commitments for relief from conflict/dissonance-related BIS-arousal is referred to as reactive approach motivation (RAM).

From Conflict to RAM

RAM in the face of conflict-related threats can be accomplished via compensatory conviction about opinions, values, goals, self-worth, and groups (McGregor, 2003). The first demonstration of this tendency came from research showing that experimentally manipulated deliberative mind-set (vs. thinking about someone else’s dilemma) caused participants to react with exaggerated conviction about their social-issue opinions, identity-commitments, and in-group biases. Importantly, the exaggerated conviction relieved the epistemic discomfort that had been aroused by the deliberative mind-set manipulation (McGregor et al., 2001, Study 1). Subsequent research demonstrated that conviction and other of the various defenses people spontaneously turn to after conflict-related threats effectively reduce the subjective salience of the distress-arousing conflicts (McGregor, 2006b; McGregor & Marigold, 2003; McGregor, Nail, Marigold, & Kang, 2005).

How do the conviction reactions mute subjective salience? The same threats that cause compensatory conviction reactions also cause RAM on self-report, implicit, behavioral, and neural measures of approach motivation (McGregor, Nash, & Inzlicht, 2009; McGregor, Nash, Mann, et al., 2010), and do so only in response to threats that highlight simultaneously accessible conflicts (Nash, McGregor, & Prentice, 2011). Specifically, in the Nash et al. (2011) research, experimentally manipulated failure or rejection threats only caused dissonance/agitation-related distress and then reactive idealism and RAM when participants had first been experimentally primed with failure or rejection-related goals (respectively). This finding, that threats are consequential only when they are applied in the context of a simultaneously accessible conflict (the relevant goal) links research on threats (e.g., failure or rejection) to basic motivational processes related to salient conflict.

Threats, Conflict-Related Distress, and Worldview Defense

Findings like those just described have now accumulated in research with other threats as well (e.g., mortality salience or loss of control). Various threats interchangeably cause various RAM-related defenses (Jonas et al., 2014). It is becoming clear that, in general, threats are threatening to the extent that they arouse conflict-BIS-related neural processes by highlighting simultaneously accessible discrepancies (e.g., want to succeed but may be failing; want inclusion but may be rejected; want to live but will die; want control but lack it).

The anterior cingulate cortex of the brain plays a vital role in conflict and discrepancy detection (Bush, Luu, & Posner, 2000) and in initiating the cascade of reactions that culminate in BIS-activation and dissonance-like distress (Hirsh et al., 2012; Jonas et al., 2014). Many of the various threats that cause RAM-related defenses cause increased activation of the anterior cingulate cortex (Proulx et al., 2012). Importantly, the classic counter-attitudinal-advocacy technique for experimentally implanting dissonant cognitions also heightens anterior cingulate cortex activity, which mediates the defensive attitude change (van Veen et al., 2009). Thus, it now seems likely that classic dissonance manipulations activate this same generic threat response as other threats, and that defensive attitude change may be only one of many RAM responses participants could mount to activate BAS for relief from BIS-related discomfort (cf. E. Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2008; Jonas et al., 2014). Indeed, if given the chance, participants will respond to classic dissonance manipulations with heightened moral conviction, belief in God, and worldview defense reactions that involve punishment of moral transgressors (Randles et al., 2015).

A prominent line of research that can be interpreted from this perspective focuses on worldview defense reactions to mortality salience (Pyszczynski, Solomon, & Greenberg, 2015). Mortality salience (thinking about one’s own death) has recently been linked to the same kind of discrepancy-related distress as is caused by ambivalence and dissonance (Jonas et al., 2014; Klackl, Jonas, & Fritsche, 2018; Luttrell et al., 2016; Proulx et al., 2012; Quirin & Klackl, 2016; van Veen et al., 2009). Worldview defense reactions often take the form of amalgam defenses that wrap together compensatory convictions about opinions, values, goals, self-worth, and groups (McGregor, 2003, 2006a). They involve heightened zeal for culturally-mediated value systems that one identifies with and strives to morally exemplify. Hundreds of experiments have now demonstrated that personal mortality reminders cause various instantiations of worldview defense, from defense of consensual moral propriety (e.g., recommending stiffer punishments for prostitutes) to religious extremism, political partisanship, and exaggerated outgroup derogation (reviewed in Pyszczynski et al., 2015).

The claim of mortality salience researchers was initially that there was something special about mortality that made it a uniquely potent cause of such reactions (Greenberg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997). Early compensatory conviction work, however, revealed that conflict-related threats unrelated to mortality salience could cause the same outcomes (McGregor et al., 2001; van den Bos, Poortvliet, Maas, Miedema, & van den Ham, 2005), including reactive approach-motivation (McGregor, Gailliot, Vasquez, & Nash, 2007; McGregor, Prentice, & Nash, 2013). Subsequent work further revealed that exposure to simultaneously accessible cognitive inconsistencies (absurd stories or nonsense word pairs), and also to original cognitive dissonance manipulations, could cause the same kinds of worldview defense reactions as mortality salience, and that these reactions were eliminated if participants had some other way to relieve the conflict-related distress (McGregor et al., 2001; Randles et al., 2015; Randles, Heine, & Santos, 2013; Randles, Proulx, & Heine, 2011).

Religious Zeal

A powerful form of worldview defense is religious zeal. Various conflict-related threats, including mortality salience, cause people to amplify their religious zeal, for better or for worse (e.g., Kay, Gaucher, McGregor, & Nash, 2010; McGregor et al., 2013; McGregor, Haji, Nash, & Teper, 2008; Rothschild, Abdollahi, & Pyszczynski, 2009; Schumann, McGregor, Nash, & Ross, 2014). Importantly, there is also evidence that religious zeal can function as a form of RAM. Participants react to the same threats (e.g., academic confusion and rejection) that cause reactive approach of personal goals and left frontal asymmetry associated with approach motivation (McGregor et al., 2009; McGregor, Nash, Mann, et al., 2010) by becoming more extremely certain and devoted to their identified religious belief system (McGregor et al., 2008; McGregor, Nash, & Prentice, 2010). Importantly, this occurs only under conditions of simultaneously accessible conflict. Academic achievement threats after achievement-goal primes or relationship uncertainty threats after relationship-goal primes caused religious zeal, but there was no increase in religious zeal after threats that followed the unrelated goal prime (McGregor et al., 2013). The view of reactive-religious zeal as generalized means for relieving salient conflict-related distress is supported by evidence that religious zeal does effectively relieve conflict-related distress as assessed by event-related potentials associated with psychological distress that have been source localized to the area of the anterior cingulate cortex (Bush et al., 2000; Inzlicht, McGregor, Hirsh, & Nash, 2009; Inzlicht & Tullett, 2010).

Early cognitive dissonance research on religious zeal focused on the way that people use dubious religious convictions to relieve the discomfort arising from awareness of conflict between their dubious religious commitments and reality, as in the case of how doomsday cult members coped with the revelation that the world did not end when their cult predicted it would (Festinger et al., 1956). From the present perspective, religious zeal has a more versatile anxiolytic function for relieving conflict-related distress by way of generalized reduction of anterior cingulate cortex activation. Religious zeal and other idealistic forms of moral enthusiasm may be a convenient and socially sanctioned way for people to self-sooth in the face of conflict-related distress by approaching relief via idealistic certainties and commitments that can spur approach-motivated states (McGregor, Prentice, & Nash, 2012).

Importantly, in contrast to the bizarre religious beliefs of Festinger’s cult members, the religious beliefs of the undergraduates in our experiments tend to revolve around compassionate ideals. In a series of experiments (Schumann et al., 2014), either mortality salience or academic confusion threats caused similar amounts of distress and hostile worldview defense reactions when religion had not been primed. If religion had been primed at the beginning of the study, however, both threats had opposite effects—they caused participants to become reactively forgiving of fictitious moral offenders and of ostensibly real groups in their community who had used up more than their share of resources. Anger and forgiveness have both been linked to approach-motivation (Carver & Harmon-Jones, 2009; Molden & Finkel, 2010; Struthers et al., 2014). Evidence that both the hostile and forgiving reactions may be forms of RAM comes from a further Schumann et al. (2014, Study 7) finding, that the hostile and forgiving reactions alike emerged only among participants with approach-oriented personality traits. This finding is consistent with other research showing that RAM for relief from conflict-related distress is most prevalent among people who are dispositionally inclined toward approach motivation in the first place (reviewed in Jonas et al., 2014; McGregor & Jordan, 2007; McGregor et al., 2009). In sum, threat and defense research has coalesced around the view that basic processes related to accessible conflict and BIS activation are what spur various defenses. Threats highlight cognitive conflicts, and defenses activate approach-motivated states that mute simultaneous accessibility of the conflicting cognitions (Jonas et al., 2014; cf. E. Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2008).


The basic premise of dissonance theory has travelled a long way. Its claim that “nonfitting cognitions” are aversive and cause defensive reactions survived multiple revision attempts, and is thriving in contemporary research on ambivalence, discrepancy-detection, and threat and defense. Along the way, it has become clear that for dissonance (or ambivalence, or discrepancy, or threat) to be distressing and consequential, the inconsistent cognitions must be simultaneously accessible. The notion of simultaneously accessible conflict can help integrate disparate findings across dissonance and related research areas. It also allows for the integration of classic dissonance research with contemporary research on ambivalence and discrepancy detection. Moreover, processes related to simultaneous accessibility have been guiding recent advances in threat and defense research. Diverse threats activate discrepancy-related distress mediated by the BIS, to the extent that they highlight simultaneously accessible conflicts (Hirsh et al., 2012; Luttrell et al., 2016; Proulx et al., 2012). Defensive reactions serve as levers for heightening the BAS, which can shield people from simultaneous accessibility of conflicts, thereby providing relief from BIS-related (dissonance) distress (Jonas et al., 2014).


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1Elliot and Devine’s (1994) “dissonance thermometer” is specific to agitation-related affect, which may be why it succeeded where past dissonance research typically failed to find self-reported changes in generalized negative affect.

2To assess potential ambivalence, we asked participants to separately rate the favorable and unfavorable aspects of each attitude issue (Kaplan, 1972). The lower of the two ratings was squared and divided by the higher rating. Thus, as the favorable and unfavorable components became increasingly and equally extreme, potential ambivalence scores increased (for more detail, see Newby-Clark et al., 2002).

3We performed a reciprocal transformation on the latency data, to normalize the positive skew and translate latency scores to speed scores. Speed scores were then used to calculate simultaneous accessibility, by squaring the slower response time and dividing it by the faster (following Bassili, 1996). Thus, as the two response speeds become increasingly and equally extreme, simultaneous-accessibility scores increase.