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A practical lesson in cognitive dissonance.


The sensation of cognitive dissonance can produce much anxiety for college students. Interestingly, although most college-aged individuals have experienced cognitive dissonance, they often have difficulty recognizing and attending to it. The technique proposed in this article requires students to consider situations in which cognitive dissonance occurs and to reflect upon their own encounters with cognitive dissonance. Through this exercise, students develop appreciations for feelings associated with cognitive dissonance as well as means of alleviating these feelings.

Introduction and Literature Review

Professors dread the age-old question, "How is this going to help me in my life?" For those in some disciplines, most often mathematics and the hard sciences, answers to this question resemble convincing arguments. However, for others, specifically those in the social sciences and humanities, the answers often emerge through student-oriented activities.

One example of such an activity involves the topic of cognitive dissonance. The standard definition of cognitive dissonance describes it as conflict between two or more thoughts (Festinger, 1957). Subsequent analysis has identified the basis of cognitive dissonance as individuals' difficulties implementing their senses of morality into their everyday thoughts and activities (Monroe, 2001). When it occurs, cognitive dissonance is most often associated with the feeling of uneasiness accompanying choices that individuals would prefer to avoid. Those in their late teens and early 20's, entering the adult world of weighing options and making decisions, benefit greatly from recognizing the feelings associated with cognitive dissonance and learning methods to alleviate or avoid these feelings.

Most curriculums for Social Psychology courses, as well those for some Introductory Psychology and Introductory Sociology courses address cognitive dissonance. But, informal lessons on the topic have value in many other courses as well. Discussions about identifying and alleviating cognitive dissonance have, for instance, found places for themselves at Freshman Orientation seminars and in various forms of first-year experience courses. In these contexts, issues associated with adapting to college life, such as newly-encountered diversity (McFalls and Cobb-Roberts, 2001), can serve as exemplars.

Regardless of the context in which cognitive dissonance is described and in spite of many students' familiarity with the feeling (Lindblom-Ylanne, 2003), they often have difficulty comprehending the concept when discussed in class. Thus, presenting the topic of cognitive dissonance to students often proves a frustrating task for professors. In an effort to establish a basic understanding of cognitive dissonance, many begin by providing students with formal definitions of the matter, followed by descriptions of the psychological or emotional discomfort in the individual who cannot find a satisfactory compromise between the contradictory ideas. The lesson also generally explains that this discomfort prompts the individual to alter either his or her thought or behavior so that the two coincide (Carkenord and Bullington, 1993). For example, a dieter who craves a cupcake may feel torn between the desire for the cupcake and the need to follow the restrictions of the diet. This individual must determine whether to sacrifice the diet so that he or she can eat the cupcake or to sacrifice the desired eating of the cupcake to maintain the diet.

The hypothetical dieter can help to demonstrate the four conditions that must exist for cognitive dissonance to occur. First, an individual must realize that he or she has a choice in the matter. The dieter, for example, must not feel as though he or she was forced into cheating on the diet. The choice to do so must be his or her own. Second, an individual must make a commitment to the behavior even though it contradicts his or her thoughts. Dissonance occurs only when the dieter cheats on the diet, not if he or she only THINKS about doing so. Third, before engaging in a behavior, the individual must be aware of the negative consequences of that behavior. In the case of the dieter, he or she must realize that eating a cupcake violates the rules of the diet and may prolong the attainment of his or her weight loss goal. Last, as explained in terms of fairness by the accountability principle (Konow 2000), the individual must be unable to justify his or her actions.. A dieter who can rationalize that that failing to eat the cupcake might offend the cupcake's baker experiences significantly less dissonance than one who has no reasonable excuse for eating the cupcake. In the presence of these four conditions, individuals experience cognitive dissonance because they behave in ways that they consider inappropriate or disappointing. It is important to also note, however, the role of public affirmation in one's determination of acceptable and unacceptable behavior (Dietrich and Berkowitz, 1997).

Four techniques are used in the attempt to alleviate the uncomfortable feelings associated with dissonance. An individual may simply change the offending behavior so that it corresponds to his or her attitudes or beliefs. The dieter, for example, may simply stop eating a cupcake after a few bites. For situations in which an individual cannot change his or her behavior, he or she may change a cognition, or attitude, to make the behavior seem acceptable. The dieter who has already eaten the entire cupcake may convince himself or herself that eating the cupcake "makes up" for a small breakfast that morning. An individual may also add a new consonant cognition to lessen the anxiety caused by his or her action. For instance, the dieter may mentally commit to spending extra time at the gym the next morning to negate the effects of the cupcake. Finally, should no other strategy prove successful, the individual may attempt to ignore the dissonance, pretending that he or she never participated in the distressing behavior.

Presenting the conditions for and the methods of alleviating cognitive dissonance through the use of an example, such as that of the dieter, undoubtedly aids in student comprehension of the topic. Such a discussion presents a logical lead-in to the request that students analyze these elements with respect to a situation that they, as students, have encountered or may encounter. Circumstances such as knowing that one should study for an exam on the night of a big party, deciding whether to stay with friends at college or return home to reunite with old friends over the summer, or buying a new, trendy article of clothing at the mall when one's bank account is empty can present foundations for discussions about students' experiences with cognitive dissonance. But, even for those students who have found themselves in predicaments like these, the recognition of cognitive dissonance is not always immediate. The lack of vivid memories about their feelings during these times may blur the connection to cognitive dissonance. A simultaneous experience and academic lesson, however, makes it difficult for students to separate the academic understanding of cognitive dissonance from the feelings associated with it, leading to the most appropriate and complete understanding of the topic.

Approaching the topic in this manner provides an understanding of cognitive dissonance on two levels. First, students learn the formal definition and characteristics of cognitive dissonance. Second, and more importantly, they experience the sensation of dissonance. A classroom role-playing technique, designed to create cognitive dissonance in the participants, allows students to recognize the contexts in which cognitive dissonance occurs as well as its characteristic feelings.

Description of Class Exercise

On the day of the exercise, students should come to class having read the portion of their textbook that introduces the topic of cognitive dissonance or having received an explanation of such in a previous class. The class exercise, itself, takes place in three stages. Respectively, these stages require students to contemplate hypothetical situations in which they encounter cognitive dissonance, to assess the issue from a "bystander" perspective, and to consider times in their lives during which they have experienced cognitive dissonance.

Stage 1

Each student should individually read Scenario #1 [1], which follows, assuming that he or she is the main character.

Scenario 1 You are a reporter on the staff of a daily newspaper in a large city. It is well known among staff members that executives plan to lay off a number of workers and you are afraid of losing your job. Your editor sends you on assignment one evening to cover an anti-war demonstration. The editor gives instructions to observe the scene and chronicle all events that take place without becoming involved in them. At one point during the demonstration, a young man uses a megaphone to blast the demonstrators for their objections to a war that he feels is justified. He then pulls a gun from his jacket pocket and fires three shots into the crowd. A person next to you falls to the ground, wounded in the arm. Others around you charge the war advocate, wrestling him to the ground and taking his gun. You hear the person who was shot groaning in pain and feel somewhat compelled to help. Yet, remembering your strict instructions not to involve yourself in the events, you walk toward the mob surrounding the war advocate, notebook in hand. After reading the description of the events in Scenario #1, each student should answer the following questions [2].

Did you, as the main character, experience some dissonance as a result of this particular circumstance? If not, why? What conditions for cognitive dissonance were not met? If so, how strong was the dissonance? Did anyone in the situation experience more dissonance than you did? Why or why not?

If you experienced some dissonance in relation to this situation, which dissonance reducing mechanism would work best? Why? In groups of three or four, students should compare their answers to these questions. As a group, students should decide whether dissonance occurred and, if it did, how it could most appropriately be remedied. The same procedure should be followed for Scenario #2. Students, however, should be assigned to new groups [3].

Scenario 2 Your parents' 25th wedding anniversary is soon approaching. When your father asks you to help him choose a piece of jewelry for your mother's gift, you agree. He suggests browsing some Internet sites to avoid the hassle of running from store to store. While looking at a site containing a large selection of rings, bracelets, earrings, and necklaces, you and your father quickly find an expensive bracelet that, you both agree, your mother would love. You write down the toll-free telephone number displayed on the website and your father calls the company to order the piece. As your father speaks to the jewelry company's customer service representative, you are amazed to hear him provide a Post Office Box address and a phony name and credit card number. You ask him about it. He hesitates and then informs you that he really does have a Post Office Box and a credit card under a false identity. When he receives the gift, he explains, he will cancel both and never pay the bill. Because he uses a take name, the jewelry company will have no way of finding him. You ask your father if he has done this before and he replies, "Once or twice." Although you know that your parents have had financial trouble lately, you didn't realize that your father had to steal! Three weeks later, you see the joy on your father's face as your mother kisses him and thanks him for the beautiful gift.

Stage 2

Having been presented with situations in which they could envision themselves, students can begin to appreciate the complexity of feelings associated with cognitive dissonance. The second stage of the exercise promotes reflection upon others" real-life battles with cognitive dissonance. While still in groups, students should contemplate the position of diver Greg Lougainis. During a dive at the 1988 Olympics, Lougainis hit his head on the diving board, resulting in a wound that required stitches. He received medical attention and continued diving, winning a gold medal in the event. In 1995, Lougainis announced that, before the Olympics, he had tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Lougainis admitted that, at the time of the injury, he had worried that his blood in the pool water could infect other divers or that the doctor who treated him could contract HIV, yet said nothing about his condition. Students should then attempt to answer the same questions addressed in Stage I of this exercise. In the second stage, however, students regard Lougainis, rather than themselves, as the main character in the questions. The understanding of cognitive dissonance that students gained earlier should influence their perceptions of Lougainis' decision.

Stage 3

Using their understanding of the contexts in which cognitive dissonance occurs and the sense of internal conflict associated with cognitive dissonance, students should reflect upon a time when they, themselves, have experienced cognitive dissonance. One or two willing students should briefly describe their situations for the rest of the class [4]. For each of the circumstances described, the class members should consider the following questions.

Why did the dissonance occur? What were the inconsistent cognitions?

Did the student effectively reduce the dissonance? If not, how could he or she have done so? If so, what dissonance reducing method was used? Were there other ways that he or she could have done so just as effectively or more effectively? The discussion should make students aware of dissonance-producing situations in their own lives and prompt them to analyze their own emotions and decisions in these conditions.

Student Reactions and Conclusion

Student reaction to this exercise is generally twofold, involving both tension and fulfillment. Often, students indicate that they are uneasy during the activity, remarking that they were placed into situations with no satisfactory solution. Consequently, they say, they initially experience distress over the decisions made by those involved. Specifically, many students state that they disagree with Lougainis' decision to withhold information about his medical condition from Olympic officials in 1988. However, rather than simply condemning his behavior, students commonly indicate some sympathy for his predicament. They express concern about the anxiety that they imagine he experienced when making the difficult decision between two undesirable situations. Students easily recognize the presence of the four precursors for cognitive dissonance.

After reflecting upon the exercise with a full understanding of its purpose, students tend to adopt positive attitudes toward the experience. They generally realize that the discomfort felt during the exercise was a necessary element of the lesson and that the exercise was designed to promote internal conflict. By the end of the class, students recognize that experiencing the sensation of cognitive dissonance gave them a far better understanding of the concept than they would have gained through traditional, passive teaching methods.

In general, students can only benefit from classroom activities that require their participation, as this one does. Many college lessons, by nature, involve abstract concepts that, when simply defined, may remain unclear to students. Therefore, according to Yale University psychologist Robert Sternberg (1997), the professor must strive to stress the practicality of information presented in class, demonstrating how students' academic knowledge applies to the world with which they are familiar. Doing so can only promote interest in the topics presented and, thus, improve students' learning experiences.


Carkenord, D.M. and Bullington, J. (1993). Bringing Cognitive Dissonance to the Classroom. Teaching of Psychology, 20, 41-43.

Dietrich, DM. and Berkowitz, L. (1997). Alleviation of Dissonance By Engaging in Prosocial Behavor of Receiving Ego-enhancing Feedback. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 12(2), 557-566.

Festinger, L.A. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Konow, J. (2000). Fair Shares: Accountability and Cognitive Dissonance in Allocation Decisions. The American Economic Review, 90(4): 1072-1091.

Lindblom-Ylanne, S. (2003). Broadening an Understanding of the Phenomenon of Dissonance. Studies in Higher Education, 28(1), 63-77.

Matz, D.C. and Wood, W. (2005). Cognitive Dissonance in Groups: The Consequences of Disagreement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88(1):22-37.

McFalls, E.L. and Cobb-Roberts, D. (2001). Reducing Resistance to Diversity through Cognitive Instruction. Journal of Teacher Education. 52(2), 164-172.

Monroe, K.R. (2001). Morality and a Sense of Self: The Importance of Identity and Categorization of Moral Action. American Journal of Political Science, 45(3), 491-507.

Sternberg, R.J. (1997). What Does it Mean to be Smart? Educational Leadership, 5, 20-24.

Debra Wetcher-Hendricks, Moravian College


[1] All contexts and conditions suggested for this exercise have been used successfully in the past. However, they may be revised or adapted to suit any professor's particular purposes or to encompass situations deemed relevant or timely to the student audience.

[2] Professors can adjust the questions associated with each stage of the activity to suit their particular motives for the lesson or to reflect any particular aspects of the concept that they wish to stress.

[3] Just as it occurs in relation to an individual's conflicting beliefs, dissonance can occur in a group that must negotiate a consensus from members' conflicting opinions (Matz and Wood, 2005). So, an interesting variation on this stage of the exercise, assuming the professor is relatively familiar with his or her students, is to assign groups containing students with varying attitudes and opinions for Scenario 2. Attention could then be given to the dissonance that occurs within the group when members with differing opinions are forced to act as a single entity.

[4] For ethical reasons, be sure that students are not forced to do so.

Wetcher-Hendricks, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
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Author:Wetcher-Hendricks, Debra
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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