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Approaching opponents and leaving supporters: adjusting physical proximity to reduce cognitive dissonance.

"Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer." --Michael Corleone in The Godfather II (Coppola, 1974)

Festinger (1957/1962) suggested that social support plays an important part in the dissonance process. Indeed, others as individuals or social groups could be generative of cognitive dissonance when they show disagreement but they could also help people to reduce existing dissonance (see Matz & Wood, 2005, for a review). A few previous researchers rely expressly on this latter assumption, and they have found that people search for other people who share the same point of view (Adams, 1961; Brodbeck, 1956), try to convert the disagreeing others (Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1956), or even feel more hostility toward an opposite group (Cooper & Mackie, 1983). Although there is some specificity shown in these studies, the role of social support in classical paradigms is not taken into account. Our aim in this study was to examine how proximity with another individual could be used to cope with a classical dissonance situation.

Dissonance studies dealing with social support are rare and take place in specific contexts (Cooper & Stone, 2000). Consistent information seeking cannot always be considered a dissonance process (Fischer, Schulz-Hardt, & Frey, 2008), and in the previously cited studies, in which the focus is on social support, the researchers have dealt with particular attitudes. Cooper and Mackie (1983) focused on the intergroup context and the participants had to deal with their social identity. Matz and Wood (2005) placed their participants in an intragroup context but they used a salient attitude. Thus, in these situations, participants had to deal with an important attitude, namely, their social identity or a salient topic. However, as most dissonance paradigms do not involve a central attitude (Batson, 1975), in these studies the reliance on specific contexts rather than classical paradigms is likely to have modified the way people managed dissonance (see e.g., Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2007).

Resistance to change is the keystone for dissonance reduction (Vaidis & Gosling, 2011). The more resistant cognition remains unchanged, and reduction focuses on the cognition that is less resistant cognition to change. In short, when two cognitions do not fit together, in most cases the less resistant will change to fit the more resistant. For example, free choice is widely used to strengthen counterattitudinal behavior (Beauvois & Joule, 1996; Harmon-Jones, Harmon-Jones, Amodio, & Gable, 2011) and committed participants reduce dissonance by changing the attitude that does not fit their behavior. On the other hand, when the attitude is the cognition that is more resistant to change, or when the attitude is made salient, the classical attitude change does not occur and the reduction is focused on other cognitions (Gotz-Marchand, Gotz, & Irle, 1974; Simon, Greenberg, & Brehm, 1995).

Therefore, when the context implies a highly definitional social identity or a central attitude, the attitude is frozen and this modifies the means to reduce dissonance (Sherman & Gorkin, 1980). In these contexts, participants are more likely to look for others who support their personal attitude and, thus, achieve consistency (e.g., Matz & Wood, 2005), because they defended an attitude belonging to the social identity of their group (Cooper & Mackie, 1983) or anticipated its defense (Matz & Wood, 2005). Nevertheless, most dissonance situations involve neither social identity per se, nor a central attitude (Batson, 1975). As an example, in the classic counterattitudinal essay paradigm set in an intragroup context using freshmen participants and student topics (e.g., Brehm & Cohen, 1962), social identity is not relevant. The cognition most resistant to change is behavior, which is strengthened by a commitment context such as free choice or publicity (Kiesler, 1971). Thus, when people experience dissonance, they change their attitude to achieve consistency between action and attitude.

Social support researchers suggest two different ways of coping with a dissonance situation (Guillon et al., 2014; Voisin, Rubens, N'Gbala, & Gosling, 2013). On one hand, in the studies dealing with a central attitude (e.g., Cooper & Mackie, 1983; Matz & Wood, 2005), participants adjust their social proximity to bolster their initial attitude and, if they have the choice, they either set a psychologically close distance to people who agree with them, or move psychologically away from those who disagree with them. On the other hand, when the disagreement with another is linked to a moderate attitude the most resistant cognition is behavior, which allows the participants to change their personal attitude (e.g., Sherman & Gorkin, 1980). When people experience dissonance between a behavior and their attitude, they should not look for supporting peers but should prefer to settle closer to other people whose attitudes fit with the discrepant act. In this way, adjusting the proximity with others should be used to justify behavior (Beauvois & Joule, 1996). That is to say, individuals who write counterattitudinal essays do not look for those who support their personal attitude; on the contrary, they avoid those who support their initial attitude and move closer to those with whom they initially disagreed.

In some recent works it has been shown that the participants in these studies reduced their dissonance by adjusting psychological proximity, or feeling closer to the target whose opinion fitted the discrepant act than to the target whose opinion fitted the attitude (Guillon et al., 2014; Voisin et al., 2013). In this study we demonstrated this effect using physical proximity and proposed that participants experiencing dissonance would increase the distance when faced with others who share their initial attitude, and would seek a closer physical proximity with those who do not. In doing so, participants experiencing dissonance would change their attitude in a behavioral way and, thus, fit their behavior to reduce dissonance.


Participants and Design

Participants were 59 (48 women, 11 men) students sourced from psychology

courses at a large French university. Ages were not recorded but all were undergraduates aged between about 18 and 25 years. They took part individually to validate course credit and were randomly assigned to one of the four cells of a 2 (dissonance vs. no-dissonance) x 2 (other is against initial attitude vs. other is supportive) between-subjects design. Responses from an additional three participants (one woman, two men) were not included in the data analysis because they expressed suspicions during the experiment and reported that they did not believe in the cover story.


The participants completed the procedure one at a time. The experimenter explained the outline of the study when each participant came into the laboratory. The first step was to write arguments concerning the advantages of having a student card. The experimenter mentioned a second step involving another participant performing the same task in another room. The participants were given 5 minutes to write either three arguments in favor of, or three arguments against, maintaining student card advantages. The experimenter then asked what the participant's personal attitude was, which was always in favor of maintaining the student card advantages. Commitment to the act was strengthened in every condition to bolster resistance to change of the behavior (see Kiesler, 1971). The experimenter explained that the essay was likely to be used by the university council (aversive consequences) and participants had to fill in personal information (high publicity).

Essay manipulation. In the dissonance condition, participants wrote a counterattitudinal essay. The experimenter asked the participants to write three arguments against the benefits of the student card. Participants were free to choose whether or not to comply and nobody refused. In the no-dissonance condition, participants wrote a proattitudinal essay: the experimenter asked for three arguments in favor of the benefits of a student card. Each participant then filled in personal information on the top of a sheet and started the task. The experimenter ran a chronometer and left the room, stating that he had to attend to the other participant. He came back a few minutes later and sat at his desk.

Other's attitude manipulation. Once the arguments were written, the experimenter explained that the participant then had to discuss the topic with the other participant who was performing the same task in another room. The experimenter told the participant that he was going to go and get the other participant and, just before leaving the room for the second time, he informed the participant of the other participant's gender and personal attitude. The gender of the other was always the same as the participant's. Half of the participants were told the other was personally against the benefits of the student card (against initial attitude), whereas the other half were told the other was personally in favor (supportive of initial attitude).

Dependent measures. Before leaving the room, the experimenter asked the participant to set out two chairs to facilitate interaction with the other participant whom the experimenter was going to bring in. The experimenter pointed out two chairs; one was at the back of the room, the other at the side, the distance between each being about 4 meters. The participant was instructed to leave the chair at the back of the room and to set out the other chair for the other participant coming into the room: "Just set it as you wish! What is important is to feel comfortable for the discussion." Participants were left alone for 1 minute then the experimenter returned alone, using the pretext that he had forgotten to administer a questionnaire to the participant. The participant then had to fill in an anonymous questionnaire used to check the manipulation (other's gender and attitude on an 11-point scale with response options ranging from -5 = extremely against the student card advantages to 5 = extremely in favor of the student card advantages). Finally, each participant was questioned about their potential suspicions before being debriefed.

Physical distance with the other. The physical distance from the other participant corresponded to the distance between the two chairs set for the discussion (in meters). The distance was measured by the space between the base of the front leg of each chair. It was the mean of the distances of each leg of the chair facing the base of the front left leg of the other chair. That is, the space between the left front leg of the first chair and the base of the right front leg of the second chair, and the space between the base of the right front leg of the first chair and the base of the left front leg of the second chair (the position of each leg on the chair being from the point of view of somebody sitting in the chair).


Participants correctly reported the other's attitude in accordance with the experimental condition and reported the other's gender as the same as theirs. In the supportive condition the other was perceived as being more in favor of the topic (M = 3.96, SD = 1.48) than was the other in the against condition (M = -2.97, SD = 2.37; F(1, 57) = 176.79, p < .01, Cohen's d = 3.52).

We conducted a 2 x 2 analysis of variance to assess the mean distance of each participant from the other participant. Results showed a significant interaction effect: F(1, 55) = 6.28,p < .01, d = .68. Participants who wrote a counterattitudinal essay (dissonance condition) and who expected to interact with another against their initial attitude, set the chair closer to the other than did those who were told the other was in favor of their initial attitude (Fisher's least significant differences test [LSD]: F(1, 55) = 6.16,p < .01, d = .67). Moreover, participants who wrote a counterattitudinal essay (dissonance condition) and who expected to discuss with another in favor of their initial attitude, set the chair further away than did those who wrote a proattitudinal essay (no-dissonance condition; LSD: F(1, 55) = 7.23, p < .01, d = .73). Neither the essay manipulation, nor the main effect of the other's attitude impacted the mean distance (respectively: F(1, 55) = 1.95, p = .17, d = .38; and F(1, 55) = 0.83, p = .37, d = .25). The other LSD analyses were nonsignificant, Fs(1, 55) < 1.20, ps > .20, ns.


Participants who wrote arguments against their initial attitude and, thus, experienced cognitive dissonance, chose to be closer to the other participant who initially disagreed with them (against initial attitude), and farther away from the other participant who supported their initial attitude. Conversely, participants who wrote arguments in favor of their initial attitude chose to be closer to the other participant who initially agreed with them than to the one who disagreed. In accordance with the hypothesis, it appears that people who experienced cognitive dissonance adjusted the interpersonal relationship to cope with this situation. In this way, they chose to move closer to a peer who was against their initial attitude--that is to say, someone in accordance with their action--than to a peer in favor of their initial attitude. Results in the no-dissonance condition followed the opposite pattern because participants completed a proattitudinal essay and, as such, did not experience dissonance. As expected, these results in the dissonance condition contradicted those obtained by Matz and Wood (2005), who found that participants were likely to choose other participants whose attitudes agreed with their own when they were confronted with disagreement. This is due to the resistance of the involved cognitions. In the present experiment, however, behavior was the more resistant cognition: first, free choice, aversive consequences, and publicity strengthen the behavior resistance (Kiesler, 1971). Second, the set interpersonal relationship did not deal with intergroup relationships: each participant belonged to the same group and each was exposed to the attitude of a peer. As a consequence, group identity was not involved. Moreover, the topic was not central and participants had no need to protect their social identity. The specific setting allowed participants to adjust their interpersonal proximity to reduce cognitive dissonance. Thus, we think the current results indicate a method of reducing dissonance in the disagreement paradigm. Where disagreement with some people is not the source of dissonance, other people represent the potential means to reduce cognitive dissonance. In such situations, people could manage the dissonance and change their attitude without having to express it through use of a scale: simply moving closer to an opposite other could help the individual to cope with the situation. In other words, due to cognitive dissonance, people prefer to approach their opponent and leave their initial supporter.

In this study we have pioneered looking at physical proximity as an indicator of cognitive dissonance. Nevertheless, there are certain limitations to the current study. In particular, the focus was on a behavioral measure, and other classical modes of dissonance reduction were not examined. The findings suggest that the other's attitude was not perceived as a complementary source of dissonance but, rather, as an opportunity for dissonance reduction. Future researchers should complement these data with a general measure of dissonance arousal. There is also a possible alternative explanation for our findings: participants may have chosen closer proximity in order to convert the other. A self-affirmation procedure (Steele, 1988) could be used in a follow-up study to disambiguate this issue and might give support to our current explanation.


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Universite Paris Descartes, Sorbonne Paris Cite


Universite Paris Quest Nanterre La Defense

David Vaidis, Institute of Psychology, Universite Paris Descartes, Sorbonne Paris Cite; Dominique Oberle, Department of Psychology, Universite Paris Ouest Nanterre La Defense. The authors thank Vincent Guillon and Patrick Gosling for the idea of proximity as a means to reduce dissonance in interpersonal relationships.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: David Vaidis, Institute of Psychology, Universite Paris Descartes, Sorbonne Paris Cite, Social Psychology Laboratory, 71 av. Edouard Vaillant, 92774 Boulogne-Billancourt, France. Email:
Table 1. Means of Distance Set Between the Two Chairs

                              Other's attitude   Other's attitude

                              Against initial     Supportive of
                                 attitude        initial attitude

Essay manipulation            n      M (SD)      n      M (SD)

Counterattitudinal essay      16   0.83 (0.17)   15   1.09 (0.41)
  (dissonance condition)
Proattitudinal essay          15   0.91 (0.32)   13   0.79 (0.17)
  (no-dissonance condition)

Note. Mean distance to the other in meters on an open scale
with one-centimeter accuracy.
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Author:Vaidis, David C.; Oberle, Dominique
Publication:Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Date:Aug 1, 2014
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