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Last updated Feburary 14, 2001



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Cognitive Dissonance

Explanation of Theory:
This theory of Cognitive Dissonance says that human beings often have conflicting beliefs with actions they take, or other beliefs they have.  This dissonance creates a tension and tension reduction is automatically sought by changing our evaluations by some degree.  Cognitive Dissonance is when you have two good choices and you make your decision then you find yourself unsure or in doubt about the choice you made.  You might have to downplay the other choice in order to reassure yourself.

Theorist: Leon Festinger

Date: 1962

Primary Article:
 A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.  Stanford, CA.  Stanford University Press.

Individual Interpretations:
This theory gives a basic explanation for the way humans react when they act outside of their beliefs.  We cannot carryout actions that we believe are wrong, so we either cease the action or believe that we are right. 

Scientific Theory
This theory explains what dissonance is and how it is created along with predicting what will happen when one experiences it.  It is put in the most general, simple terms possible and could be applied to any thought or action.  The theory of cognitive dissonance could be proved false through testing and invites new research on specific aspects of the concept. 

Ideas and Implications:
The theory of Cognitive Dissonance implies that when there is tension we change a belief or an action.  Many times selective exposure is used which focuses oneís attention on only certain aspects so that tension will not be created.  This selective exposure prevents dissonance.  This theory also implies that we experience more dissonance when the issue is more important, when we put off a decision and the decision is permanent.

This theory could be used in the persuasive context in a variety of ways.  When marketers want to persuade their audience to buy a product or perform a subject they must convince them that this is a good action and if their beliefs do not match this action, they must persuade them to change their beliefs.  For instance, during the holidays the Salvation Army campaigns heavily for donations.  The different commercials and print ads show homelessness and its effects.  When trying to persuade an audience member to give, they must persuade them that their organization is a worthy one.  If someone believes that the homeless are lazy and donít deserve donations, they will not donate until that belief is changed.  If they were to consider donating they would experience dissonance in which either their belief or action would undergo a change.  It is the Salvation Armyís goal to change the belief that the homeless are lazy so the reduction of dissonance will result in a donation.

Location in Eight (8) Primary Communication Theory Textbooks:

   Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (1998). Questions of communication: A practical introduction to theory (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press.  pp.111.

     Cragan, J. F., & Shields, D.C. (1998). Understanding communication theory: The communicative forces for human action. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.  pp. 178,332.

     Griffin, E. (2000). A first look at communication theory (4th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. N/A

     Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 206-215.

      Infante, D. A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building communication theory (3rd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. pp. 56-57, 161-164, 528.

      Littlejohn, S. W. (1999). Theories of human communication (6th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. pp.  137-139.

      West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2000). Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield. pp. 104-116.

       Wood, J. T. (1997). Communication theories in action: An introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.  N/A