What Was The Cognitive Dissonance Experiment?

By Antonia Čirjak on February 24 2020 in Environment

Cognitive dissonance is a phenomenon most commonly associated with the field of social psychology. Credit: Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash
Cognitive dissonance is a phenomenon most commonly associated with the field of social psychology. Credit: Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash
  • The cognitive dissonance experiment happened in 1959 and was named
  • Festinger did a separate study on cognitive dissonance that involved a UFO cult ''The Seekers'' that believed in a doomsday scenario.
  • Although this experiment took place in the 1950s, the findings that were made are still valid and useful part of modern social psychology.

The cognitive dissonance experiment was conducted in the year 1959 by Leon Festinger and James M. Carlsmith, and was called the "Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance." Cognitive dissonance is a phenomenon most commonly associated with the field of social psychology. Try and think about a situation where some of your beliefs about the world were challenged or a time where you acted in such a way that it was contradictory to what you stand for. How did you feel?

If you were aware of such discrepancies, and they made you feel uneasy, you probably experienced the effect of cognitive dissonance. The term refers to situations where a person experiences incompatible beliefs or acts in a way that contradicts them. Cognitive dissonance generally results in some mental discomfort or a state of tension

The History Of Cognitive Dissonance

The first theory of cognitive dissonance was published by a psychologist Leon Festinger in the year 1957, in his work titled "A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance." Our cognition is composed of a variety of values, beliefs, and emotions, among which some are not always compatible. What Festinger argued is that people generally tend to avoid or resolve such inconsistencies in their beliefs so they could function properly in the real world. 

His work on cognitive dissonance provided the foundation for further research on the subject and has since then become one of the most influential and most researched theories in the field of social psychology.

Festinger also did a case study revolving around the beliefs of a group of people that were a part of a doomsday cult. It was a small UFO religion in Chicago called "the Seekers "that believed the world was going to be destroyed by a giant flooding disaster. He saw this as a chance to investigate the arousal of dissonance upon the failure of the prophecy. The observations presented in this work were also one of the first known pieces of evidence for the concept of belief perseverance.

But, there is another experiment following this study that would eventually become a classic in the cognitive dissonance theory. It is the experiment called "The Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance. "

Cognitive Consequences Of Forced Compliance

Leon Festinger and his colleague James M. Carlsmith did an experiment where they gathered groups of participants at Standford University. The participants were into two groups and instructed to perform several tedious tasks for an hour. When their tasks were finished, they were told the experiment was done, but the real test was starting.

The participants were then asked to do a favor by telling a group of new participants that the tasks were actually very enjoyable. Those new participants were actually a part of the research team. This "favor "part of the experiment was designed to trick them into creating cognitive dissonance because the tasks were actually extraordinarily tedious and boring. Carlsmith also gave the two groups different amounts of money for doing the favor.

One group received 1$ while the other group got 20$. The participants that were paid less actually changed their opinion to battle the dissonance, and those who were paid more experienced less dissonance because the money provided justification for doing those boring tasks. Even though the experiment took place in the 50s, it's observations and results are still being recognized in the study of social psychology.

How Do People React To Cognitive Dissonance?

Usually, they try to address it immediately so they could reduce the tension or negative emotions they feel because of it. The person actually needs to be aware of the inconsistencies of their beliefs to experience negative emotions. Also, not everyone experiences cognitive dissonance at the same intensity, some people have better tolerance for their contradictory behavior, and some might not even care. It also depends on the type of beliefs a person has and how important those are to them.

Because people generally tend to avoid bad feelings, this phenomenon can have a significant effect on a variety of behaviors, thoughts, beliefs, and the mental health of the person.  It is not a rare phenomenon that a group of people holds tight to their beliefs and opinions even when they are confronted with evidence that disproves those beliefs.

An example would be a cigarette smoker who is assured continuously by the outside world that smoking is bad for their health and may cause cancer. Because they continue smoking despite the numerous evidence of its negative impacts, they are in a state of cognitive dissonance. The effect of reality is a strong one, and we are always trying to adjust our knowledge about reality so that it could be compatible with our beliefs. 

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