by Akriti Dhasmana
The theory of Cognitive Dissonance was suggested by prominent psychologist Leon Festinger in his book titled A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. The theory suggests that humans always seek to reduce inconsistencies in their actions and their beliefs. According to Festinger, if there is any inconsistency between a person’s moral code and their behaviour, it may cause them discomfort. To alleviate this discomfort, they might then respond by changing their internal belief to make it consistent with their action, changing their action to make it consistent with their belief, rejustifying their actions to be consistent with their belief or ignoring the information about their conflicting actions and beliefs altogether (93, Festinger). In the paper titled “Cognitive Dissonance” (1962), Festinger asks his readers to present a child with two toys of equal attractiveness and ask the child to describe the toy they like better. When the child says they like both equally, Festinger asks his readers to tell the child that they can choose only one toy to keep. Now, once they have made a choice, Festinger tells the reader to ask the child to describe both the toys again. Festinger predicts that the child will always then change their first opinion and claim that their chosen toy is better. The child’s initial belief had been that both toys are equally attractive. After making the choice however their action showed that they preferred one toy over the other. This puts their belief and their action in conflict: cognitive dissonance. Thus, they change their initial belief that both toys are equally attractive to alleviate the stress induced by the dissonance. When a person changes their behavior or action to restore internal consistency, it is referred to as forced compliance.
Forced compliance can help explain several social, political and consumer behaviours. In her book Wilful Subjects Sara Ahmed notes how forced compliance can help explain why children might hold on to the same moral values as their parents even as adults and forget their own willfulness (Ahmed, 72-73). This is because, as a child, being forced to obey the will of their parents by negative reinforcement may cause children to experience cognitive dissonance when their actions are not in line with their inner desire inducing forced compliance. This in turn may cause them to internalize the will of their parents as their own, eliminating the memory of their initial willfulness.
Ahmed, Sara. Willful Subjects. Duke University Press, 2014.
Festinger, Lou. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press, 1957.
Festinger, Leon. “Cognitive Dissonance.” Scientific American, vol. 207, no. 4, 1962, pp. 93–106., doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1062-93.
Festinger, Leon, and James M. Carlsmith. “Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance.” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol. 58, no. 2, 1959, pp. 203–210., doi:10.1037/h0041593.
Egan, S. (2007). The Origins of Cognitive Dissonance: Evidence from Children and Monkeys. Psychological Science, 18(11), 978–983. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.02012.x
Pugh, S. D., Groth, M., & Hennig-Thurau, T. (2010, November 8). Willing and Able to Fake Emotions: A Closer Examination of the Link Between Emotional Dissonance and Employee Well-Being. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0021395