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Welcome to the Macat Multimedia Series. A Macat Analysis of Leon Festinger’s A Theory
of Cognitive Dissonance.
“Well something has to kill me!”
For Leon Festinger, an American social psychologist, that is the sound of a human mind resolving
Festinger is known for this work on cognitive dissonance, a psychological state produced
by conflicts between cognitions. Cognitions is an umbrella term for any idea, belief,
emotion or knowledge.
Festinger’s A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, published in 1957, argued that humans prefer
cognitions to be unopposed - or consonant, and struggle with those that are opposed - or
Due to the sheer number of cognitions we process, they are often in conflict and these conflicts
become noticeable when we have to make decisions or are faced with new information that contradicts
ideas we already hold.
Festinger believed these conflicts to be psychologically distressing – when they occur, he said,
people will try to resolve the conflict. When two cognitions are inconsistent, this usually
means attempting to reduce dissonance by controlling the information we’re exposed to.
What sort of conflicts? Well, cigarette smokers often encounter cognitive dissonance. There
is conflict between the behaviours created by their enjoyment of and addition to smoking,
and information highlighting the health problems associated with their habit.
Festinger argues that this dissonance causes smokers to become distressed by their smoking
behaviour, they may talk constantly about quitting or try repeatedly to quit. But Festinger’s
theory goes further than that. He suggests smokers use four specific techniques to combat
dissonance and the distress associated with it.
Number one. Smokers may quit smoking because of messages from health officials. That’s
the smoker changing existing cognitions to relieve the distress caused by new messages.
Number two. Smokers may attempt to justify their cognitions, for example they might concentrate
on the likelihood that everyone faces a health risk one way or another. Quitting smoking
doesn’t mean avoiding every risk, they argue, so is it worth it? Or maybe the pleasure gained
is worth the risk.
Thirdly, they add new cognitions. For instance eating healthily or exercising, a smoker might
argue, counteracts the risk of smoking. In other words, several desirable cognitions
can outweigh the distress caused by the health warnings making it all together easier to
Finally, number four. Smokers may dismiss information by questioning the validity of
the science behind a warning, wasn’t there a study last month that seemed to prove the
opposite? Or they may ignore it by working to avoid coming into contact with negative
Festinger argued that his theory explained behaviours much more dangerous than smoking,
if people in government work together to rationalise and justify their actions, it becomes much
easier to ignore warnings.
A more detailed examination of his ideas can be found in the Macat Analysis.
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An Introduction to Leon Festinger's A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance - A Macat Psychology Analysis

933 Folder Collection
Aming Chiang published on November 11, 2016
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