A Practical Lesson in Cognitive Dissonance

Article excerpt


The sensation of cognitive dissonance can produce much anxiety for college students. Interestingly, although most college-aged individuals have experienced cognitive dissonance, they often have difficulty recognizing and attending to it. The technique proposed in this article requires students to consider situations in which cognitive dissonance occurs and to reflect upon their own encounters with cognitive dissonance. Through this exercise, students develop appreciations for feelings associated with cognitive dissonance as well as means of alleviating these feelings.

Introduction and Literature Review

Professors dread the age-old question, "How is this going to help me in my life?" For those in some disciplines, most often mathematics and the hard sciences, answers to this question resemble convincing arguments. However, for others, specifically those in the social sciences and humanities, the answers often emerge through student-oriented activities.

One example of such an activity involves the topic of cognitive dissonance. The standard definition of cognitive dissonance describes it as conflict between two or more thoughts (Festinger, 1957). Subsequent analysis has identified the basis of cognitive dissonance as individuals' difficulties implementing their senses of morality into their everyday thoughts and activities (Monroe, 2001). When it occurs, cognitive dissonance is most often associated with the feeling of uneasiness accompanying choices that individuals would prefer to avoid. Those in their late teens and early 20's, entering the adult world of weighing options and making decisions, benefit greatly from recognizing the feelings associated with cognitive dissonance and learning methods to alleviate or avoid these feelings.

Most curriculums for Social Psychology courses, as well those for some Introductory Psychology and Introductory Sociology courses address cognitive dissonance. But, informal lessons on the topic have value in many other courses as well. Discussions about identifying and alleviating cognitive dissonance have, for instance, found places for themselves at Freshman Orientation seminars and in various forms of first-year experience courses. In these contexts, issues associated with adapting to college life, such as newly-encountered diversity (McFalls and Cobb-Roberts, 2001), can serve as exemplars.

Regardless of the context in which cognitive dissonance is described and in spite of many students' familiarity with the feeling (Lindblom-Ylanne, 2003), they often have difficulty comprehending the concept when discussed in class. Thus, presenting the topic of cognitive dissonance to students often proves a frustrating task for professors. In an effort to establish a basic understanding of cognitive dissonance, many begin by providing students with formal definitions of the matter, followed by descriptions of the psychological or emotional discomfort in the individual who cannot find a satisfactory compromise between the contradictory ideas. The lesson also generally explains that this discomfort prompts the individual to alter either his or her thought or behavior so that the two coincide (Carkenord and Bullington, 1993). For example, a dieter who craves a cupcake may feel torn between the desire for the cupcake and the need to follow the restrictions of the diet. This individual must determine whether to sacrifice the diet so that he or she can eat the cupcake or to sacrifice the desired eating of the cupcake to maintain the diet.

The hypothetical dieter can help to demonstrate the four conditions that must exist for cognitive dissonance to occur. First, an individual must realize that he or she has a choice in the matter. The dieter, for example, must not feel as though he or she was forced into cheating on the diet. The choice to do so must be his or her own. Second, an individual must make a commitment to the behavior even though it contradicts his or her thoughts. …