Cognitive Dissonance in Children: Justification of Effort or Contrast?

By Alessandri, Jérôme; Darcheville, Jean-Claude et al. | Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Cognitive Dissonance in Children: Justification of Effort or Contrast?


Alessandri, Jérôme, Darcheville, Jean-Claude, Zentall, Thomas R., Psychonomic Bulletin & Review


Justification of effort is a form of cognitive dissonance in which the subjective value of an outcome is directly related to the effort that went into obtaining it. However, it is likely that in social contexts (such as the requirements for joining a group) an inference can be made (perhaps incorrectly) that an outcome that requires greater effort to obtain in fact has greater value. Here we present evidence that a cognitive dissonance effect can be found in children under conditions that offer better control for the social value of the outcome. This effect is quite similar to contrast effects that recently have been studied in animals. We suggest that contrast between the effort required to obtain the outcome and the outcome itself provides a more parsimonious account of this phenomenon and perhaps other related cognitive dissonance phenomena as well. Research will be needed to identify cognitive dissonance processes that are different from contrast effects of this kind.

Cognitive dissonance can be defined as the conflict that arises when there is an inconsistency between one's beliefs and one's behavior, or between two cognitions. According to cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957), one should be motivated to reduce that conflict, generally by altering one's beliefs.

Justification of effort is a form of cognitive dissonance in which one gives greater value to outcomes that require greater effort to obtain, to justify the greater effort (Aronson & Mills, 1959). For example, a student receiving an A grade in a difficult course, such as organic chemistry, is likely to value that grade more than the same outcome in a less demanding course, such as an introduction to golf. According to cognitive dissonance theory, greater value is attributed to the outcome following greater effort, to justify the added effort needed to obtain it.

The problem with the justification-of-effort effect when applied to social contexts is that the assumption of "same outcome" may not be correct. Although A grades in chemistry and in golf may contribute equally to the student's grade-point average, the chemistry grade is likely to have greater value on an application to medical school.

Similarly, in the classic experiment by Aronson and Mills (1959), participants were told that they could take part in a discussion group if they passed an initiation consisting of reading a passage out loud. Aronson and Mills found that participants who were asked to read an embarrassing (sexually explicit) passage (a severe initiation) valued joining the group more than did participants for whom the passage was not so embarrassing (an easier initiation). However, participants may have applied a notinappropriate rule of thumb that presumes that groups that are difficult (or embarrassing) to join are generally more attractive socially (i.e., are generally valued more) than are groups that are easy to join.

Other interpretations of the results of this experiment have been proposed. For example, Gerard and Mathewson (1966) proposed that aversiveness in the Aronson and Mills (1959) experiment may have been confounded with (sexual) arousal in the difficult initiation condition, but they found that similar effects could be obtained with shock as the severe initiation.

Alternatively, Schopler and Bateson (1962) argued that because participants had already accepted to engage in a severe initiation, they were more likely to conform to the implied expectation that they should value the discussion group. Schopler and Bateson noted that dissonance theory would have predicted that participants in the severe initiation condition who felt most embarrassed by the initiation should have rated the discussion group most favorably; instead, they found the opposite. Thus, they suggested that reporting favorably on the group may have been perceived as a demand characteristic of the task resulting from the difficult initiation.

A third interpretation was proposed by Lodewijkx and Syroit (1997).

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