University of Arizona, Tucson
Behavioral Discrepancies and the Role of Construal Processes
in Cognitive Dissonance
Over 40 years ago, Leon Festinger (1957) introduced the theory of cognitive dissonance, a rich and fascinating theoretical framework about the interplay among behavior, cognition, and motivation. Festinger's original views and initial research on cognitive dissonance predate what many seem to recognize as the formal introduction of social cognition into the field during the 1970s (e.g., Markus & Zajonc, 1985; Wyer & Srull, 1989; Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Nevertheless, Festinger made several assumptions about the cognitive processes that underlie dissonance phenomena. For example, in his discussion of dissonance arousal, he made assumptions concerning the cognitive representation of information in memory, the accessibility of cognitions about behavior and belief, the perceived fit between these cognitions, the computation of a ratio of consistent to inconsistent cognitions, and the assessment of the relevance (i.e., applicability) and importance of the cognitions in the ratio. Festinger (1957) predicted that when these processes led to the perception of more dissonant than consonant cognitions, a negative drive state would be aroused, and people would become motivated to reduce the arousal. Dissonance reduction, in turn, could be accomplished by altering the cognitions in the dissonance ratio so that there were more consonant than dissonant relations among the elements. Thus, Festinger relied heavily on assumptions about representation and process to shape dissonance theory's novel and important predictions about social behavior.
Contemporary researchers continue to investigate dissonance phenomena, in part, because many of the original assumptions about the process of dissonance arousal and reduction are the focus of considerable theoretical and empirical controversy in the field. The decades of research have produced a number of revisions to Festinger's (1957) emphasis on psychological consistency, each of which makes specific assumptions about the cognitive mechanisms that arouse and reduce cognitive dissonance (e.g., see Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999). The various perspectives disagree over several theoretical issues, including whether aversive behavioral consequences are necessary for dissonance to be aroused (see Harmon-Jones, Brehm, Greenberg, Simon, & Nelson, 1996; Scher & Cooper, 1989; Thibodeau & Aronson, 1992) and how individual differences such as self-esteem moderate dissonance motivation (Spencer, Josephs, & Steele, 1993; Thibodeau & Aronson, 1992). The debate among the various perspectives has inspired new research (e.g., hypocrisy, see Stone, Aronson, Crain, Winslow, & Fried, 1994; trivialization, see Simon, Greenberg, & Brehm, 1995), but there currently is little agreement about the cognitive processes that underlie dissonance motivation.
This chapter reviews the debate over the proper interpretation of dissonance phenomena with an eye toward how the various theoretical perspectives have treated the role of social cognition in dissonance arousal and dissonance reduction. It then presents a new process model of dissonance that was designed to synthesize the various perspectives. The goal of the new model is to highlight a cognitive process that plays an important role in how dissonance is aroused and subsequently reduced. Specifically, it argues that dissonance begins when people commit a behavior and then interpret and evaluate the meaning of what they have done. The key to understanding which motivational state follows from the assessment of behavior lies in the type of attributes and standards people rely on to evaluate the quality or appropriateness of their behavior. By focusing on the way in which people construe action, it becomes possible to predict the conditions under which behavioral discrepancies create the different motivational states that have been specified by the various perspectives on cognitive dissonance.