Cognitive Dissonance in Selective Exposure
John L. Cotton Purdue University
In using information, we are seldom passive absorbers of data; rather, we selectively seek, choose, and screen the information we use. Although this is typically done to avoid irrelevant or useless information, there are often occasions when information is selected on the basis of its agreeable nature, and not its intrinsic value. One explanation for this selective exposure comes from the theory of cognitive dissonance developed by Leon Festinger ( 1957). This chapter reviews the research on selective exposure to information, focusing on Festinger's theory and the research it generated. From this review, we can determine whether this type of selective exposure occurs and examine other factors that may affect it.
Festinger's ( 1957) theory states that when a person holds two cognitions that are incompatible or inconsistent, an uncomfortable arousal, or dissonance, is produced. The cognitions can be attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge about one's behavior, or any other knowledge about oneself or the environment. When the person becomes aware that two or more of these cognitions are contradictory, dissonance is created. The magnitude of this dissonance depends on the importance of the cognitions involved. Because the dissonance is uncomfortable, the person will try to reduce it, often by modifying one of the cognitions.
Consider someone who believes he or she is essentially a good and truthful person, but has just lied to someone else ( Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959). Dissonance will occur because of the opposing cognitions: (a) "I'm a good, truthful person." (b) "I just lied to this person." The dissonance, or uncomfortable arousal, will motivate the person to do something to reduce it. In this case, the person might rationalize, "I had to lie in order to avoid hurting them; it's just a little white lie."