Leon Festinger: an Experiment of Cognitive Dissonance

Through an experiment, Leon Festinger tests the decision-making process.

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Decision making is tested in an experiment of cognitive dissonance. But what is cognitive dissonance? For it is a sensation that appears derived from a conflict between the ideas, beliefs and values ​​of the subject with their behavior. Cognitive dissonance arises from the incompatibility of thoughts, which creates a state of considerable discomfort in people.

We can then understand cognitive dissonance as a psychological tension. The concept was introduced by Leon Festinger in 1957.

According to the author, this tension forces the subject to create new ideas or skills that relieve tension and are complementary to the subject’s belief system. This theory has been related to decision making; whenever we decide to do something that clashes with our beliefs, different strategies are deployed to alleviate this tension.

«When there is dissonance, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information that would probably increase this dissonance»

-Leon Festinger-

Leon Festinger: the creator of a revolutionary experiment

Festinger was an American social psychologist born in New York in 1919. His theory on cognitive dissonance has had special relevance in social psychology, especially in the areas of motivation and group dynamics.

The theory is based on the fact that the human being is aware of his actions and whenever he does something with which he does not agree, he has the need to alleviate the generated dissonance.

The cognitive dissonance experiment

The cognitive dissonance experiment was designed by Leon Festinger and his colleague Merrill Carlsmith in 1957. It was conducted with students and consisted of the following steps:

  • Boring tasks were assigned to a solo student. These tasks were repetitive, awakening hardly any interest. However, the objective of the experiment was not to evaluate the execution of these tasks.
  • Then, the student was asked to convince the next participant that the experiment was fun when they left the room. In short, they were asked to lie.
  • A reward was offered for lying. Half of the students were offered twenty dollars for lying, while the other half only one dollar.
  • The subject who was waiting to enter the experiment (accomplice of it), told the students that a friend of hers had done the experiment the previous week and that it had seemed boring.
  • The subjects lie while watching them. It was noted how that lie was justified.
  • Cognitive dissonance occurred in those students who agreed to lie in exchange for a dollar. They had to convince themselves that this experiment was fun to alleviate the conflict generated.

Why? Because the reward was not good enough to “feel comfortable” with the lie. When it came to justifying their actions, they looked especially tense compared to the group that received twenty dollars. The latter, he did it more naturally and unconcernedly.

The conflict of lies

The cognitive dissonance experiment leaves us several conclusions. Mainly, the twenty-dollar reward group knew perfectly well that the experiment was boring. Likewise, said group also had the necessary justification to say otherwise. Not so the group of one dollar, where we could see how the subjects convinced themselves to relieve the tension generated by an insufficient reward.

Conclusion of the experiment

In a final stage, after lying, the main experimenter asked the participants if they really thought it was funny. In the group of twenty dollars, the subjects sincerely expressed that the experiment had not been really fun. Paradoxically, the group that had to be convinced by the inconsistency of the reward reaffirmed the lie and many expressed that they would do it again.

Results of cognitive dissonance

  • Avoidance. Subjects tend to avoid any stimulus that causes them to return to the state of original dissonance. They avoid situations, people, ideas and places that confront them again with the conflict.
  • Search for approval. As a consequence of the strategies deployed, the approval of the story or the reasons on which the subject is self-convincing is sought in others to justify their actions.
  • Comparison. Those who suffer dissonance tend to be compared with other people to justify their actions.

“The believer must have social support from other believers.”

-Leon Festinger-

Cognitive dissonance today

60 years have passed since the experiment and today the issue continues to raise questions and open debates. It has been proposed, for example, as a justification for the defense methods that appear in various psychological pathologies. In turn, it has also been used in the psychosocial analysis of criminals and people who justify their actions by hiding in the group or following orders.

The power of conviction, the relief of guilt

The experiment also questions the tendency of the human being to find psychological and mental relief. The contrast between social norms and day-to-day decisions makes us go through this unpleasant state more often than we would like. The problem appears when, by this eagerness to free us from tension, we end up generating maladaptive behaviors.

In addition, knowing the dissonance can help us identify it when we suffer it. It can also help us to gauge the influence that the information we obtain from our reference group has on us and observe how the norms that constitute it condition our way of acting, thinking or feeling. Finally, we must point out that cognitive dissonance confronts us with our values, causing us to occasionally update or update our way of acting.