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Cognitive Dissonance Theory and the Selective Perceptions
The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance and the Selective Perceptions are part of our everyday life. They can impact how the world communicates around us as well as how we communicate within it. Eliminating unfavorable feelings is the basis of this theory, as well as methods we use to do so. Regardless of the questions regarding its utility and testability, Cognitive Dissonance Theory and Selective Retention remain relevant today
The Cognitive Dissonance Theory was originally written in 1957 by Leon Festinger. It was initially published by Row, Peterson and Company and reissued by Stanford University Press in 1962. Many psychologists have studied and used this theory to develop further understanding of attitudes. Not only did Festinger conduct many studies or experiments but his colleagues did as well. Throughout the years since the theory was written it has been refined and added to. Various studies were performed to not only support the theory, but to further expand on its basic principles. Magnitude as an integral part was added in 1977 by Zimbardo, Ebbesen & Mazslach. In 1980 Katie Dunleavy and Matthew Martin made additions to the theory in regards to eliminating dissonance. Then in 1981 Lingle and Olstrom also studied the theory and made their own observations.
Festinger’s formal definition of dissonance and consonance is: “Dissonance and consonance refer to relations which exist between pairs of elements. These elements refer to what has been called cognitions, that is, the things a person knows about himself, about his behavior and about his surroundings.” (Festinger , 1957) He further defines the elements by calling them “knowledges” which can be either; about the world you live in or about yourself. These knowledges include opinions, beliefs, values and attitudes.
Festinger studies inconsistency and consistency. He replaces these words with the words dissonance and consonance in order to not confuse with other meanings of inconsistency and consistency. For purposes of his theory he describes dissonance as: “the existence of non-fitting relations among cognitions, as a motivating factor in its own right.” (Festinger 1957) Cognition he describes as: “any knowledge, opinion or belief about the environment, about oneself, or about one’s behavior” (Festinger 1957), and finally describing Cognitive dissonance as: “an antecedent condition which leads to activity oriented toward dissonance reduction.” (Festinger 1957) Festinger also notes that there are, what he calls irrelevant relations. These are relationships that have not connection. When this is the case, they also are not able to form dissonant feelings. Therefore, they are of no consequence to the theory.
Festinger proposes that dissonance is a general hypothesis. He suggests that we can substitute other notions such as hunger, frustration or disequilibrium which are similar in nature. These substitutions would not alter the hypotheses. They would still make “perfectly good sense.” (Festiger 1957) He also proposes that dissonance is a motivation of its own accord.
Dissonance is a part of our everyday condition. It is almost unavoidable. Think about how someone who endorses the Republican Party is also a friend of the environment. Or on the flip side a Democrat who supports pro-life. Both situations may play into a person’s cognitions resulting in a conflicting of attitudes or beliefs. This conflict subsequently results in an increase in their level of dissonance.
The Cognitive Dissonance Theory has four basic assumptions:
- “Human beings desire consistency in their beliefs, attitudes and behaviors
- Dissonance is created by psychological inconsistencies
- Dissonance is an aversive state that drives people to actions with measurable effects
- Dissonance motivates efforts to achieve consonance and efforts toward dissonance reduction” (West & Turner 2018)
When faced with dissonance, a person has a natural tendency for the need to reduce it. The first step is to engage in something that will reorganize the cognitions. This cognitive reorganization can be done in several different ways. Both behavioral and attitudinal changes can be made to reduce or eliminate the dissonance.
- “Adding to our consonant beliefs.
- Reducing the importance of our dissonant beliefs/feelings.
- Changing our beliefs to seemingly eliminate the dissonance in some way. Such as finding information that validates the continued dissonant behavior or attitude. As more and more reasons explaining the inconsistency can be found, then we reduce the amount of dissonance felt.” (West & Turner 2018)
Another component of the theory is magnitude. The magnitude of dissonance will determine the amount of pressure felt and subsequently used to reduce the dissonance. For example: When I think about whether or not to work on this paper. I know I need to do so in order to get a good grade in the class. This conflicts with my desire to do other things. In the long run the need to get it done has greater pressure, so it wins out. Therefore, the magnitude or importance of an issue affects the degree of dissonance felt. Furthermore one would create a ratio for the dissonance/consonance. This may even occur subconsciously. This comparison would then result in what seems like a somewhat automatic decision process.
When someone engages in changing their beliefs or attitudes, many times a process of Selective perception takes place. There are four selective processes that one may engage.
Selective Exposure is defined as: “a method for reducing dissonance by seeking information that is consonant with current beliefs and actions.” (West & Turner 2018) In a nutshell, this means that we have a tendency to only expose ourselves or put ourselves in situations for which we feel a connection with.
Selective Attention is defined as: “a method for reducing dissonance by paying attention to information that is consonant with current beliefs and actions.” (West & Turner 2018) Not only do we only pay attentions to those things that agree with our views or attitudes, but we also ignore those that do not.
Selective Interpretation is defined as: “a method for reducing dissonance by interpreting ambiguous information that becomes consistent with current beliefs and actions.” (West & Turner 2018) This can be used to avoid dissonance by re-interpreting information so that it matches your beliefs or attitudes.
Selective Retention is defined as: “a method for reducing dissonance by remembering information that is consonant with current beliefs and actions.” (West & Turner 2018) Basically; we remember what we want to remember. We do so in such a way that it is consistent with our beliefs or attitudes.
I see proof of this theory in my everyday life. Currently, I am in a situation where I have been interacting with a family member regarding global warming and climate change. I have recently taken a geology course and find that I have recent valid information to confirm that it is actually happening and can be supported by science. My family member on the other hand refuses to believe that it is real and actually believes it is a conspiracy by the left-wingers. Whenever the conversation comes up, they tend to engage in the Selective Perceptions. They only expose themselves to articles that support their view. They also have a tendency to chalk global warming up to coincidence that has been happening since the beginning of time. When trying to present the hard data regarding drilled ice cores from the polar ice caps showing how slowly the earth actually warms, they refuse to acknowledge the hard science. Instead they interpret the data to be “see global warming has happened all along”, when although global warming has happened all along, it actually takes hundreds of thousands of years to happen, based on those samples. Their selective perceptions can be seen in both exposure and interpretation.
Another situation where I see Selective Perceptions all the time is in the current political environment. Both sides hold so fast to their beliefs that they only choose to expose themselves to their particular party’s agenda. I cannot tell you how many times I hear: “oh, I don’t listen to that news channel because they only report on the other sides agenda”. When in reality their favorite news station does the same. They also only hear what they want to hear and remember what is consistent with their beliefs or attitudes. To do otherwise would result in significant cognitive dissonance. I must say that I myself have a tendency to do this also. I really do not want to hear what the other side has to say. I therefore, do not expose myself to or pay attention to what the “other” side has to say. I believe in these situations all four Selective process can be seen.
In Festinger’s original Theory paper, he exemplifies cognitive dissonance by using smoking cigarettes. Noting how one knows that they are bad for you but continues to smoke. He talks about how a hard core smoker may try to find data that actually supports smoking. In theory, this would reduce the amount of dissonance felt and therefor perhaps eliminate the need to quit smoking. Given his theory was written in 1957, there was a strong belief that the weight you would not gain while smoking was actually of greater health significance. This example in his theory paper really hit home for me when thinking about unhealthy food choices. I know they are bad for me, but I eat them anyway. I use several ways to reduce the dissonance I feel when I do so. Making up all kinds of excuses, like the need for fuel, to I’ll work it off later and even sometimes reducing or ignoring the dissonant believe entirely.
As you can see Cognitive Dissonance Theory and the Selective Perceptions indeed play a vital role in communication and are relevant in today’s world regardless of those who would argue against it. Cognitive Dissonance is reduced in many ways. Selective perception is a method used to reduce or eliminate feelings of dissonance. The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance and the Selective Perceptions are part of our everyday life. They can impact how the world moves around us as well as how we act within it.
- Introducing Communication Theory. (2018). McGraw-Hill Education (6th ed.). New York, NY:
- Festinger, Leon. (1957). A theory of Cognitive Dissonance. United States of America. Row, Peterson and Company.
- Website: https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=voeQ-8CASacC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=Cognitive+Dissonance+&ots=9y73Szqhxy&sig=ufH7l2Db56je9bNWYB6ceknEFUc#v=onepage&q=Cognitive%20Dissonance&f=false
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