The Consistency Theories: An Integration of Balance Theory, Cognitive Dissonance Theory, and Self- Affirmation Theory

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In a field as inherently nuanced and interdisciplinary as social psychology, it is imperative that we not only attempt to understand human cognitions, emotions and behaviors, but also the underlining processes. Arguably, some of the most influential theorists to conceptualize and further articulate the influence of relationships both intrapersonally and interpersonally are Fritz Heider, Leon Festinger, and Claude Steele. They postulated theories that all attempted a better understanding of individuals attitudes, beliefs and behaviors through the individuals’ drive for consistency.

In this paper, I propose an integration of balance theory, cognitive dissonance theory, and self-affirmation theory based off of their motivation towards consistency. The consistency principle says that humans desire consistency in their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors (Festinger, 1957; Heider, 1958; Steele 1988). Usually when this consistency is lacking, then the individual makes some sort of adjustment to try and achieve the consistency because it is a more comfortable psychological state for them to be in. Arguably, cognitive dissonance can be related to cognitive consistency (Festinger,1957). Individuals’ prefer for their cognitions such as beliefs, opinions and attitudes to be constant with their behaviors. Likewise balance theory can be related to consistency among cognitions and relationships (Heider,1958). Meaning that people desire consistency among their cognitions and for this to be further consistent in their relationships with other individuals.  Finally, self-affirmation can be related to self-consistency (Steele,1988). In other words, individuals prefer for their self-concept and their behaviors to be constant.

In research, the theories being reviewed in this paper have been considered distinct entities but not considered in an integrated fashion. The following examination of the theories strives to address this.  These theories are all very nuanced theories that have been integral in studying human behavior. Given their distinct emphasis along with their overall motivation for consistency among cognitions, there is unique wisdom that can be obtained through understanding each of these paradigms through context of their unique counterparts.

Balance Theory

Arguably, Heider’s (1958) balance theory could be considered the earliest consistency theory. It conceptualizes the cognitive consistency motive as a drive towards psychological balance. The consistency motive present is the desire to maintain one’s beliefs and values over time within the relationships. Balance theory is concerned with a person’s unit relationships between themselves (p), and usually two others elements in the triadic structure, another person (o) and another object (x). Balance theory says that if people view a set of cognitive elements as being a system or unit (belonging together), then they will have a preference to maintain a balanced state among these elements.  The goal is to examine the attitudes between the three element relationships to make sure they are consistent or balanced. The discomfort that is felt at imbalance increases with the strength of the attitude and overall interest in the matter, or the sentiment. The sentiment relationships are designated as either positive (liking) or negative (disliking).

Heider (1958) proposed that a balanced triad results when either all of the unit relationships are positive or two are negative and one is positive, and the elements of the triad fit together with no stress. This situation would be psychologically comfortable and therefore there would be no need for people to seek a change in the relationships. However, if the relationships were in an unbalanced state, such as two positive relationships with one negative, this would likely result in psychological discomfort and encourage the person to make some sort of change to regain consistency. Imbalanced states result in feelings of unpleasantness and tension, so Heider (1958) assumed that people prefer balanced states over imbalanced ones. According to Heider (1958), balance is rewarding because relationship consistency is achieved. This qualifies balance theory to be integrated with several other theories under a similar motive for consistency.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory has had major influence on research and consequent theories dealing with cognitive consistency. Cognitive dissonance theory postulates that individuals have a tendency to seek consistency amongst their cognitions such as beliefs and opinions. Cognitive dissonance suggests that inconsistencies among cognitions, attitudes, and behaviors (i.e., knowledge, opinion, or belief about the environment, oneself, or one’s behavior) generate an uncomfortable motivating feeling (i.e., the cognitive dissonance state). When there’s a lack of consistency between attitudes or behaviors something must change in order to eliminate this dissonance (Festinger, 1957).

According to the theory, people feel uncomfortable when they experience cognitive dissonance and thus prefer a consonant state with little or no conflicts among cognitions, attitudes and behaviors. The magnitude of existing dissonance depends on the importance and strength of the involved cognitions. Experiencing a higher level of dissonance causes pressure and motivation to reduce the dissonance. When there’s a discrepancy between behavior and attitudes, attitudes will likely change to accommodate the behavior. 

As afore mentioned, cognitive consistency relates to other theories by its drive for cognitive consistency. Meaning that humans desire consistency in their attitudes, beliefs and their behaviors (Festinger, 1957; Heider, 1958). If dissonance is felt, there are a couple of factors that affect the level of strength: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the level of importance that is attached to each belief. There are a few ways discussed that this dissonance can be eliminated. First, one could lessen the importance of the dissonant beliefs. Next, one could add more consonant beliefs that will outweigh the dissonant beliefs. Lastly, one could make the beliefs consistent by changing the dissonant beliefs (Festinger,1957). A common situation where one would experience dissonance is when an individual has to choose between two incompatible actions or beliefs. When the two alternatives are correspondingly attractive then the greatest dissonance transpires. Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory can also be related to the desire for internal consistency because of people’s inner need to assure consistency between their beliefs and behaviors. These consistency motives relate cognitive dissonance theory with balance and self-affirmation theory.

Self-Affirmation Theory

At times, people can have experiences and thoughts that threaten their self-image. According to Claud Steele’s (1988) self- affirmation theory, people are motivated to affirm the integrity of the self when their self-image has been threatened. Moreover, people not only desire to resolve the specific threat to their self-image, but also to restore their general self-image. According to Steele’s self-affirmation theory, people do not strive to perceive themselves favorably in every aspect of their lives. However, the theory makes an interesting prediction that people so strongly desire to maintain a positive self-image that when they are faced with a specific threat, they can overcome the unpleasant arousal associated with the threat by affirming an unrelated, yet equally important, aspect of the self. Even though this doesn’t eliminate the specific threat, it still has the ability to restore self- esteem by activating the facets of the self that people regard as worthy (Steele,1988).

Self-affirmation theory relates to the consistency motive because it involves a level of self-consistency that a person prefers to have relating to their self-image. Threats of self-image can arise from numerous sources. An important source is when individuals have inconsistent cognitions or engage in behaviors that are not consistent with their beliefs. For instance, some people may fail to recycle or drive energy efficient cars even though they confess to having very positive attitudes towards environmental issues. When people behave in a way that is contrary to how they believe they should behave, or hold two conflicting conditions, they often experience cognitive dissonance. Inconsistency between a person’s behavior and cognitions can be arousing and threatening to the self because it suggests that people may be immoral, irrational, or even unintelligent (Steele,1988; Festinger,1957). Steele’s (1988) self-affirmation theory also suggests that there are several different possible ways that people can protect their self-esteem if it is being threatened.

 Consistency is an underlying motive for self-affirmation theory because specific threats can arise from inconsistencies in the thoughts and behaviors that may lead to a state of cognitive dissonance or the perceived presence or actual presence of societal stereotypes of a particular group. No matter the source, research found that affirming some aspect of the self, even one that is unrelated to the direct self-threat, is effective in making people feel better about themselves, at least in the short term (Steele, 1988; Steele, 1997). Due to this reason, self-affirmation theory qualifies to be integrated with balance theory and cognitive dissonance theory under a core drive towards consistency.

Integration: Balance Theory, Cognitive Dissonance Theory and Self-Affirmation Theory Using the Concept of Consistency

 Although balance theory, cognitive dissonance theory, and self-affirmation theory all have key distinctions that are important to note, the paradigms occupy a similar conceptual space within the domain of social psychology. Within this examination, it has been shown that each of these theoretical paradigm’s concepts and axioms can be used to integrate and evoke meaningful discussion concerning the utility of these theoretical paradigms to examine different phenomena from a different lens. Within the context of this paper, the author emphasizes the mutual accordance in conceptualizing the prevalent influence of consistency as an underlying motivational mechanism for human behavior. In order to contextualize these distinctions, there must first be a discussion of overarching conceptual themes.

Core Differences Among the Theories

The theories in review all aimed to look at human behaviors, however they have fundamental differences among them. Heider (1958) believed people are naïve psychologists who tend to see cause and effect relationships even when they do not exist, to try to make sense of the world and to understand their experiences (Heider, 1958). Therefore, balance theory draws more from individuals’ innate and unconscious processes whereas other theories such as cognitive dissonance are more grounded in meta theories. Heider’s (1958) balance theory, on the other hand, desires to show how individuals develop relationships with other people and things in their environment. Unlike cognitive dissonance theory, it uses sentiment (positive feelings versus negative feelings) and unit relations to explain the valence of the attitude amongst the three different relationships being assessed and whether the attitudes regarding the relationships are in a state of balance or imbalance (Heider,1958). The level of balance then determines how the individual will handle the relationship. It was Heider’s belief that imbalanced relationships led to tension within the individual and therefore people prefer balanced states. On the other hand, according to Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory, if two elements are dissonant with one another, the magnitude of the dissonance would increase as the importance of the elements increases. Thus, cognitive dissonance claims that the strength of the pressure to reduce the dissonance is a function of the magnitude of the dissonance that is present. Cognitive dissonance has major implications on attitude change because people can resolve the dissonant feeling by changing their attitudes to be consistent with their behaviors. Therefore, individuals tend to rationalize these behaviors. Also, people are more likely to change their attitudes when given less incentive compared to high incentive because large incentives result in lower levels of dissonance (Festinger, 1957). Therefore, dissonance theory is contradictory to other behavioral theories that would predict a greater attitude change with increased incentives (i.e., reinforcement).

 The final theory that that draws on human’s behavior and cognitions is self-affirmation theory. However, it differs from the other two theories in the sense that it is truly a theory regarding processes that are activated by information that threatens the perceived adequacy or integrity of the self. These processes run their course until the individual’s self-image or self-perceptions are restored through rationalization, explanation, and/or action. People do this to maintain a phenomenal experience of the self-conceptions and images as morally and adaptively adequate – that is, as good, competent, capable of free choice and controlling important outcomes, stable, and so on. 

 

Key Commonalities Among the Theories

It can be seen that all three of these theories have diverse purposes, axioms and key concepts. However, it is apparent that they share something in common, cognitive consistency as a core motive for social human functioning. The fact that humans desire to maintain consistency between their cognitions has been recognized as an important human motive in all of these social psychological theories (Festinger,1957; Heider 1958; Steele, 1988). Balance theory, cognitive dissonance theory, and self-affirmation theory all share the idea that cognitive consistency has a central role in social information processing.

Consistency motivation.

The motivation for consistency present within the reviewed theories can be described as follows: cognitive consistency, consistency within relationships and self-consistency. Balance theory focuses on how individuals achieve consistencies within their relationships between their opinions, attitudes and behaviors. The consistency motive present is the urge to preserve one’s attitudes, beliefs and values over time. This is why individuals desire for all the relationships present within the triad to be balanced. If imbalance were to occur, Heider (1958) suggests that individuals will desire to make adjustments in order to reduce tension and unpleasantness by attempting to achieve the balance that they desire. Cognitive dissonance, on the other hand, focuses on the fact that people desire consistency because it causes them discomfort when there is a lack of consistency between their cognitions or their attitudes, opinions and behaviors. In the chance that inconsistency occurs cognitive dissonance claims that one would try to reduce the dissonance in order to achieve consonance. The introduction of oppositional beliefs or attitudes triggers disequilibrium therefore people seek to remediate this in order to achieve consistency. This will be illustrated in a subsequent section. Likewise, self-affirmation theory has a self- consistency motive. It is about an individual preserving their integrity of their self-system. When the coherence of the self-system is threatened, then one would be motivated to ameliorate the threat through self-affirmation. This will be further discussed below.

Human nature.

The theories in review all suggest that people prefer consistency among their cognitions and that if it is lost, then they will strive to regain it. These commonalities depict a picture of human nature that speaks to the complexity of human preference and human behavior that is worth examining. The core consistency motive present in the theories show that people seem to prefer a simple view of the world with minimal contrast when it comes to their cognitions. It appears that people view conflict among attitudes, beliefs, behaviors or relationships as complicated and therefore unfavorable.

Furthermore, the theories and the theorists also share an assumption about human nature that people are not agentic, especially in their approach to consistency. In other words, even when individuals are objected to external influence, they are passive recipients of stimulus inputs. They react to an external stimuli that threatens consistency among cognitions in cognitive, affective, and behavioral ways that aim to neutralize or subvert the stimulus (Festinger, 1957; Heider, 1958; Steele, 1988). In other words, once an external influence is introduced that leads to inconsistency that is recognized, then individuals tend to respond to the issues by tring to regain the consistency that was lost.

Pairwise comparisons.

One can attain a new understanding of balance theory, cognitive dissonance theory and self-affirmation theory by using one theory as a lens by which to see the other one through. This can be beneficial to better understand or explain a phenomenon. This method also provides a person with a means to develop a deeper understanding of a particular phenomenon dealing with issues surrounding human cognition and behavior.  An illustration of what this may look like is provided below.

Self-affirmation theory & Cognitive dissonance theory.

According to Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, people attempt to reduce the unpleasant state of discomfort brought on by cognitive dissonance by engaging in one of three actions to regain consonance. First, they could change the behavioral cognitive element. Meaning they would attempt to change their inconsistent behavior in order to make it more consistent with their actions. Consider someone who claims to care about their health but eats mostly unhealthy food switching to making healthier eating decisions instead of eating junk food. Second, they can attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance by changing an environmental cognitive element, or altering their cognitions. For instance, the same individual can decide that healthy eating is not such a big deal after all for their overall health. Lastly, people can add new cognitions to their belief system to reduce cognitive dissonance, or add new cognitive elements. For instance, the person can decide that healthy eating is not that important after all as long as they are still working out and have good mental health. Also, the person may try to justify their unhealthy eating behavior by emphasizing how eating junk foods helps to reduce their levels of stress.

These basic methods of reducing cognitive dissonance involve shifting the beliefs and actions within the domain that the self has been threatened. Therefore, we can use the theory of self-affirmation to better understand how one could go about reducing dissonance in this situation. For instance, to reestablish their self- regard, the unhealthy eater must engage in a sort of affirmation strategy that will be directly relevant to their eating behaviors.

However, self- affirmation theory takes it a step further by making a different prediction. It claims that a person is able to restore their self-image by affirming another aspect of their self if they were to experience a self-image threat after engaging in an undesirable behavior in a domain. As with the previous example, a person who claims to care about their health but makes unhealthy eating decision may try to restore their self-image by reminding themselves that they still have an excellent career, are really nice and helpful to others, and that they have a great group of friends. These things are unrelated to the domain of having healthy eating habits, yet it still serves the function of making the person feel good about themselves after they have experienced some form of threat.

Self-affirmation theory can be used to further understand theories such as cognitive dissonance because it has a broader scope. Self-affirmation theory addresses threats to the coherence of the self-system. It states that even when people are experiencing unpleasantness due to inconsistency, they can use a domain completely unrelated to the threat domain to reaffirm themselves because the most important thing is that their self-consistency regarding their self-image remains intact, and therefore, their self-esteem (Steele,1988). While cognitive dissonance deals in a similar conceptual space as self-affirmation theory, it states that in order to reduce dissonance between two cognitions, you should act directly upon one of those cognitions or within the domain of those cognitions to regain consonance (Festinger,1957). This is done by either changing one of the dissonant cognitions or decreasing the importance of the dissonant cognitions. Therefore, the afore mentioned example shows that cognitive dissonance theory and self-affirmation theory have some overlap such that the latter can serve as the alternative theory of the former in some situations; All the while, it can explain something that the former cannot explain.

Balance theory & Cognitive dissonance theory.

Likewise, two other theories that can be used as a means to better understand one another are balance theory and cognitive dissonance. One could use balance theory as an alternative to explain cognitive dissonance and vice versa due to their similarities regarding cognitions and behaviors. Imbalanced states can be thought of as dissonant. Whereas balanced states would be considered consonant. If you replace the bolded wording Heider’s (1957) description of balance theory with the correlating words for cognitive dissonance, you can observe the similarities among them. 

Summarizing this preliminary discussion of balanced, or harmonious states, we can say that they are states characterized by two or more relations which fit together.  If no balance state exists, then forces toward the [balanced] state will arise.  Either there will be a tendency to change the sentiments involved, or the unit relations will be changed through action or cognitive reorganization.  If a change is not possible, the state of imbalance will produce tension, and the balanced states will be preferred over the states of imbalance” (p. 7-8).

Interestingly, this shows that if you understand one of the psychological functions you can apply this knowledge to further comprehend and/or explain the other. For example, a way to see this applied is if a person supported the belief that business is the best college major to have for a successful career, therefore they have a positive sentiment relationship to being a business major. However, they registered to be a psychology major, therefore, they have a positive unit relation with psychology majors. The behavior of registering to be a psychology major is not in line with their belief that they would be more successful as a business major; therefore, a negative unit relation is now present between these. This creates imbalance among the individual and their cognitions. Due to this imbalance, the individual may decide to reject the belief that a business major is the best major to have for a successful career in order to maintain balance. This shows that cognitive dissonance and balance theory can be integrated to examine and explain human behavior. One could take this example even further by including the information that the individual held a belief regarding their self-concept that they always strived to be the most successful that they can be. This would then integrate self-affirmation theory into the situation because the individual’s behavior implies that they are not doing the most successful thing for themselves, therefore damaging their view of themselves a s morally and adaptively adequate. Such a threat to the consistency of their self-system could lead to the desire to regain consistency. Therefore, the person may start to affirm other domains of the self that were not threatened such as the fact that they have many friends and are in several honors societies. Thus self-affirmation would help the individual regain the consistency of the self that they felt was lost.

Limitations.

While the theories are all beneficial ways to understand human behavior and the drive for consistency among cognitions, there are limitations present in these theories that would benefit from further explanation. A limit of cognitive dissonance theory is that it perpetuates a false dichotomy by only addressing two dissonant elements at a time. In doing so, it fails to describe the nuances of what would occur if there were several dissonant elements present in a given moment. It also fails to describe how an individual would process these dissonant elements and how they would strive to regain consonance among those elements. This same critique could also be given to the over simplistic operationalizations of balance theory. The present triadic structure does not portray how balance theory would be applied in a more complex relationship comprising of more than three unit and/or sentiment elements such as a family.  This is important to examine because human behavior and cognition is often quite nuanced and the current operationalizations for these theories do not recognize the unidirectionality and intersectional nature of cognitive elements. Although these theories provide complex ideas, they were simple in their operationalizations and explanations. Therefore, they fail to provide a wholistic account that depicts the complexity that is human attitudes, opinions and behaviors. Due to the fact that these were core foundational theories, it is understandable that they may not have contained the means to conduct the advanced research that proper research on these topics would have called for. However, it is important that current researchers keep this in mind and continue to further these theories and research in order to make them even more depictive of the nuances of human cognitions and behavior.

Conclusion

Though the theories of cognitive dissonance, balance, and social comparison all have key distinctions from one another, they can be integrated by their analogous core assumption that humans desire consistency among their beliefs, opinions, attitudes and behaviors. The core consistency motivation present for all of these theories paints a picture of human preferences and their desire for simplicity through constancy among all elements of their cognition. Cognitive dissonance shows that individuals prefer cognitive consonance while balance theory shows that people prefer consistency within their relationships and among their cognitions. Self-affirmation theory, on the other hand, implies that individuals desire self -consistency. By integrating balance theory, cognitive dissonance theory and self-affirmation theory by their consistency motive the theories can be used to push each other and social psychology forward in our understanding of human behavior and can provide a deeper and broader understanding of human nature. In a field that is continuously tasked with understanding human beings that are characterized by their adaptive capacity to change, integrated frameworks such as the one outlined in the context of this paper may prove instrumental in providing a conceptual basis to begin understanding these behaviors. A systematic study of consistency motive in various domains like cognitions, emotions and behavior can prove helpful by avoiding confusion on similar terms, helping to address the replication crisis, unifying the field of social psychology and pushing the field forward.

References

  • Brannon, S., & Gawronski, B.  (2018). Cognitive Consistency in Social Cognition. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. Ed.   Retrieved 5 Dec. 2018, from http://oxfordre.com/psychology/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.001.0001/acrefore-9780190236557-e-314.
  • Festinger, L.  (1957).  A theory of cognitive dissonance.  Evanston, IL:  Row, Peterson and Co. Chapters 1, 2, 4, 6, 11.
  • Heider, F.  (1958).  The psychology of interpersonal relations.  Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.  Chapters 1-4 (especially 2 & 4), skim chapters 5 & 6.
  • “Self-Affirmation Theory.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved November 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/self-affirmation-theory
  • Steele, Claude M. 1988. The Psychology of Self-Affirmation: Sustaining the Integrity of the Self. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 21, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, 261–302. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  • Steele, Claude M. 1997. A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance. American Psychologist,52, 613–629.
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