Psychology Dictionary of Arguments

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Haslam I 43
Cognitive dissonance/Festinger: Festinger (1954)(1) had introduced his theory of social comparison processes. Social comparison theory identified the strong need people have to evaluate their own opinions and abilities by comparing them with the opinions and abilities of others.
Festinger (1957)(2) introduced a new theory that would move beyond social comparison: it focused on the view of the social world unabashedly from the perspective of the individual.
Individuals/Festinger: individuals represent the social world as a set of mental cognitions. Any behaviour, attitude or emotion was considered a cognition – that is, a mental representation within a person’s mind. So, too, were the perceptions of the world around us. Our perceptions of other people, social groups and the physical world were all considered to be cognitive representations.
Problem: Those representations existed in relationship to each other – sometimes fitting together consistently and sometimes inconsistently in people’s minds.
People abhor inconsistency among their cognitions and so mental representations that are inconsistent with each other create psychological discomfort akin to an unpleasant drive. Like other drive states, such as hunger, they need to be reduced.
Haslam I 44
Cognitive dissonance/Festinger: e.g., after an unfulfilled doomsday prophecy, those who believed in it must reduce the dissonance between faith and reality, because they will experience this discrepancy as an unpleasant tension state.
Solution: normally people can change a cognition to reduce the discrepancy.
Problem: if we are committed to our belief – for example, if we had taken a public stance advocating the belief – then we try to hold onto it, even in the face of a contradictory cognition indicating the accurate distance.
Haslam I 45
Solution: (Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter 1956)(3) made a bold and controversial prediction: the Seekers [those who believed in the doomsday prophecy] would not only persist in their belief but would actually become more ardent than they had been previously. They would hold tenaciously to their conviction that their prophecy had been correct all along. Of course, they would not be able to maintain that the world had ended, but they could reaffirm their general belief pattern. Perhaps the date was wrong or perhaps there was another reason for the lack of destruction. But they would hold on to their belief system with greater tenacity than ever before. ‘If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of beliefs is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct’ (Festinger et al., 1956(3): p. 28).
The End of the world study: Festinger et al. (1956) tested this assumption in a real case of doomsday prophecy in 1955.
Haslam I 46
As predicted by the investigators, proselytizing became the major avenue for reducing the dissonance caused by the prophecy’s failure. The discrepant cognitions caused by the discordance of the prophecy from reality were changed into a more overarching message of how the small group of true believers had saved the world from destruction. (…) if everyone believed it was so, then it must have been so. >Method/Festinger.
Haslam I 48
Festinger and Carlsmith (1959)(4): The crux of Festinger’s second seminal experiment was to have a person make a statement that was at variance with his or her attitude, then measure the impact on the person’s attitude. The inconsistency should produce attitude change consistent with the person’s statement. Although there was no study in the psychology literature that had tested this prediction, it was consistent with what would have been predicted by several other balance theories that preceded dissonance theory. But what made dissonance unique among balance theories was the concept of dissonance as an energy model. And as a form of energy, it had a magnitude.
Energy/measurement/Festinger: Suppose a man were paid to make a statement contrary to his attitude. Would that lower the dissonance?
Haslam I 49
FestingerVsLearning Theory: This prediction was a direct challenge to the existing zeitgeist in psychology.
Rewards/Learning Theory: The dominant approach to psychology, including social psychology, in the late 1950s was based on learning theory. This suggested that people learned as a direct function of reward. People changed their behaviour because they are reinforced or rewarded. >Learning Theory.
FestingerVs: Thesis (Festinger and Carlsmith (1959)(4): the smaller the incentive, the more people would be influenced by their own discrepant statements and that large incentives would eliminate the impact of behaviour on attitudes.
This was a straightforward derivation from dissonance theory, but a challenge to the rule of reinforcement as a guiding principle of social psychology. >Experiment/Festinger, >Method/Festinger.


1. Festinger, L. (1954) ‘A theory of social comparison processes’, Human Relations, 1: 117–40.
2. Festinger, L. (1957) A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
3. Festinger, L., Riecken, H.W. and Schachter, S. (1956) When Prophecy Fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
4. Festinger, L. and Carlsmith, J.M. (1959) ‘Cognitive consequences of forced compliance’, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58: 203–10.


Joel Cooper, “Cognitive Dissonance. Revisiting Festinger’s End of the World study”, in: Joanne R. Smith and S. Alexander Haslam (eds.) 2017. Social Psychology. Revisiting the Classic Studies. London: Sage Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution.
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Festinger, Leon
Haslam I
S. Alexander Haslam
Joanne R. Smith
Social Psychology. Revisiting the Classic Studies London 2017


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