An Examination of Festinger's Cognitive Dissonance Theory and Notable Modifications
Sometimes the greatest test of a theory is its longevity. Over time, some theories will be disproved, some will be modified, and some will become the basis for a whole new group of theories. Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance has stood up to challenge for over forty years, and is considered by many to be the single most important theory of social psychology. Though there have been modifications to the theory after many recreations and simulations of the original 1957 experiment, few have been able to really disqualify Festinger’s findings. It would be safe to say that many people don’t even have a full grasp of the incredible implications that Festinger’s research and experiments have towards the self-concept and behavior, myself not excluded. The actual definition of cognitive dissonance is almost too simple: an unpleasant feeling that arises from the contradiction of belief and action. Festinger, however, went on to find that dissonance would in fact change attitudes over time, helping people to justify their behavior when they know it is clearly wrong.
Festinger’s original experiment was a simple procedure. Have someone perform a tedious task for a while, then inform the subject that the experiment is finished, but that they could be of assistance with the rest of the experiment as a research assistant. Festinger explained that his regular assistant was unable help that day, and that the experiment was an investigation of preconceptions on task performance. In other words, how will the performance differ when the subject has been told that the task is boring, as opposed to being told that the task is very enjoyable. Festinger offered the “assistant” either one or twenty dollars to tell the next subject in line for the boring task that it was highly enjoyable, and to be on call to act as an assistant in future experiments. In conclusion, Festinger found that the subjects who were paid one dollar actually came to believe that the experiment was enjoyable, as opposed to those who were paid twenty dollars. Incredible? Simple. The subjects who were paid twenty dollars have all the justification in the world for their actions, but the subjects who were only paid one dollar have reacted to the dissonance created by telling the lie for such a small price, and have actually led themselves to believe that the task was enjoyable to improve their self-esteem in regards to the lie.
Festinger concluded that over time dissonance would change attitudes. For example, cigarette smokers know that it is unhealthy to smoke, but they created an attitude to justify why they continue to smoke. If I quit smoking now, I will gain weight. I only smoke when I am drinking. I only smoke after a meal. But the dissonance theory is applicable to much bigger social opinions than smoking, for example: Aronson and Mills (1959) conducted an...