Teaching Tip Sheet: Cognitive Dissonance

Social Psychology Courses

Important Topic in Psychology

Cognitive dissonance theory has a long and esteemed history in social psychology. As originally formulated (Festinger, 1957), cognitive dissonance is induced when a person holds two contradictory beliefs, or when a belief is incongruent with an action that the person had chosen freely to perform. Because this situation produces feelings of discomfort, the individual strives to change one of the beliefs or behaviors in order to avoid being inconsistent. Hypocrisy is a special case of cognitive dissonance, produced when a person freely chooses to promote a behavior that they do not themselves practice.

Lessons Learned from HIV/AIDS Research

One example of hypocrisy can occur when a person adopts the role of HIV prevention educator, encouraging others to use condoms, but does not use them personally. As many HIV education programs utilize peer educators, this situation may arise naturalistically quite often.

Two types of studies have been conducted to test the hypothesis that this state of cognitive dissonance may lead to increased condom use or to altered perceptions of past behavior on the part of the educator in order to reduce the dissonance. In one study, Elliot Aronson and colleagues (Aronson, Fried, and Stone, 1991) asked sexually-active undergraduate volunteers to develop a speech promoting condom use from a set of facts. Participants were randomly assigned either to deliver the speech in front of a camera (to "preach") or to silently rehearse the speech but not to deliver it. Among these groups, participants were also randomized to review occasions in their past when they had unprotected intercourse (high mindful), or not to (low mindful), prior to developing the speech. Finally, participants reported their levels of condom use in the past and reported their level of intention to use condoms in the future.

Results indicated that participants in the preach/high mindful condition (the hypocrisy condition) reported the highest levels of previous risk behavior, indicating that the hypocrisy-induction procedure had "enabled subjects to overcome denial". While interesting, this finding is not what dissonance theory would predict: these students should have felt the greatest dissonance-based pressure to under rate their risk. The intention measure produced a ceiling effect, with participants in all conditions reporting strong intention to use condoms in the future. Participants were called three months later and asked to report recent condom use. While many could not be located, the results were suggestive that the hypocrisy induction had led to increased condom use compared to the other conditions.

A subsequent study by this group (Stone, Aronson, Crain, Winslow, and Fried, 1994) used the same procedure to manipulate hypocrisy, and employed measures similar to those used in the earlier study. In addition, participants were offered the opportunity to purchase condoms at the end of the session. The investigators predicted that more participants in the hypocrisy condition would purchase condoms in an effort to reduce cognitive dissonance by changing their sexual risk behavior. Results verified this prediction: over 80% of participants in the hypocrisy condition bought condoms, compared with 30-50% of participants in the other conditions. Further, hypocrisy participants took significantly more condoms when they purchased them.

Using a different approach, Jeffrey Kelly and colleagues (1997) compared HIV risk reduction intervention strategies likely to produce differential levels of cognitive dissonance among intervention recipients. This study randomly assigned individuals with severe, chronic mental illness to one of three intervention conditions: a seven-session cognitive-behavioral sexual risk reduction condition; the cognitive-behavioral intervention with additional training to act as risk reduction advocates to friends; or a single-session informational control. One would predict greater behavior change among those trained as advocates because non-safe behavior would be hypocritical and should produce dissonance pressure. Results supported this scenario for a number of theoretical mediators and, more equivocally, sexual behavior change.

These results clearly have important implications for HIV risk reduction interventions and further, exemplify how basic psychological research can be used to address important social problems. That efforts to reduce cognitive dissonance may affect the likelihood that an individual will engage in behaviors that put them at risk of contracting a life-threatening illness attests to the strength and importance of dissonance phenomena.

Teaching Strategies

Discussion could be generated concerning why the Aronson et al. study obtained results for self-reported past risk that were contradictory to the predictions of cognitive dissonance theory.

Key References

Aronson, E., Fried, C., & Stone, J. (1991). Overcoming denial and increasing the intention to use condoms through the induction of hypocrisy. American Journal of Public Health, 81, 1636-1638.

Kelly, J. A., McAuliffe, T. L., Sikkema, K. J., Murphy, D. A., Somlai, A. M., Mulry, G., Miller, J. G., Stevenson, L. Y., & Fernandez, M. I. (1997). Reduction in risk behavior among adults with severe mental illness who learned to advocate for HIV prevention. Psychiatric Services, 48(10), 1283-1288.

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Stone, J., Aronson, E., Crain, A. L., Winslow, M. P., & Fried, C. B. (1994). Inducing hypocrisy as a means of encouraging young adults to use condoms. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20(1), 116-128.

Author

Ann O'Leary, PhD
Department of Psychology, Rutgers University