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Introduction to Cognitive Dissonance

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Introduction to Cognitive Dissonance:

Cognitive Dissonance has become one of the major concerns in the field psychology since Festinger introduced the term in 1957. The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, developed by a social psychologist and teacher (Festinger 1957), states that every person have their own beliefs and would generally tend to act according to their beliefs and they like to be consistent with their beliefs and actions. This consistency is termed as ‘consonance’ by Festinger. Sometimes people tend to have opposing beliefs or conflicts between their belief and actions. This inconsistency is termed as ‘dissonance’. Cognitions were used to explain his theory. Cognition is “any knowledge, opinion, or belief about the environment, about oneself, or about one's behavior" (Festinger 1957, p.3). Humans strive to attain their ultimate goal, [pic 1]


Cognitive dissonance can hence be termed as the dissonance caused by conflicting emotions which can be reduced in three ways: modify action to be consistent with the belief, modify belief to be consistent with the action, or falsify the belief.

(Brehm 1956) re-states Festinger’s theory with various examples. He states that most choices cause dissonance. In one of his experiments, his subjects were asked to rate some appliances and are allowed to take one of them (subject to availability), it was found that the dissonance caused when taking a random object can be reduced by “raising the desirability of the chosen alternative and by lowering the desirability of the unchosen alternative.” (Brehm 1956, p.387)

On the other hand, (Bem 1972) argues that the influence of external manipulations to cause dissonance may reduce the self-credibility of the user. For example, certain organizations like Citibank provide extra benefits for customers who refer their friends. Though this is an efficient way of attracting customers, it also reduces the credibility of what the customer actually feels. Listeners may just go by the face value of what past customers say without knowing the true value leading to customer disloyalty. He conducted the ‘Cartoon experiment’ the subjects were asked to give their views about a series of cartoons if they were funny or not. Additionally, they have to say the truth if green light glows or lie if amber glows. The results of this experiment was comparable to that of Festinger’s wherein he gave 1$ /20$ to prove something interesting (when it was actually boring). The subjects under truth light (1$) were more credible due to lack of external justification than those under the lie light (or 20$).

There were many theories in support of Festinger and many other alternative theories too as stated in (Telci et al. 2011). The study of cognitive dissonance progressed in the field of marketing was majorly used to analyze the consumer behavior and ways of retaining customer loyalty.

Role of Cognitive Dissonance in Marketing:

Post-purchase dissonance: Once a consumer has purchased a product (especially of high value), he may face dissonance due to many reasons like product comparisons, cost, social inputs etc.

Free-choice paradigm suggests that a person is likely to perform dissonance arousing actions only if he has the freedom to do so.(Telci et al. 2011)

The other paradigms were investigated by (Cummings & Venkatesan 1976) . Though he does not state a clear conclusion and the effect of dissonance on consumer behavior, he examines 2 other paradigms:

Forced compliance paradigm: He has put forward a question if a customer can be persuaded to get a particular product against his choice for which he received various views and criticisms. He finally went with the principle that as lesser the pressure placed on the person to perform the act, the greater the dissonance (Kiesler et al. 1969, p.206, cited in Cummings & Venkatesan 1976 )

Fait accompli paradigm: This states that if a bad decision causes a negative event, then more dissonance is caused.

Many theories have made an effort to measure dissonance (Telci et al. 2011). According to (Festinger 1957), the effort to reduce cognitive dissonance depends on the level of dissonance the consumer is facing. For Example, when a person spends on an expensive car and face some post-purchase repairs, it may lead to dissonance. If the dissonance is very high, he might just accept the financial loss and sell his car. If the dissonance is low, he might add other consonant cognitions in support of his action like bragging his ownership or exciting car features and accept that is okay to spend so much. Or he may just confess of having taken a wrong decision and live with it.

Briefly, dissonance can be

1) High, causing to reverse the action

2) Negligible

3) High, causing to reverse the belief

The effects of dissonance on consumer attitude, re-purchase plans and seeking information was studied by (Cummings & Venkatesan 1976). He said that the effects of dissonance can be measured only if the consumer has irrevocable commitment towards purchasing the product thus eliminating other obvious factors causing dissonance. (Hunt 1970 cited in Telci et al. 2011) studied the consequence of asking feedback from consumers through letters and phone-calls to reduce dissonance and increase repurchases. Though letters showed a positive effect, phone calls showed contrary outcomes.

(Ratchford 1987, cited in Baines & Fill 2014) suggests that marketing should be concentrated to the products based on perceptions and involvement. The following table suggests different marketing strategies that can be adopted for different categories of products.



High Involvement

need to promote more product knowledge (like life insurances)

need emotional advertising ( like Sports Car)

Low Involvement

need to promote habitual buying (like paper towels)

need more personal satisfaction (like salty snacks)

Festinger’s theory states that there should be consistency between a consumer’s expectations and the product performance. The higher the expectation for high involvement products like car, the more satisfied the customers are. In that case, the company can advertise strongly to attract this set of consumers who are more likely to provide better feedback. On the other hand, (Korgaonkar & Moschis 1982) provide results differing from that of cognitive dissonance theory.

According to (Korgaonkar & Moschis 1982) - For low involvement products like soft drinks, the organization may underplay or just state its original benefits in its advert which will cause a favorable outcome. In the case of high involvement products like cars, the company should attract customers by increasing their expectations prior to the purchase.



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