Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Master of Science




Heerey, Erin A.


Cognitive dissonance is a well-established and highly cited psychological theory. However, many of its basic assumptions have come under recent criticism concerning methodological design, variable manipulation, and measurement of dissonance as a unique psychological phenomenon distinct from general negative affect. A within-subjects design compared measures of dissonance-related affect at baseline to the same affect measures across varying magnitudes of belief-behaviour inconsistency via a counter-attitudinal task. The study also measured belief change in response to dissonance conditions and explored relationships between dissonance experience and individual difference variables (extraversion, religiosity, and political orientation). Results did not support an increase of dissonance relative to baseline, nor change in belief following dissonance induction. Additionally, dissonance was unrelated to religiosity and extraversion, but associated negatively with conservative political orientation. Findings suggest alternative motivations other than psychological discomfort or negative affect for belief change in classic dissonance paradigms.

Summary for Lay Audience

Cognitive dissonance describes a motivational process where, upon becoming aware of an inconsistency between one's own attitudes or an attitude and behaviour, an individual experiences psychological discomfort and is compelled to devise a strategy to reduce or eliminate the discomfort. This theory lies at the heart of research on attitude and behaviour change and has been a cornerstone of social psychology for over six decades. Although numerous studies have used the theory to promote positive behaviour, develop effective health interventions, and form predictions on why and when attitudes and behaviours may change, some of the basic assumptions have been taken for granted. This study aimed to address recent criticisms of the theory in order to strengthen the body of work and contribute to a more theoretically sound basis upon which to apply cognitive dissonance in real-world settings.

Specifically, this work sought to investigate the assumptions that the mere presence of a belief-behaviour inconsistency triggers an onset of cognitive dissonance, that this dissonance would increase as the intensity of the inconsistency increases, and that belief change would be associated with the experience of cognitive dissonance. Participants in the study wrote persuasive paragraphs that varied in their consistency with their prior beliefs on several topics. Dissonance-related emotions were measured following paragraphs written that strongly contradicted their prior beliefs, strongly aligned with their prior beliefs, and that neither explicitly aligned nor contradicted their beliefs. Personality, religiosity, and political orientation were investigated as possible factors that may have affected dissonance experience.

Contrary to the claims made by previous research, I found no evidence for belief-behaviour inconsistency as a trigger for dissonance-related feelings or belief change as an indicator that dissonance had occurred. These findings contradict the assumptions regarding dissonance onset and belief change in response to dissonance, suggesting further work is necessary to clearly understand the dissonance process.