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I continue to see an oversimplification in the descriptions of the options available that arouse cognitive dissonance: some websites state that all decisions have positive and negative aspects that will lead to dissonance and some say that dissonance is aroused only when a decision is made between two equally desirable options.

In other words, do ALL decisions arouse cognitive dissonance? Or just the decisions made between options that are equally or near-equally desirable?

For example, if I were to choose between an Ivy league college or a SUNY school, I don't think I would very much regret going to the Ivy league school and not the other (or would I be reducing dissonance by telling myself that?). However, the website explaining cognitive dissonance simply labels these options as "colleges".

Also what if the decision making was something trivial (in my perceptions)? Do whimsical decisions arouse dissonance as well?

For example, if I had a very large sum of money and I was selecting between two equally desirable cars, and I could very easily afford both, would I still experience much dissonance?

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  • $\begingroup$ Care to link directly to 'the website' and other sources you relied on to write this question? $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Apr 27 '16 at 14:08
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Short answer: This is mostly a question about statistical significance.

Cognitive dissonance theory encompasses several different research paradigms. I believe this question is about the "free-choice" paradigm - the only one that involves decision-making. This paradigm is also sometimes referred to as "choice-induced dissonance", or "post-decisional attitude change" (though the latter may be a misnomer, as attitude change may happen during the decision-making process rather than after).

Traditional view:

In the original formulation of this paradigm by Brehm (1956):

A second prediction, that dissonance and consequent attempts to reduce it would be greater, the more closely the alternatives approached equality, also received support.

That is, it was suggested that dissonance occurs in all decisions, but decisions arouse more dissonance the more difficult (closer) they are, and presumably less dissonance the easier (more distanced) they are. The problem with this formulation is that at some point, the dissonance induced by sufficiently easy decisions is so small as to fail to reach statistical significance (p-value), making it essentially impossible to test this aspect of the hypothesis.

In the first 50 years or so since the theory was proposed, much support has been found for dissonance aroused by difficult decisions (for reviews, see Cummings & Venkatesan, 1976; and Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999). Numerous variables other than "closeness of alternatives" have been proposed to moderate dissonance, such as importance of the decision, relevance to self, how public the decision is, personality traits, etc - see Kenworthy et al (2011) for a review.

Recent developments:

Then, Chen and Risen (2010) called the entire paradigm into question by pointing out that it is subject to a statistical artifact (first noted in 2008) that could be responsible for many false-positive results. That is, statistically significant changes in preference may be even more difficult to induce in subjects than previously believed.

Researchers are currently in the process of replicating and reevaluating the body of work that this paradigm is based on, controlling for the statistical artifact. Unfortunately, any assessments made prior to this of the level of cognitive dissonance produced by decisions are likely overestimated:

Using the free-choice paradigm, many social psychological studies have investigated the effect of moderating factors on choice-induced preference change ... (e.g., choice importance, choice reversibility, etc. ...) ... However, without a proper control condition, any argument about absolute preference change would not be warranted (i.e., it is unclear whether or not significant dissonance reduction occurred in each condition). ...

The same argument applies to past studies comparing preference change between two groups of individuals with different personalities ... or different cultural backgrounds ...

Data from Izuma et al. (2010) suggests that individual differences in preference changes, which are measured in the typical free-choice paradigm explain only about 28% of the total variance in true preference changes.

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