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Cognitive Dissonance And Self-Perception Theory

Cognitive Dissonance and Self-Perception Theory

Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable state of mind that occurs when one realizes that he/she is acting in ways that are inconsistent with his or her attitudes; or that perhaps two or more attitudes are not in tune. For example, those who hold strong opinions about protecting the environment from pollution may feel some dissonance if they were to vote for a candidate who was opposed to supporting environmental issues.

When one experiences a disconnect between behavior and attitudes, cognitive dissonance theory predicts that he /she is then highly motivated to restore a sense of equilibrium. A number of direct mechanisms to reduce the attitude-behavior discrepancy were identified by early researchers Aronson (1968) and Festinger (1957). Examples of those mechanisms are as follows:

  1. One can change either the discrepant attitude or the behavior in order to bring them into consistency with each other;
  2. One can seek out new information to support the discrepant attitude or behavior. Smokers may seek evidence, for example, that the benefits of smoking, such as weight control, outweigh the risks to respiratory health.
  3. One can undermine the inconsistency; that is, decide that the inconsistency really is not important. This mechanism is also called trivialization.

A number of indirect mechanisms for dealing with inconsistencies are also available to individuals experiencing cognitive dissonance. Rather than focusing on reducing the discrepancy directly, individuals may seek to improve their self-esteem despite the gap between their attitudes and behaviors. One may focus instead on emphasizing those positive self-attributes (affirming those good things about oneself) that may be threatened by the dissonance. For example, in the case of the individual who believes strongly in working for environmental issues and yet votes for the politician who is directly opposed to this cause, rather than try to alleviate the dissonance directly, he might instead merely contemplate the many other ways he has supported the environmental issues – thus minimizing any self-deprecation that may result from the dissonance he experiences by his behavior.

Self-Perception Theory

Daryl Bem (1965, 1972) proposed the self-perception theoryas an alternative to the cognitive dissonance theory in explaining how attitudes are shaped. The radical element of Bem’s theory is the hypothesis that behavior causes attitudes, as opposed to the more conventional notion that attitudes shape behavior.

The self-perception theoryis, therefore, a process of inferring attitudes based on observing one’s own behavior. The theory asserts that a person functions as an observer of his/her own behavior, and then makes attributions to either an external (situational) or internal (dispositional) source.

An empirical demonstration of the self-perception process was conducted by Chaiken and Baldwin (1981). These researchers separated the subjects into two groups. Group 1 held strong and consistent attitudes on pro-environmental issues, and Group 2 held weak and inconsistent views on the same issues. Researchers asked the subjects to respond to a questionnaire and endorse either pro-environment or anti-environment behavioral statements. They were able to induce subjects to respond in particular ways by using the terms “frequently” or “occasionally” in their questions. For example, when the term “occasionally” was used – as in the question, “Do you occasionally carpool?” – the subjects were more likely to answer “yes” and perceive themselves as pro-environmentalists. When the term “frequently” was used – as in the question “Do you frequently carpool?” – the respondents were more likely to answer “no” and feel that their attitudes were anti-environment.

Results of the Chaiken and Baldwin demonstration (1981) showed that those subjects who had been induced into reporting pro-environmental behaviors later rated themselves as more pro-environmental than those who had been induced into reporting anti-environmental behaviors. But this finding only held true for those in Group 2 – that is, those whose initial attitudes were weak and inconsistent. Those in Group 1 whose attitudes had initially been strong did not show any significant shift in attitude.

Based on the findings of several such studies, one may conclude that Bem’s self-perception theory provides an explanation for how some people may infer their attitudes from their behavior. Those whose attitudes are vague or unformed are much more likely to infer their attitudes by observing their own behavior (Olson & Roese, 1995; Wilson & Hodges, 1992). Those who possess well-defined attitudes on a particular topic, however, are much less vulnerable to outside influences.

Bem’s self-perception theory was initially proposed as an alternative to the theory of cognitive dissonance as an explanation for attitude change. Empirical researchers have found conflicting evidence, however, and are unable to provide better confirmation for one theory over the other.

Internet Resources

For additional explanation about social comparison theory, check out:

For a recent study conducted by the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University regarding the effects of impression management techniques in interviews read: Ellis et al (2002), “The Use of Impression Tactics in Structured Interviews” at:

For a detailed description of Attribution Theory and its application to achievement, visit:

“Attitude Change and Persuasion”

For an application of persuasion and attitude change to recent social and religious concerns, read “Cult Influence & Persuasion Tactics,” available at:

For additional information on cognitive dissonance, visit:

A summary and overview of Dissonance versus Self-Perception Theory are found in the article entitled, “On the Inconclusiveness of ‘Crucial’ Cognitive Tests,” available at:

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