Theory on framework issues

Sunday, February 26, 2017

27.0. Cognitive Dissonance: The Glue of the Mind

Two of the most significant framework theories in social psychology in the past half century have been Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance and Trope and Liberman's theory of construal level. Although these theories haven't been previously integrated, they each contain the answer to the most significant puzzle presented by the other. For those with some familiarity with both theories, each of which has been treated in my blogs, the conclusion can be briefly stated: cognitive dissonance is elicited by discrepancies between abstract and concrete representations.

The theory of cognitive dissonance was a framework theory with deep implications that were best appreciated by Roger Brown in the classic text Social Psychology (1965). Cognitive dissonance theory expressed the insight that the human detestation of ambivalence was at the center of the evolution of beliefs. Brown saw that Freud's insights into the repression of threatening ideation could be conceived as a reaction to the engendered ambivalence.

Cognitive dissonance theory was subsequently reduced to the platitudinous by its leading expositor, the social psychologist Scott Aronson, when he concluded that cognitive dissonance is aroused only by inconsistency with an agent's positive self-regard, reinterpreting the reduction of dissonance as limited to self-justification. The different interpretations can be illustrated in the paradigm $1/$20 experiment, where subjects changed their views more toward the views receiving a token payment for their advocacy than did subjects paid a substantial amount. On Festinger's original account, the subjects in the token-payment condition suffered more cognitive dissonance, because the knowledge that they are advocating something different from what they actually believe is an inconsistent mental state. Whereas, on Aronson's self-justification account, the inconsistency is not between the beliefs expressed and the beliefs held but between the expression of bogus beliefs and subjects’ positive self-concept. Aronson contended that subjects resist thinking of themselves as the sort of persons who would deceive others to their detriment about one's own beliefs for no substantial reason.

If cognitive-dissonance theory concerns defensive self-justification, its impressiveness would lie not in its enunciating a new psychological principle but rather in showing that the otherwise banal self-justification hypothesis reaches further than we expect. But to establish that the $1 and $20 experiment concerns self-justification, Aronson needs evidence that agents think it more honorable to lie for a large reward than for a small one. This is far from obvious given that the criminal law on the subject says the opposite: the transgressor's gain increases the severity of fraud.

Festinger was on the right track. What repels subjects is ambiguity and ambivalence. Cognitive dissonance is more fundamental than self-justification; it may provide the explanation for the human tendency to self-justify, and it potentially explains much more. Festinger’s theory is consistent with Sigmund Freud's view that conative overload is the driving force for ego defense.

Festinger's theory isn’t explicit about the nature of the inconsistency. Festinger says that usually agents don't tell a falsehood for no good reason. But it isn't the case that all expectancy failures arouse dissonance. When Festinger presents the theory more formally, he explains that cognitions A and B are dissonant when A implies B's obverse, a term for which Festinger provides no logical analysis.

A new interpretation of cognitive-dissonance theory in the Festingerian hatred-of-ambivalence tradition is the action-oriented account proposed by Harmon-Jones and colleagues, who, first, recognized  that the state of cognition giving rise to cognitive dissonance should be distinguished from the uncomfortable emotional state. Discrepant cognitions are said  to produce dissonance, where cognitions are discrepant if they have opposed implications for action. They facilitate or impair a line of conduct, as is consistent with experimental evidence that dissonance starts when agents commit to specific conduct, at which  point agents marshal their mental resources to actually carry out their commitments.

Thus, when subjects in the $1 and $20 experiment commit to the bargain by agreeing to lie, they will be best equipped to carry out their commitment either if they are motivated to earn $20, or if they can convince themselves that the communication is true.

The action-based interpretation of cognitive-dissonance theory resolves the major theoretical problem facing another theory in social psychology, construal-level theory, which proposes that the deployment of abstract and concrete concepts functions as separate systems. Agents, accordingly, can hold abstract beliefs that are in logical tension, even contradiction. This has led at least one commentator to conclude that abstract beliefs evolved for purposes related to social signaling. But for signaling to be viable, abstract belief must be subject to concrete belief to some substantial degree.

On the present view, the primary function of abstract thought is the self-regulation of concrete conation. The direct manipulation of the world for practical purposes is a function of concrete thought. But abstract thought, while not directive for action, serves to energize (or de-energize) it.

Cognitive-dissonance theory explains how agents may be induced to change their abstract beliefs due to pressure from concrete experience. The balancing act that an explanation must accomplish is to permit abstract logical contradictions while also prohibiting tensions logically weaker. This is accomplished by making the cognitive discrepancy between abstract and concrete representations pragmatic rather than logical. These tensions are perhaps the only means we have for rational influence on far-mode beliefs. While logical contradiction is not necessarily dissonant, sometimes it is.

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Joshua Tree, California 92252-2141, United States
SUPPLIER OF LEGAL THEORIES. Attorneys' ghostwriter of legal briefs and motion papers, serving all U.S. jurisdictions. Former Appellate/Law & Motion Attorney at large Los Angeles law firm; J.D. (University of Denver); American Jurisprudence Award in Contract Law; Ph.D. (Psychology); B.A. (The Johns Hopkins University). E-MAIL: Phone: 760.974.9279 Some other legal-brief writers research thoroughly and analyze penetratingly, but I bring another two merits. The first is succinctness. I spurn the unreadable verbosity and stupefying impertinence of ordinary briefs to perform feats of concision and uphold strict relevance to the issues. The second is high polish, achieved by allotting more time to each project than competitors afford. Succinct style and polished language — manifested in my legal-writing blog, Disputed Issues — reverse the common limitations besetting brief writers: lack of skill for concision and lack of time for perfection.