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change. Those individuals who are highly motivated to ¬nd causes for their arousal are
less likely to show dissonance-related attitude change because they settle on an alterna-
tive attribution for their arousal, more so than a person who is not so motivated.

Lessons of Cognitive Dissonance Theory
What can we learn about persuasive techniques from cognitive dissonance theory? The
¬rst lesson is that cognitive inconsistency often leads to change. Therefore, one persua-
sive technique is to point out to people how their behavior runs counter to their beliefs.
Presumably, if people are aware of their inconsistencies, they will change. Persuasion
may also occur if individuals are made aware that their behavior may produce a nega-
tive outcome (Cooper & Scher, 1992).
A second lesson is that any time you can induce someone to become publicly com-
mitted to a behavior that is counter to their beliefs, attitude change is a likely outcome.
One reason for the change is that people use their public behavior as a kind of heuristic,
a rule that says people stand by their public acts and bear personal responsibility for
them (Baumeister & Tice, 1984; Zimbardo & Leippe, 1992). In other words, the rule
is, “If I did it, I meant it.”

Cognitive Dissonance and Cult Membership
Cognitive dissonance plays an important role in the formation and maintenance of cults.
Once people make a public commitment to a leader and a movement, it is hard for them
to acknowledge their misgivings. Instead, they have to throw more and more resources
into maintaining their commitment, even when it becomes obvious to others that the
loyalty is misplaced. This phenomenon has occurred many times in human history. It
happened in 1978 in Guyana, in Jonestown, the “utopian” community of the Reverend
Jim Jones. On his orders, his followers committed mass suicide by drinking Kool Aid
laced with cyanide. It happened again more recently in Waco, Texas.
In March 1993, a religious cult known as the Branch Davidians came to national
attention at the beginning of its stand-off with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and
Firearms (ATF). The cult was led by David Koresh, who claimed to receive orders
from God. Koresh created the groupʼs social reality. He separated cult members from
the rest of the world, both physically and psychologically. He told them that he was
Jesus and that “others” would deny the fact and try to destroy the cult. The Davidians
stocked arms, food, and ammunition to prepare for apocalypse and confrontation with
the outside world. Koreshʼs predictions seemed to come true when ATF agents came to
seize the cultʼs automatic weapons. Guns blazed on both sides, leaving several agents
dead and wounded.
A siege of the compound began that lasted nearly 2 months. Federal authorities
grew increasingly concerned about the welfare of the many children inside and the
lack of progress in the negotiations with Koresh. Finally, assured by experts that the
Davidians would not commit mass suicide if threatened, agents pumped tear gas into
the compound to force them outside. However, ¬res erupted inside the buildings, appar-
ently started by the cult. Eighty-six cult members, including 23 children, were inciner-
ated. Apparently, the Davidians chose self-destruction rather than destruction of their
reality. Why were members so persuaded by Koreshʼs outrageous claims? How did they
become so committed to the cult?
All cults have many characteristics in common. The primary feature is a charismatic
leader. He or she takes on a supernatural aura and persuades group members to devote
their lives and fortunes to the cult. Koresh was such a charismatic individual, able to
convince large groups of people through clever arguments and persuasive appeals. For
Social Psychology

example, he refuted doubters by claiming to possess sole understanding of the Scriptures
and changed interpretations often to keep cult members constantly uncertain and reliant
on him. Koresh used charm and authority to gain control of followersʼ lives. However,
charisma alone is not enough to account for the behavior of the Davidians. We must also
look at the cognitive dynamics of the individual members to see how they became so
committed to Koresh and his ideals.
Joining the cult was no easy feat. At ¬rst, few demands were made, but after a while,
members had to give more. In fact, members routinely turned over all of their posses-
sions, including houses, insurance policies, and money. Once in the group, life was quite
harsh. Koresh enforced strict (and changeable) rules on every aspect of membersʼ lives,
including personally rationing all their food, imposing celibacy on the men while taking
women as his wives and concubines, and in¬‚icting physical abuse. In short, residents
of the compound had to expend quite a bit of effort to be members.
All the requirements for membership relate directly to what we know about atti-
tudes and behavior from dissonance theory. For example, dissonance research shows
that the harder people have to work to get into a group, the more they value that group
(Aronson & Mills, 1959). By turning over all of their possessions, members were
making an irreversible commitment to the cult. Once such a commitment is made,
people are unlikely to abandon positive attitudes toward the group (Festinger, Riecken,
& Schachter, 1982). After expending so much effort, questioning commitment would
create cognitive dissonance (Osherow, 1988). It is inconsistent to prove devotion to a
belief by donating all of your possessions and then to abandon those beliefs. In other
words, to a large extent, cult members persuade themselves. Dissonance theory predicts
that the Davidians would come to value the group highly and be disinclined to question
Koresh. This is, in fact, what happened.
Interestingly, cult members do not lose faith when the situation begins to sour. In
fact, there is sometimes an increase in the strength of their commitment. One study
investigated a “doomsday” society, a group that predicts the end of the world (Festinger
et al., 1982). The study found that when a prophecy failed, members became more
committed to the group. There are ¬ve conditions that must be met before this effect
will occur.

1. The belief must be held with deep conviction and must be re¬‚ected in the
believerʼs overt behavior.
2. The believer must have taken a step toward commitment that is dif¬cult to
reverse, for example, giving all of his or her money to the group.
3. The belief must be speci¬c and well enough related to real-world events that it
can be discon¬rmed, or proven false”for example, the prediction that the world
will end on a speci¬ed day.
4. There must be undeniable evidence that the belief is false (the world
doesnʼt end).
5. The individual believer must have social support for the belief after
Most, perhaps all, ¬ve conditions were present in the Waco tragedy. Members
were committed to their beliefs and gave everything they had to Koresh. There was
evidence that the situation was unstable; several members had left the cult, and some
were even talking to federal of¬cials. And when it started to become obvious that
Chapter 6 Persuasion and Attitude Change 217

Koresh was not invincible, members had each other to turn to for social support. As
negotiations deteriorated, Koresh altered his rhetoric to emphasize apocalyptic visions,
rationalizing the cultʼs destruction and self-sacri¬ce. Cult members probably came to
believe it was their destiny to die, if necessary. The power of persuasion can be seen
in the tragic results.

Alternatives to Cognitive Dissonance Theory
Not all social psychologists believe cognitive dissonance theory is the best way to explain
what happens when cognitive inconsistencies occur. Other theories have been proposed
to explain how people deal with these discrepancies. In the sections that follow, we
explore some alternatives to traditional cognitive dissonance theory.

Self-Perception Theory
Daryl Bem, a student of the great behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner, challenged
cognitive dissonance theory, because, he asserted, he could explain peopleʼs behavior
self-perception theory
without looking at their inner motives. Bem (1972) proposed self-perception theory,
A theory suggesting that we
which explains discrepant behavior by simply assuming that people are not self-conscious
learn about our motivations by
processors of information. People observe their own behavior and assume that their
evaluating our own behavior,
attitudes must be consistent with that behavior. If you eat a big dinner, you assume that useful especially in the area of
you must have been hungry. If you take a public stand on an issue, the rule of self- attitude change.
perception theory is, “I said it, so I must have meant it.” We donʼt look at our motives;
we just process the information and conclude that there is no inconsistency.
Bem supported his theory with some interesting experiments. In one, he trained
people to tell the truth whenever a “truth” (green) light was lit and to lie whenever a
“lie” (red) light was lit. When the green light was on, people had to say something about
themselves that was true. When the red light was on, people had to lie about themselves.
Bem then asked the participants to make further statements that were either true or false
under both truth and lie lights. Participants who told lies when the truth light was on
came to believe that those false statements were true. Likewise, subjects who made true
statements when the lie light was on reported that they lied.
The point of self-perception theory is that we make inferences about our behavior
in much the same way an outside observer might. If you were observing the experi-
ment, you would infer, quite reasonably, that whatever anyone said when the light was
red was a lie and anything said under the green light was true. The participants assumed
the same thing. According to self-perception theory, something does not have to happen
“inside” the person for inconsistencies to be resolved”no tension, no motivation to
reconcile attitudes and behavior, just information processing.

Imagine a group of cigar smokers sitting around a cigar shop talking about the poten-
tial health hazards of their cigar-smoking habit. There is ample evidence that cigarette
smoking poses health risks. There is also evidence that cigar smoking may have some
health risks as well. How do smokers reconcile the con¬‚ict between the health-related
risks and continuing to smoke? Cognitive dissonance theory would predict that dis-
sonance would be aroused in this situation. The fact that millions of people smoke is
proof that dissonance does not always lead to behavior change. So, how can one con-
tinue to smoke, knowing the health risks? The answer is that smokers often engage in
Social Psychology

rationalization. Smokers convince themselves that: “Nothing will happen to me,” “Iʼll
stop when Iʼm 40,” or “My grandfather lived until 80, and he smoked like a chimney.”
Rationalizations are important in maintaining a coherent self-concept.
An interesting study was conducted by DeSantis (2003) that illustrates this ratio-
nalization process. DeSantis, being a cigar smoker himself, was part of a group of regu-
lars who meet at a Kentucky cigar store to smoke their cigars and talk sports. DeSantis
decided to study the inner workings of this group using a participant observation eth-
nography method. DeSantis continued his membership and at the same time carefully
studied the interactions among the group members (with their knowledge and permis-
sion). DeSantis found that members generated ¬ve rationalizations to support their
continued cigar smoking in the face of evidence of its harmful effects. These rational-
izations are listed in Table 6.1, along with a brief explanation of each. Interestingly,
these rationalizations were maintained even after one of the members died from heart
disease. Rationalization can, indeed, be a powerful thing.

Self-Af¬rmation Theory
Dissonance may threaten a personʼs self-concept with negative implications, making
the person appear stupid, unethical, or lazy (Steele, 1988). Nonsmokers probably view
smokers as being all three. Then why donʼt people in dissonant situations alter their
behavior? In the case of cigarette smoking, a large part of the answer is the highly
addictive nature of nicotine. Many people try to quit and fail, or they canʼt face the
self-af¬rmation theory prospect of never having another cigarette. So they are stuck with the dissonance. Self-
A theory that individuals may af¬rmation theory suggests that people may not try to reduce dissonance if they can
not try to reduce dissonance if
they can maintain (af¬rm) their
self-concept by showing they
are morally adequate in other
Table 6.1 Five Rationalizations Made By Cigar Smokers (Based on data
in Desantis, 2003)

Rationalization Explanation

Things done in moderation Participants expressed that smoking in moderation won™t be
won™t hurt you harmful. Some indicated that they cut down or only smoked
in certain, limited situations. Some indicated that their
physicians said it was OK to smoke cigars in moderation.
There are health bene¬ts Participants pointed to the stress-reducing effect of smoking.
to smoking Some saw the stress-reducing effect as a legitimate trade-off
for any health risks.
Participants deny that research on health risks of cigarettes
Cigars are not as bad
do not apply to cigars, indicating that one smokes cigars
as cigarettes
less frequently than cigarettes and that one does not
inhale cigars.
Research on health effects Discounting of research on effects of cigar smoking on the
of cigar smoking is ¬‚awed basis that the research is methodologically ¬‚awed. Two
¬‚aws cited: Lack of adequate research and inconsistent
nature of ¬ndings.
Life is dangerous Relative comparisons made between cigar smoking and
other hazards (e.g., air pollution, driving). Dangers of
smoking minimized in the light of other hazards.
Chapter 6 Persuasion and Attitude Change 219

maintain (af¬rm) their self-concept by proving that they are adequate in other ways:
“Yes, I may be a smoker, but Iʼm also a good mother, a respected professional, and an
active citizen in my community.” These self-af¬rmations remove the sting inherent in
a dissonance situation (Zimbardo & Leippe, 1992). People cope with a threat to one
aspect of the self by af¬rming an unrelated part of the self (Steele, 1988).

The Action-Based Model
Some recent research has called into question the applicability of self-af¬rmation theory
to cognitive dissonance (Harmon-Jones, 2000). According to Harmon-Jones, “engaging
in self-af¬rmation following dissonance-evoking behaviors seems subordinate to resolv-
ing the speci¬c discrepancy aroused by the behavior” (2000, p. 132). As an alternative,
Harmon-Jones suggests that one need not deviate much from the original cognitive
dissonance theory to understand discrepancy reduction. Harmon-Jones proposed the
action-based model
action-based model of cognitive dissonance reduction. According to this model, “cogni-
A model of cognitive
tive discrepancy generates dissonance motivation because the cognitive discrepancy has
dissonance stating that
the potential to interfere with effective uncon¬‚icted action” (Harmon-Jones, Petertson,
cognitive discrepancy
& Vaughn, 2003, p. 69). Anything that enhances the prospect for effective, uncon¬‚icted
generates dissonance
action should, according to the model, enhance cognitive dissonance reduction. motivation because the
An experiment by Harmon-Jones and Harmon-Jones (2002) demonstrated this cognitive discrepancy has
the potential to interfere with
clearly. Participants made either a dif¬cult decision (between two equally valued physi-
effective uncon¬‚icted action.
cal exercises they had previously evaluated favorably) or an easy decision (between a
highly valued and a lowly valued physical exercise) under one of two mind-sets. Half of
the participants in each decision condition wrote down seven things that they could do
to improve their behavior concerning the chosen alternative (action-oriented mind-set).
The other half of the participants in each decision condition wrote about seven things
they do during a normal day (neutral mind-set). After making their choices, participants
once again evaluated the desirability of the exercises. The researchers predicted that
the most dissonance reduction (evidenced by the greatest change in predecision and
postdecision evaluation of alternatives) would be when the decision was dif¬cult and
an action-oriented mind-set was adopted. The results con¬rmed this prediction. The
greatest amount of postdecision spread was found when the decision was dif¬cult and
an action-oriented mind-set was adopted.

Psychological Reactance
Psychological tension can be reduced in several ways. Sometimes, when people realize
they have been coerced into doing or buying something against their wishes, they try
psychological reactance
to regain or reassert their freedom. This response is called psychological reactance
A psychological state that
(Brehm & Brehm, 1981). The theory of psychological reactance, an offshoot of cogni-
results when individuals feel
tive dissonance theory, suggests that when some part of our freedom is threatened, we
that their freedom of action
become aroused and motivated to restore that freedom. is threatened because other
The Coca-Cola Company found this out in 1985 when it tried to replace the tradi- people are forcing them to do
tional Coke formula with “New Coke.” The company conducted an in-depth market- or say things, making them
less prone to social in¬‚uence
ing study of the new product that included 200,000 taste tests. The tests showed that
people really liked New Coke. The company went ahead with plans to retire the old
formula and put New Coke in its place. However, the issue was not taste; it was per-


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