Dissonance theory accepts that we have these inconsistencies and basically says as humans we strive to smooth out any inconsistencies. This theory is best explained with an example; Jenny works everyday but today her sister is going shopping and has asked Jenny if she would like to come. Jenny should go to work and does. Jenny’s knowledge that she is missing out on the shopping trip is known as a dissonant cognition, whereas the knowledge that she has come to work and is earning some money is a consonant cognition. Her dissonance will increase even more if the trip is to an out-of-town shopping complex as opposed to the small local centre.
Individuals do not want to have dissonant cognition therefore try to reduce it. Jenny can do this in a number of ways; firstly, she can keep telling herself about the extra money she is earning and perhaps convince herself that she had a pleasurable day at work. She could also reduce the dissonant cognition by telling herself she would have only spent money on things she cannot afford and doesn’t really need. Consonant cognitions justify a persons chosen action and the greater the benefit of something, the greater the justification and the lower the state of dissonance.
If however the benefit of the consonant cognition is only small then the dissonance will increase. Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) tested this theory by getting subjects to perform really dull tasks for an hour then asked them to tell the next subjects that the tasks were rather interesting. Subjects were offered either $20 or $1 for lying. Festinger and Carlsmith were interested in how the subjects felt after telling the lie. According to dissonance theory their feelings should depend on the amount of money they were paid. Subjects receiving $20 should feel little dissonance because the larger amount of money justifies lying.
The subjects who received $1 should feel greater dissonance because the money didn’t justify lying and these subjects would try and convince themselves the task was in fact quite enjoyable, in order to reduce dissonance. Festinger and Carlsmith found subjects in the $1 condition reported a more favourable attitude towards the task, which is consistent with the original predictions. Bem (1967) suggested that a person’s behaviour is what shapes their attitude, for example (to quote Bem) ‘since I eat brown bread then I must like brown bread’.
This logic could be linked with Festinger and Carlsmith’s study because if the second lot of subjects were told the tasks were interesting then they would take this opinion on board and actually find the tasks interesting. Assimilation-Contrast Theory (Sherif and Hovland, 1961), this suggests we people favour their own attitudes and if a person comes across another person with an attitude relatively close to their own then they perceive it to resemble their own attitude more than it actually does (this is the ‘assimilation’ part of the theory) and they will evaluate it in a more positive way by seeing it as fair.
Basically this suggests people are biased when it comes to their attitudes because people will accept anything that resembles a similar attitude to their own. Attitudes which had less in common with their attitudes would be rejected and seen as unfair (this is the ‘contrast’ part of the theory). This is mainly because assimilating attitudes is much easier than trying to accommodate new attitudes.
The theory of reasoned behaviour (Fishbein and Ajzen, 1975) suggests that subjective norms (which are beliefs about what is appropriate behaviour in a situation) and attitude towards the behaviour (based on expectancies and values) suggest a behavioural intention which then predicts behaviour. The definition of attitude and intention in this context is very similar and doesn’t define in strong enough terms exactly what the intentions derived are. All this evidence shows varying approaches towards the attitude-behaviour link, some in support of attitude predicting behaviour and some against it.
To say that attitude has three main parts which are highly correlated draws up too many contradictions to conclude it as the best theory, the single model provides more scope to address these contradictions but dissonance theory which suggest we will have inconsistencies and will just strive to balance them is a much more realistic proposal of how attitude links with and predicts behaviour. The evidence shows that there is a link between attitude and how it can predict behaviour but it is not to the extent that you can say it predicts a person’s behaviour every time in all situations.
* McDougall, W. (1960) an introduction to social psychology 23rd ed. London New York. Methuen, Barnes & Noble.
* Mills, J. (1969) experimental social psychology. New York London. MacMillan, Collier-Macmillan
* Ajzen, I. (1980) <http://socialpsychology.org/>
Does understanding a persons attitude help us to predict their behaviour?