If you want to get somebody to do something, pay them. And the more you offer to pay them, the more likely they are to do whatever it is you want them to do. This, of course, is the way employers get their employees to do things that would be too unpleasant or too boring to do if the person asked to do them was not being paid. But suppose you want to change not someone's behavior in a specific situation, but their beliefs. As people in the business of trying to control people's behavior-from politicians to marketing analysts (or both, if they happen to coincide)-know, if you can change someone's beliefs, you will be in a stronger position to influence their behavior.There are many ways to change beliefs but one of the most effective methods exploits the human tendency to want our behavior and our beliefs to be consistent. "Cognitive dissonance" is the term that the psychologist Leon Festinger used to refer to the inconsistency between our behavior and our beliefs. For example, suppose an individual believes that it is wrong to steal. Suppose further, that they then steal something, say a newspaper from a newsstand. They are now in a state of cognitive dissonance-they believe that it is wrong to steal and they have stolen something.
When we experience cognitive dissonance, we all have a drive to try to make the inconsistency between our beliefs and our behavior go away-a tendency to resolve this dissonance. In principle, there are two ways to deal with cognitive dissonance. We could acknowledge the discrepancy between our beliefs and our behavior and pledge to minimize this discrepancy in the future. In this case we could say, "I believe stealing is wrong and I stole. This is inconsistent and I am going to work hard to bring my behavior in line with my beliefs and not steal in the future." This doesn't make the dissonance go away but it commits us to striving in the future to reduce it.
But there is another way of dealing with cognitive dissonance, and Festinger found that this is by far the most common way people try to resolve it. If we behave in a manner that is inconsistent with our beliefs, instead of pledging to change our behavior in the future, we can change our beliefs. The person who believes it is wrong to steal and who then steals a newspaper could say, "Sometimes stealing is not wrong, particularly if the item stolen has little monetary value and if doing so will make me a more informed citizen."
The finding that people strive to resolve cognitive dissonance by changing their beliefs (rather than committing to behave differently in the future) has enormous implications for the development of methods to change people's beliefs. It means that if you can get someone to do something that is inconsistent with their beliefs, they may very well modify those beliefs. But for this method to work, it is important that a minimum of reward or coercion be used to get the person to do the behavior that is in conflict with their beliefs. If reward or coercion is high, then the person will simply conclude that they behaved in a manner contrary to their beliefs because of strong outside forces.
The implications of cognitive dissonance theory for methods designed to modify people's beliefs are huge. It suggests that even creating small discrepancies between a person's beliefs and their behavior can lead to small but real changes in their beliefs. For example, suppose someone is able to induce you to participate in mild discriminatory behavior toward a person of a particular, let's say, ethnic group. Maybe someone calls them a demeaning name and you're present and you don't say anything. Let's assume that you did not have negative beliefs about members of not believe that this particular word should be used to refer to them. So a cognitive dissonance has been created. You believe that this demeaning word should not be used to refer to members of this group and you have just allowed someone to call them that name in your presence without saying anything. Cognitive dissonance theory says that you are more likely to resolve this dissonance by changing your belief and concluding that it's really not such a bad thing to use this particular word to refer members of this group. If this happens, your beliefs have changed slightly and future situations may cause further changes in your beliefs. It's easy to see how a chain of such events could, over time, mold a person's beliefs.
The moral of this story: Be careful when you are about to behave in ways that are inconsistent with what you believe-even if that behavior is in the form of passive failure to act. When this happens, we all have a tendency to resolve the resulting cognitive dissonance by changing our beliefs rather than by acknowledging the discrepancy between our beliefs and our behavior and vowing to behave differently in the future.
G. Dennis Rains, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Kutztown
University and maintains a private practice in counseling and psychotherapy in Kutztown.