The proponents of the cognitive dissonance theory, Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith, argue that people are bound to change their attitudes if they realize that their actions do not reflect their true attitudes. This contradiction between actions and attitudes is referred to as cognitive dissonance (psychological tension), which can be reversed by people changing their behaviors in order to reflect the prevailing circumstances.
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On the other hand, the opponent of the cognitive dissonance theory, Daryl Bem, proposes a different theory (the theory of self-perception) in which he posits that if people are not sure about their present attitudes, they tend to assess their behaviors in order to establish their attitudes.
Accordingly, Bem argues that psychological tension is not the basis of the contradictions between actions and attitudes as proposed by the cognitive dissonance theorists.
To support their claim, Festinger and Carlsmith propose an experiment in which they observe opinion/behavioral changes that follow from forced compliance. The experiment involved participants performing seemingly boring tasks after which they are paid to lie to other participants that the tasks were enjoyable.
The participants were paid different amounts, that is, some were given $1 while others received $20. The findings of the study show that participants who were paid $1 experienced cognitive dissonance in that their actions contradicted their true attitudes about the experimental tasks. Conversely, the $20 group showed no significant differences with the control group.
These findings corroborate the cognitive dissonance theory in that when the participants were asked to do what is contrary to their true opinions; they changed the opinions to correspond to their actions. However, the researchers observed that the larger the pressure to elicit the contradicting action, the weaker the tendency for behavioral changes.
Contrary to Festinger-Carlsmith’s findings, Bem tried to replicate the experiment in order to show that the results did not necessarily support the cognitive dissonance theory. In his experiment, 75 college students were selected into the $1, $20, and control groups. Bem’s experiment was aimed at determining the accuracy involved in people judging others.
All participants listened to recordings of one participant (Bob) who had participated in the experimental tasks, which had been described in detail to them earlier. Afterwards, the participants were allowed to listen to the conversation between the same participant (Bob) who had been paid to lie and another participant waiting in line whereby the former lied about how he had enjoyed the tasks.
All the participants were then asked to evaluate the answers given by Bob to the same questions, which had been used in Festinger-Carlsmith’s experiment, and rate them in a scale of -5 (tasks were boring) to +5 (tasks were enjoyable) or 0 (tasks were neutral). The results show that the $1 group differed significantly from the control conditions in that they were on extreme ends of the scale.
Relative to the self-perception theory, participants who accepted $1 to lie may have concluded that the experimental tasks must have been enjoyable because they had told someone the same considering that they had been paid $1 to lie.
As a result, Bem concluded that people’s attitudes follow from their actions as opposed to behavioral changes that result from psychological tension. Furthermore, additional studies tend to point to the fact that the self-perception theory can effectively account for Bem’s experimental findings.