Cognitive Dissonance Theory of Communication Dissonance and Consonance

The cognitive dissonance theory of communication provides solutions to psychological challenges affecting human behaviors and communication consonance. Psychologist Leon Festinger contributed to the field of social cognitive theories by developing the cognitive dissonance theory of communication in 1957. Ideally, communication dissonance arises from holding two conflicting beliefs at the same time.

Leon Festinger Cognitive Dissonance Theory
Psychologist Leon Festinger

The theory of cognitive dissonance has gained immense popularity amongst the social cognitive theories of communication. It’s also widely applied in a variety of disciplines because of its fundamental idea that human beings should make decisions purposively when confronted with conflicting beliefs.

What is Cognitive Dissonance and Consonance?

Cognitive dissonance refers to the condition of being mentally disturbed by conflicting beliefs, values or ideas. On the other hand, cognitive consonance refers to the state of being mentally in agreement with ideas, beliefs, attitudes, and values. Consonance is achieved by overcoming dissonant, mentally disturbing ideas.

Causes of Cognitive Dissonance

  • Compulsion or Force

Compulsion causes dissonance where one is forced to do something that they would not be willing to do on their own, in private, or otherwise in the absence of being forced or compelled. For example, an employee of an alcoholic drinks company being forced to promote an alcoholic drink to secure his job even though he holds conflicting beliefs, values, and attitudes that against alcohol use.

  • Decision Making

Decision making cognitive dissonance occurs where one has to choose between two conflicting ideas and where one of the two options must be taken at a cost. For example, choosing between taking a job offer far away from home at the expense of being separated from family or turning down the job offer to remain with family at the cost of being jobless.

  • Effort

Effort related cognitive dissonance occurs where one puts a lot of effort in pursuing a given goal or project only to realize, at the end, that it was not worth the effort. This causes a conflict and, due to the amount of effort invested, one is forced to adopt new dissonant attitudes to console themselves for the lost effort as opposed to attaining consonance by accepting that their venture was worthless.

Examples of Dissonant Ideas

For example, cognitive dissonance can occur when a person who believes that plastic bags degrade the environment finds himself using litter bags that are made of plastic, a situation that creates inner struggle.

Another example of a dissonant idea is where a smoker is addicted to smoking despite knowing the dangers of smoking. This creates an inner struggle within the smoker, which can cause guilt.

Overcoming Dissonant Ideas and Achieving Cognitive Consonance

The cognitive dissonance theory states that people feel uncomfortable with dissonant ideas and values, which then motivates them to achieve communication consonance by pursuing what is acceptable to them or consonant attitudes and beliefs. Communication consonance, therefore, is achieved by pursuing acceptable ideas and values.

In the case of a smoker who is mentally disturbed by his awareness of the dangers of smoking, achieving consonance or overcoming the cognitive dissonant smoking behavior can be realized by taking a behavior change action or changing attitudes or beliefs on smoking as shown below.

cognitive dissonance theory and example of cognitive dissonance among smokers

The communication dissonance theory also states that people are likely to avoid dissonant situations that may increase the levels of their mental disturbance when faced with such situations. Leon Festinger argued that dissonance is unavoidable in the society and people have to learn how to live with it by adopting different methods of achieving communication consonance to reduce conflicting situations.

Application of Communication Consonance to Resolve Conflicts between Employees at Work

Since the cognitive dissonance theory was published in 1951, it has significantly changed how psychologists view decision making and communication behavior. The cognitive communication consonance theory plays a crucial role in resolving conflicts in the workplace by developing an understanding of employees’ attitude, behaviors, and beliefs that may affect good communication.

According to the  communication dissonance theory, whenever two attitudes or believes are in conflict, people seek consistency by working on reducing the conflict and achieving communication consonance (Kowol, 2008).

In communication between employees at work, employees get involved in conflicts due to their beliefs and attitudes. However, employees who have conflicting beliefs can be motivated to change their attitudes in order to bring effective communication consonance, understanding and a relationship between the two conflicting beliefs.

Principles of the Leon Festinger Theory of Communication

1st Principle: Changing Beliefs and Attitudes Enhances Consonance in Communication

The cognitive dissonance theory states that when communicating, people prefer to avoid a dissonance situation. Therefore, if the problem of communication dissonance is influenced by the employees’ behavior or attitudes towards their supervisors, the management can ensure communication consonance by motivating their employees to avoid or change their attitudes or behavior.

However, Leon Festinger admitted that it is difficult to influence people to change their learned behavior and therefore gave a second principle through which the communication dissonance theory can be applied in such situations.

2nd Principle: Learning new information promotes communication consonance

The second principle of the cognitive dissonance theory is that learning new information may be effective in helping resolve conflicts brought out by beliefs or attitudes. Managers can motivate employee consonance by providing training programs to equip them with information that can influence them to change their behavior or attitudes by outweighing the dissonant beliefs.

3rd Principle: Reducing the importance of beliefs and attitudes reduces dissonance in communication

The third principle of the communication dissonance theory states that dissonance and communication conflicts can be resolved by reducing the importance of dissonant beliefs or attitudes that affect communication between employees.

To increase communication consonance between employees, the management of ABC Company can aim at promoting certain beliefs that promote effective communication skills between supervisors and employees (Kowol, 2008).

The company will effectively address the problem of communication dissonance by decreasing the importance of the beliefs or attitudes which employees hold into that affect communication between them and their supervisors.

How the Communication Dissonance Theory is Used to Resolve Employee Communication Problems

The social cognitive theory provides ways through which the management of a business can apply the cognitive dissonance theory to change the beliefs of employees and improve communication between managers and employees in an organization. The communication dissonance theory has been applied in varying situations to resolve conflicts resulting from dissonant employee behaviors or attitudes.

In a case study on use of cognitive dissonance theory, the theory was applied to improve communication between employees and their managers in the cleaning department of a busy hospital (Pickens, 2005). Betty, a newly appointed manager realized that employees did not offer any suggestion on how communication in the hospital’s cleaning department could be made more efficient.

After enquiring, she realized that employees felt they were not educated enough to provide advice to the management and therefore opted to remain silent on the suggestions they could have made to improve the efficiency of the department.

The manager organized a 3-month training to teach employees effective communication and social skills in order to change their attitudes on communication with the aim of improving communication between management and employees and resolving the company’s problems.

The communication skills training program aimed at teaching employees on what was expected of them by the organization and eliminating dissonant communication beliefs that did not promote effective communication within the organization.

After the communication skills training program, one of the employees identified as Sally recognized that the major problem with the cleaning department was that the nurses did not communicate with cleaners to notify them when patients are discharged in order to enable the cleaners to adjust their cleaning schedule in advance.

The communication dissonance problem was resolved by amending the procedure of communication so as to ensure that cleaners were well informed before patient were discharged. This reduced the time taken to clean the wards from three hours to thirty minutes (Pickens, 2005).

Limitations to Communication Dissonance Theory

Organizations can effectively apply the cognitive dissonance theory to change the attitudes and beliefs of employees that affect communication between them and the management. However, several restrictions may hinder the application of the cognitive theory of communication in specific cases.

For instance, it is very difficult to practically observe dissonance in a person’s behavior and to link it to specific problem (Barker,2003). This may present a challenge for solving the problem of poor communication that affects ABC Company.

Another challenge to the cognitive dissonance theory is that behaviors and attitudes vary between different people. Therefore finding an effective solution that may effectively address dissonant attitudes or behaviors among employees may prove to be a challenge. Finally, people may cope with situations of poor communication in a manner that is completely different to what is predicted by the cognitive dissonance theory (Barker, 2003).    

References

Barker, P. (2003). Cognitive dissonance. Beyond intractability. Retrieved on 6th Nov 2016 from http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/cognitive-dissonance

Kowol, A. (2008). The theory of cognitive dissonance. Retrieved from http://www.works.adamkowol.info/Festinger.pdf.

Pickens, J. (2005). Attitudes and perceptions. Organizational Behavior in Health Care. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 43-75. Retrieved on 5th November 2016 from http://healthadmin.jbpub.com/Borkowski/chapter3.pdf