Research, evaluation, analysis

Dissonance and Satisfaction

Many psychological terms have entered everyday speech, and one of the latest is cognitive dissonance. Popular usage, though, sometimes demonstrates an imperfect appreciation of this term's meaning.

Cognitive dissonance is simply the holding of contradictory beliefs. For example, someone may believe that expensive items are always superior to inexpensive ones, but that the expensive item he or she has just bought is inferior to less expensive items of the same type. The important point about cognitive dissonance is how people resolve contradictions like this.

Cognitive dissonance theory proposes that people often do not resolve the conflict by modifying their beliefs to suit the evidence for example, by concluding that expensive items are only usually superior rather than always superior but instead abandon one of the contradictory beliefs and replace it with a consonant one. In the example, the conflict could be resolved by abandoning the belief that the expensive purchase was inferior and deciding instead that it was superior.

Research suggests that people often do make decisions this way. In particular they will often choose to believe whatever justifies an action they have taken. The possibility of this type of dissonance reduction is one of the drawbacks of satisfaction ratings. If you ask people to rate their satisfaction with a product or service they have paid for, for example, they may think it necessary to consider their money well spent even if they received few benefits from the product or service.

Dissonance and Satisfaction © 2000, John FitzGerald
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