If you’ve studied music, you probably know what dissonance is. Some notes, when played together on a piano, produce a sound that’s pleasing to our ears. When dissonant combinations of notes are played, we react by wincing or cringing because the sound is unpleasant to our ears. So dissonance is that unpleasant feeling we get when two sounds clash. The same principle applies to cognitive dissonance, which refers to the mental discomfort that results when new information clashes with or contradicts currently held beliefs, attitudes, or values. Using cognitive dissonance as a persuasive strategy relies on three assumptions: (1) people have a need for consistency in their thinking; (2) when inconsistency exists, people experience psychological discomfort; and (3) this discomfort motivates people to address the inconsistency to restore balance.James B. Stiff and Paul A. Mongeau, Persuasive Communication, 2nd ed. (New York: Guilford Press, 2003), 80. In short, when new information clashes with previously held information, there is an unpleasantness that results, as we have to try to reconcile the difference.
Cognitive dissonance isn’t a single-shot persuasive strategy. As we have learned, people are resistant to change and not easy to persuade. While we might think that exposure to conflicting information would lead a rational person to change his or her mind, humans aren’t as rational as we think.
There are many different mental and logical acrobatics that people do to get themselves out of dissonance. Some frequently used strategies to resolve cognitive dissonance include discrediting the speaker or source of information, viewing yourself as an exception, seeking selective information that supports your originally held belief, or intentionally avoiding or ignoring sources of cognitive dissonance.Martha D. Cooper and William L. Nothstine, Power Persuasion: Moving an Ancient Art into the Media Age(Greenwood, IN: Educational Video Group, 1996), 72. As you can see, none of those actually results in a person modifying their thinking, which means persuasive speech goals are not met. Of course, people can’t avoid dissonant information forever, so multiple attempts at creating cognitive dissonance can actually result in thought or behavior modification.