Individual differences in conscious and unconscious processes in cognitive dissonance

Jack Anthony Cole

Abstract

Although previous research has shown that cognitive dissonance produces negative emotional states, researchers have yet to explore individual differences in affective experiences that result from cognitive dissonance (Harmon-Jones, 2001). In this study, it was expected that repressors, sensitizers, and truly low-anxious individuals, would differ in their affective experiences that resulted from dissonance. Additionally, several researchers have suggested that cognitive dissonance is reduced by unconscious defensive processes, rather than by conscious processes, as implied by Festinger (1957). Two opposing models for cognitive dissonance were formulated in this study, and were tested empirically. The Defense-mechanism model claims that dissonance-related attitude change occurs as a result of unconsciously motivated processes, whereas the Coping-model claims that the attitude change occurs as a result of consciously-reasoned processes. The results for repressors and sensitizers were expected to be consistent with the Defense-mechanism model of dissonance, whereas the results for truly low-anxious individuals were expected to be consistent with the Coping-model. This study employed two separate experiments. The Individual Differences in Affect Experiment was a 3 (Coping style: repressor, sensitizers, or truly low-anxious) x 2 (Choice: high or low) x 2 (Order: affect-before or affect-after) design. The Affect-Attribution Experiment employed a 3 (Coping style: repressor, sensitizers, or truly low-anxious) x 2 (Choice: high or low) design, but used modified instructions on the affect measure, to determine the extent to which the participants attributed their affective state to the writing of the counterattitudinal statement. The expected individual differences in affective experience were not supported; however, the overall results were consistent with the Defense-mechanism model, and raise a serious challenge to traditional conceptualizations of cognitive dissonance.