Title

Rationalization and Cognitive Dissonance: Do Choices Affect or Reflect Preferences?

Authors

Keith M. Chen

Document Type

Discussion Paper

Publication Date

6-1-2008

CFDP Number

1669

CFDP Pages

18

Abstract

Cognitive dissonance is one of the most influential theories in psychology, and its oldest experiential realization is choice-induced dissonance. In contrast to the economic approach of assuming a person’s choices reveal their preferences, psychologists have claimed since 1956 that people alter their preferences to rationalize past choices by devaluing rejected alternatives and upgrading chosen ones. Here, I show that every study which has tested this preference-spreading effect has overlooked the potential that choices may reflect individual preferences. Specifically, these studies have implicitly assumed that subject’s preferences can be measured perfectly, i.e., with infinite precision. Absent this, their methods, even with control groups, will mistakenly identify cognitive dissonance when there is none. Correctly interpreted, several prominent studies actually reject the presence of choice-induced dissonance. This suggests that mere choice may not always induce rationalization, a reversal that may significantly change the way we think about cognitive dissonance as a whole.

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