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date: 20 October 2018

Summary and Keywords

The desire to maintain consistency between cognitions has been recognized by many psychologists as an important human motive. Research on this topic has been highly influential in a variety of areas of social cognition, including attitudes, person perception, prejudice and stereotyping, and self-evaluation. In his seminal work on cognitive dissonance, Leon Festinger noted that inconsistencies between cognitions result in negative affect. Further, he argued that the motivation to maintain consistency is a basic motive that is intrinsically important. Subsequent theorists posed revisions to Festinger’s original theory, suggesting that consistency is only important to the extent that it allows one to maintain a desired self-view or to communicate traits to others. According to these theorists, the motivation to maintain consistency serves as a means toward a superordinate motive, not as an end in itself. Building on this argument, more recent perspectives suggest that consistency is important for the execution of context-appropriate action and the acquisition and validation of knowledge.

Several important lines of research grew out of the idea that cognitive consistency plays a central role in social information processing. One dominant line of research has aimed toward understanding how people deal with inconsistencies between their attitudes and their behaviors. Other research has investigated how individuals maintain their beliefs either by (1) avoiding exposure to contradictory information or (2) engaging in cognitive processes aimed toward reconciling an inconsistency after being exposed to contradictory information. Cognitive consistency perspectives have also been leveraged to understand (1) the conditions under which explicit and implicit evaluations correlate with one another, (2) when change in one type of evaluation corresponds with change in the other, and (3) the roles of distinct types of consistency principles underlying explicit and implicit evaluations.

Expanding on these works, newer lines of research have provided important revisions and extensions to early research on cognitive consistency, focusing on (1) the identification of inconsistency, (2) the elicitation of negative affect in response to inconsistency, and (3) behavioral responses aimed to restore inconsistency or mitigate the negative feelings arising from inconsistency. For example, some research has suggested that, instead of following the rules of formal logic, perceptions of (in)consistency are driven by “psycho-logic” in that individuals may perceive inconsistency when there is logical consistency, and vice versa. Further, reconciling conflicting research on the affective responses to inconsistency, recent work suggests that all inconsistencies first elicit negative affect, but immediate affective reactions may change in line with the hedonic experience of the event when an individual has time to make sense of the inconsistency. Finally, new frameworks have been proposed to unite a broad range of phenomena under one unifying umbrella, using the concept of cognitive consistency as a common denominator.

Keywords: cognitive consistency, social cognition, dissonance, motivation, attitudes

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