Counterattitudinal Essay Paradigm Precision

Distraction and Dissonance: A model of the persuasive process

Chapter III - Cognitive Distraction

Cognitive distraction represents a significant departure from the distractions discussed in Chapter 2 in that it involves the counter-attitudinal persuasion paradigm. Although experimenters involved in both counter-attitudinal and distraction research have inferred some relationship between these areas of interest, this relationship has not been specified.

Festinger and Maccoby's (1964) effort hypothesis, which was discussed in Chapter 2, used cognitive dissonance as a secondary explanation for observed distraction. Baron (1973), in an attempt to bolster this same effort hypothesis, uses an example from dissonance re search (Zimbardo, 1963), The effort hypothesis states that distraction can cause dissonance because the expenditure of energy to hear a persuasive message might require justification. As noted, however, this expenditure, being private, would involve neither public nor private commitment to the message. Under such circumstances, it could hardly be expected that a great deal of dissonance would be aroused. It is possible, however, to take the opposite view, that dissonance causes, and in effect is a distraction. Our purpose here will be to show that dissonance can cause distraction.

Counter-Attitudinal Advocacy and the effects of Dissonance and Incentive

Counter-attitudinal advocacy has been examined from a variety of perspectives, two of which, the dissonance and incentive interpretations, remain at the center of critical debate. The dissonance perspective claims that persuasion in counter-attitudinal situations is the result of dissonance, a recognition that one's actions are not congruent with one's attitudes. Theoretically, when one feels dissonance, an unpleasant experience, one will attempt to justify one's actions, to reduce that dissonance by whatever means are available. Counter-attitudinal advocacy, in this perspective, is a dissonant situation. The subject, having agreed to en code a message which is contrary to his won feelings, feels, and must resolve, dissonance. One of the most important potential outlets for resolving the dissonance is attitude change.

Incentive theorists take a different perspective, claiming that persuasion in the counter-attitudinal situation varies with the incentive the individual has to encode the counter-attitudinal message. Positive incentives, good reasons for encoding the message, cause the individual to concentrate on the consonant arguments he is encoding and suppress arguments which are counter to those he is encoding. This process is called biased scanning, the method by which the attitude is modified.

The difference between these two perspectives is fundamental. One perspective says that persuasion results from accumulated unresolved bad feelings (dissonance). The other says that persuasion results from accumulated good feelings (incentive). The result has been a series of conflicting predictions. Dissonance theorists (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959; Brehm & Cohen, 1962; Carlsmith, Col1ins, & Helmrich, 1966) have predicted and confirmed that paying subjects small amounts of money (low reward) produced more attitude change than large amounts of money (high reward). Incentive theorists (Rosenberg, 1965; Carlsmith, Collins, & Helmrich, 1966) countered by predicting and confirming that high reward produced more attitude change than low reward.

Incentive theorists had also predicted and confirmed an effect for source credibility. Elms and Janis (1963) and Janis and Gilmore (1965) hypothesized that counter-attitudinal essays written for a positive sponsor (low dissonance sponsor) would engender greater attitude change than essays written for a negative (high dissonance) sponsor. The hypothesis was confirmed. Under slightly different circumstances, the opposite effect has also been shown. Zimbardo, Weisenberg, Firestone, and Levy (1965) found that subjects engaged in a counter-attitudinal activity (eating grasshoppers) experienced more attitude change (persuasion) when offered the grass hoppers by an unpleasant (negative) person than by a pleasant one. This persuasion did not result from the actual encoding, by the general principle, that action x is contrasted with attitude not x, remains the same, leaving the influence of source credibility unresolved.

This confusion of results intensifies upon examination of several later studies (Helmrich & Collins, 1968; Linder, Cooper, & Jones, 1967; and Burgoon, Miller, & Tubbs, 1972) in which both incentive and dissonance predictions are supported. In the midst of this range of results, only one hypothesis remains clearly supported, that the counter-attitudinal encoding situation engenders attitude change in the direction of the message. Through out the research, even where the attitude change has not been significant, some movement in the direction of the message has been demonstrated. Although this movement has not always been significantly different from no message control conditions, the consistency of this movement suggests that it is meaningful. Indeed this hypothesis need not be limited to counter-attitudinal advocacy. Consonant argument encoding has been shown not only capable of consonant persuasion, but subject to the same effects of reward that are observed in the dissonant encoding situation (Nuttin, 1966; Kiesler & Sakamura, 1966).

The resulting hypothesis, that any attitude encoding situation engenders some attitude change in the direction of argument, bears closer examination, especially as it is subject to neither dissonance nor incentive predictions. At first glance the hypothesis seems a reasonable prediction of self-perception theory (Bem, 1965, 1968). Attitude does appear to follow from behavior. Although self-perception theory offers a process by which attitude change should occur, logical inference from the context of the behavior, there appears to be no way in which this logical inference can be measured. Indeed, this process is so broad as to defy usefulness, for what, whether it be status, dissonance, incentive, or room color is not a part of a behavior context.

Counter-Attitudinal Advocacy and Distraction

A more promising explanation comes from the hypotheses forwarded at the end of chapter two. In this model, the act of concentrating on the construction of a message serves as a self-induced distraction which attenuates counter-argument. Although the effect, as is to be expected from self-induced distractions, is a weak one, the increase in persuasion can be expected to approach and even occasionally achieve conventional significance levels. The question here is, of course, not of significance, but of meaningfulness. Most experiments in counter-attitudinal advocacy engage forty to fifty subjects. Samples of this size, while generally sufficient to the task of preventing spurious significance are not generally sufficient to the task of preventing spurious non-significance. It can therefore be expected that as sample size decreases, the likelihood of assigning statistical significance to a weak, yet potentially meaningful effect will also decrease.

It should be noted that some similarity exists between this formulation and the incentive concept of biased scanning (Hovland, Janis, & Kelley, 1953). The biased scanning hypothesis states that the counter-attitudinal encoder focuses on consonant arguments and suppresses counter-arguments. The distraction hypothesis doesn't assume an expenditure of effort in the act of suppressing counter-arguments. Instead, it states that the act of encoding distracts the encoder from counter-argument, that the re-allocation of energy made necessary by the act of encoding draws energy that would otherwise be used in counter-arguing. In the absence of strong counter-argument, the individual is persuaded.

The hypothesis that any attitude encoding situation will engender some attitude change in the direction of argument, while clearly the most supportable among the available explanations for persuasion in the counter- attitudinal encoding situation, does little to explain the differing levels of persuasion observed in the literature. Efforts to reconcile the differing predictions and results made and obtained by dissonance and incentive theorists has shifted from attempts to disconfirm the perspectives to the task of finding mediating variables.

Choice, Dissonance, and Machiavellianism

Perhaps the most promising research in this area involves the manipulation of choice. The concept that the amount of choice an individual feels in deciding to counter-attitudinally encode might be important in determining the level of persuasion comes from the dissonance perspective. It was hypothesized that manipulating the degree of choice would vary the level of dissonance felt by the individual. Low pressures for compliance would make the decision to counter-attitudinally encode highly dissonant. High pressure to encode would reduce that dissonance.

Essential to this prediction is acceptance of the hypothesis (Festinger, 1967) that an individual acting in a dissonant situation (a situation where action x is contrasted by belief not x). will attempt to reduce that dissonance. The concept is an appealing one. People who don't act on their convictions are supposed to feel both the discrepancy and some remorse. Nevertheless, there is evidence that dissonance is not a universal phenomena. Burgoon, Miller, and Tubbs (1972) hypothesized that people who enjoy manipulating others would not feel dissonance in the counter-attitudinal encoding situation. To test this prediction they measured Machiavellianism (Christy & Geis, 1970), a measure of this manipulative tendency, and gave subjects the opportunity to counter-attitudinally encode under varying magnitudes of reward. The results supported the prediction. Low reward, low machiavellians were significantly more persuaded than any other group. High reward and high machiavellian conditions experienced similar levels of persuasion in relation to the no message control condition.

Burgoon, Miller, and Tubbs (1972) stands as compelling evidence for the dissonance approach. However, it also demonstrates that the dissonance approach has some definable limitations. Indeed, it allows us to usefully refine Festinger's (1967) hypothesis: an individual who feels dissonance when acting in a dissonant situation will attempt to reduce that dissonance.

Manipulating the Magnitude of Dissonance

If an individual can feel dissonance it is conceivable that the magnitude of that dissonance can be manipulated. Among the factors capable of affecting dissonance is pressure for compliance. Linder, Cooper, and Jones (1967) ran two experiments to test this hypothesis. In the first experiment a 2 x 3 design was utilized. Three levels of monetary payment were used to test the dissonance monetary prediction with two levels of pressure for compliance. High pressure subjects were assumed, as volunteers in the experiment, to be willing to counter-attitudinally encode, even though they had volunteered without knowledge of the task. Low pressure subjects were informed of the counter-attitudinal task and asked if they would be willing to encode the message. If a subject refused, he was not pressed to participate. The hypothesis, that high choice subjects would be persuaded according to the dissonance monetary prediction and low choice subjects persuaded according to the incentive prediction, was supported.

Linder, Cooper, and Jones' second experiment attempted to explore how narrow a range of compliance pressure might produce this effect. The manipulation, a controlled replication of Rosenberg (1965), demonstrated that the difference between high and low pressure for compliance need not be at all large. Subjects in all experimental groups, after blindly volunteering to participate in the experiment were told that the task they would be asked to complete was totally voluntary and they didn't have to participate. However, either $.50 or $2.50 would be paid the subjects if they would encode a counter-attitudinal message. High pressure for compliance was induced by moving the subjects directly into the task of counter-attitudinally encoding. Subjects in the low pressure groups were, however, asked once more if they would be willing to encode before starting the task. The results, although less robust than those in the first experiment, demonstrate that even this small difference in compliance pressure (the difference in monetary payments) can induce persuasion corresponding to both dissonance (low pressure) conditions and incentive (high pressure) conditions.

It should be clear, on the basis of the Linder, Cooper, and Jones (1967) manipulations, that pressure for compliance serves as a mediating variable between the dissonance and incentive predictions. However, a hypothesis stating that the effect of monetary incentives varies with amount of pressure for compliance would be premature. Early dissonance research indicated that the mode of counter-attitudinal encoding might mediate between predictions. The original Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) dissonance manipulation was a role play. Incentive predictions had been confirmed using essay writing (Elms & Janis, l963; Janis'& Gilmore, 1965). Although Cohen's (1962) essay results had supported the dissonance prediction, a replication by Rosenberg (1965) had supported the incentive prediction.

Carlsmith, Collins, and Helmrich (1966) made a specific test of this hypothesis in a replication of Festinger and Carlsmith (1959). After completion of the dull task subjects were asked to counter-attitudinally encode in either a a face-to-face role-playing situation or an essay writing condition. As expected, role-players were persuaded according to dissonance predictions while essay writers were persuaded as incentive predicted. These results indicated that essay writing and role playing had differing effects on persuasion in the counter-attitudinal encoding situation.

Later experiments show these effects to be anything but clear cut. Helmrich and Collins (1968) used high pressure for compliance in all conditions as they demonstrated that varying the extent to which the subject was identified with his role play message could produce a dissonance effect in the high identification (video tape) condition. The low identification (anonymous audio-tape recording) condition experienced an incentive effect. Linder, Cooper, and Jones (1967) only used the essay condition in demonstrating the effects of pressure for compliance.

Individually, neither pressure for compliance nor encoding condition fully explain the effects of counter-attitudinal message encoding. However, it is possible to view both as affecting the level of commitment the encoder brings to the message. Low pressure for compliance lays the decision to encode on the encoder. The encoder cannot lay the blame for encoding a message they don't believe elsewhere. The subject has committed to the action of their own free will. Similarly, role playing makes the act of encoding public, and as the amount of evidence as to who the encoder is increases, the encoder's ability to deny that message decreases. The greater public commitment of the role play condition over the essay condition or anonymous tape recorder conditions increases the encoder's commitment to what he has said. There are witnesses.

This action of commitment has evidenced itself in experiments to date as an interaction effect. In low commitment situations (high pressure for compliance experiments utilizing reasonably anonymous encoding techniques) persuasion has conformed to incentive predictions (Elms & Janis., 1963; Rosenberg, 1965; Carlsmith, Collins & Helmrich, 1966; Lindner, Cooper, & Jones, 1967; and Helmrich & Collins, 1968). In high commitment situations (those utilizing low pressure for compliance and/ or public encoding techniques) persuasion has conformed to dissonance predictions (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959; Cohen, 1962; Carlsmith, Collins, & Helmrich, 1966; Lindner, Cooper & Jones, 1967; and Helmrich & Co1lins, 1968) for those who felt dissonance (Burgoon, Miller, & Tubbs, 1972),

Increasing commitment to a counter-attitudinal message should make the disparity between attitude and advocacy more salient, increasing dissonance. Decreasing commitment to that message makes the disparity less salient, decreasing dissonance. On the basis of this, a series of hypotheses, each with considerable support in the existing literature, can be generated:

Hypothesis 3Decreasing the level of encoder anonymity associated with the counter-attitudinal task will increase the degree of personal commitment
Hypothesis 4Decreasing the pressure for compliance will increase the degree of personal commitment
Hypothesis 5In low personal commitment situations, the person who feels dissonance will be able to reduce that dissonance without adjustments in attitude
Hypothesis 6As the degree of personal commitment increases. dissonance. if felt, will increase

Little presented to this point represents a particularly new perspective on either distraction or counter-attitudinal advocacy. Indeed, most of these concepts are common knowledge to communications researchers. The goal here has been to present these concepts in a usable framework in order to make the relationship between the dissonance and incentive predictions clear. With this accomplished, it would be helpful to explore the nature of this relationship more fully.

Incentive as Pressure for Compliance

Viewing degree of commitment as the key to dissonance induction makes it possible to look at the high and low monetary payments that are common to counter-attitudinal research not as rewards or incentives, but rather as a type of pressure for compliance. Amounts of monetary reward considered barely sufficient to the task could not be expected to exert much pressure on the subject in making his decision to encode. But as the reward increased the promise of payment could be regarded as a greater and greater reason, greater and greater pressure to comply with the request of the experimenter. Where the existing pressures to encode are small, the pressure induced by increasing the monetary reward could have a substantial effect in reducing personal commitment to the message and attenuating the level of persuasion. Where, on the other hand, the existing pressures for compliance are already large, the size of the reward would not be expected to affect the already attenuated commitment to the message in the same way it would were the existing pressures smaller.

This approach helps clarify the results of monetary manipulations in counter-attitudinal advocacy manipulations. Festinger and Carlsmith (1959), in a manipulation where verbal pressure for compliance was small, found that small rewards enhanced persuasion to a greater extent than did large reward. Janis and Gilmore, in an experiment where pressure for compliance was large (and subject decision freedom small) found little difference between monetary conditions. The comparative results of these two experiments appears in Figure 1. These results are remarkably similar to those presented in Lindner, Cooper, and Jones (1967), Collins and Helmrich (1968), and Burgoon, Miller, and Tubbs (1972).

Figure 1:Dissonance* versus Incentive**. A comparison of the results of Festinger and Carlsmith (1959)* and Janis and Gilmore (1965)**.


Taken together, this evidence suggests some extensions to the hypotheses already presented.

Correllary 4a:Increasing levels of reward for counter-attitudinal encoding will increase pressure for compliance and decrease dissonance.
Correllary 5a:Monetary rewards will be minimally effective under conditions of existing low commitment

Correllary 4a directly extends Hypothesis 4 and Hypothesis 1 (from Chapter 2) It represents a refinement of those predictions that attempts to provide a consistent theoretical explanation of the divergent results associated with monetary reward in the experiments reported here. While Correllary 5a directly extends Hypothesis 5 (above), its implications are considerably more serious. In suggesting that monetary rewards may only be effective in changing attitudes where there is already some degree of commitment, it represents a serious challenge to the incentive hypothesis. While Janis and Gilmore (1965) felt no predictions about the effects of reward could be made based on incentive theory, a series of experimenters have predicted, based on incentive formulations, that high reward subjects would be more persuaded in counter-attitudinal encoding situations than low reward encoders. While experimental evidence has consistently supported this incentive effect, it has been strong in only two experiments. It may make sense, then, given Hypothesis 5, to take a more detailed look at the experiments in which the incentive effect is most strongly supported, Rosenberg (1965) and Carlsmith, Collins, and Helmrich (1966).

The experiments share a common and rather distinctive element: their use of a disguised post-test measure. Although use of a disguised post-test should enhance the validity of experimental results, there is some evidence that, at least for Carlsmith, Collins, and Helmrich, it acted as an intervening variable, skewing the results in the direction of high reward. In the experiment subjects were exposed to a dull task. At the completion of the task they were asked to encode a message to the effect that the task was enjoyable. The manipulation was two fold, with subjects either offered a high or low reward, and asked to encode either actively (to a prospective subject) or passively (in an essay).

Subjects were then told that another experiment was in progress nearby. The second experiment was really nothing more than a well disguised post-test in which the experimenter, after showing the subjects how the experiment worked, professed that he, although knowing very little about the experiment they had just left, needed to get their reactions to the task they had been involved in. Between the task and the post-measure, however, another test of sorts had occurred in the act of counter-attitudinal encoding (and being paid to do so). As such, the post-test was not a measure of reaction to the dull task, but rather to the entire experiment. It seems, under these conditions, that subjects would have respond more positively to the act of writing an essay if they earned more money for doing so. Although this post-test flaw by no means invalidates the experiment, it may have skewed the results toward the high reward condition. The result is a set of overly high essay condition means and somewhat low role play condition means.

The post-test is probably not responsible for the results of the Rosenberg (1965) manipulation. Here the experiment may have been confounded by the instructions. These instructions, given by experimenter I, described experimenter 2 (who was to offer money for encoding) negatively. Because of this, it seems possible that the poor status of the experimenter may have been attenuated by the high reward condition and accentuated in the low reward condition.

Status and Incentive

Status predictions are, of course, central to the incentive hypothesis. But status has well understood effects in lending credibility and enhancing persuasion. There is no apparent reason why a high status sponsor shouldn't enhance the credibility of his position for an audience. This view invalidates attempts to predict sponsorship effects according to either dissonance or incentive predictions. Generally speaking,

Hypothesis 7:High status can be expected to enhance the attractiveness of the sponsor's viewpoint, just as it enhances the attractiveness of a speaker's viewpoint.

The prediction raises the question of why this status doesn't counterbalance the effect of dissonance, with high reward enhancing status and persuasion sufficiently to counter-balance the effect of dissonance in the low reward condition. Examination of the source credibility phenomenon yields an interesting answer to this question. In Chapter 2, three types of message relevant distractions were introduced. One, extrinsic distraction, involved focusing an audience's attention on either consonant (in the positive condition) or counter (in the negative condition) arguments. Source credibility may cause a focusing of attention on positive or negative attributes of the speaker, rather than on message.As such,

Correlary 2a:Source credibility may act as an extrinsic distraction, accentuating either consonant or counter-argument.

While positive credibility can be expected to enhance consonant argument and negative credibility can be expected to enhance counter-argument, the dual effect of the cognitive dissonance/distraction process in enhancing consonant and attenuating counter-argument should be more than a match for credibility. If, for instance, counter-argument is already attenuated under the distracting influence of dissonance, how effective can the additional counter-arguments of low sponsor credibility be, except perhaps to increase personal commitment and distraction. How much can positive source credibility add to already heightened consonant arguments.

This leads naturally into another hypothesis; one that effectively subordinates the entire incentive perspective to dissonance and distraction predictions. In Rosenberg (1965) pressure for compliance removed the effect of dissonance. In its absence, high reward was able to raise the status of the experimenter/ sponsor, with a consequent increase in influence. High reward, in this case, became effective not because of the power of the incentive, but rather because dissonance was resolved before money entered the picture. From this perspective, his results are remarkably consconsistent with Elms and Janis (1963) and Janis and Gilmore (1965).

Hypothesis 8:Where dissonance is resolved, communication is subject to the usual persuasion variables. including sponsor credibility.

With Hypothesis 8, we reach the heart of the chapter. Cognitive dissonance, while a powerful explanation for the persuasion process is, like gravity, difficult to prove extent. Falling, when the laws of gravity say we should, is no better a proof of gravity than being persuaded, when dissonance predicts we should be, is a proof of dissonance. The problem involved with understanding gravity is that we don't fully understand the processes involved. Once that same problem inhibited our understanding of fire. In point of fact, fire was once considered, as gravity and persuasion are now, to be something that just happened, as a basic element of the system in which we live. Now, of course, we know that fire is the result of combustion, a process of molecular rearrangement, but gravity, and to a greater extent, cognitive dissonance, remain mysteries, elements of life for which we fail to understand the process, the method of combustion.

The following hypothesis is an attempt to define the process of cognitive dissonance. If successful, it may serve as support for the dissonance hypothesis.

Hypothesis 9:In situations where dissonance is not reduced, the dissonance will act as a distraction that will reduced counter-argument with their counter-attitudinal message and increase persuasion. This persuasion will. in turn, reduce the dissonance. reduce the distraction. and. ultimately. slow the process of persuasion

This process, which will be referred to here as cognitive distraction, has the potential of extreme power because it is a focused evaluative distraction resulting from a direct, self-induced attack on our own cognitive system.

Together, these hypotheses suggest a model of the persuasive process in which distraction plays a more prominent role than has been suggested to date. The model, which will be explored in more detail in Chapter 4, described a range of interrelated variables that impact the persuasiveness of messages. While the details of this model are enabled by the work of all the researchers considered in Chapters 2 and 3, it is made possible by four theoretical moves that have been presented in these chapters. First, Chapter 2 distinguishes relevant distractions from irrelevant distractions, as summarized in Hypotheses 1 and 2. Second, this chapter refines the concept of public commitment (what is sometimes called new dissonance theory) to that of personal commitment, of which public commitment is one cause. This argument is summarized in Hypotheses 3 to 6 and in Correlaries 4a and 5a. Third, this chapter suggests that many standard persuasion variables, including source credibility, should be less effective where dissonance has not been resolved. This argument is summaries in Hypotheses 7 and 8 and Correllary 2a.

Finally, and from the perspective of the remainder of this study, most importantly, this chapter demonstrates that distraction and dissonance are strongly interrelated. Indeed, Hypothesis 9 specifically suggests that distraction is the mechanism of cognitive dissonance. Taken as a whole, these theoretical moves allow us to view the results of experiments in counter-attitudinal advocacy to be viewed in relation to results in other research traditions, a task which had, in the past, been made difficult by the seeming discrepancies of counter-attitudinal results with those of other traditions.

Foulger, Davis A. (2005). Cognitive Distraction. From the Hypermedia Edition of Foulger, Davis A. (1977). Distraction and Dissonance: A model of the persuasive process. Master's Thesis. University of Central Florida. Retrieved from

Counter-Attitudinal Advocacy


Explanations > Theories > Counter-Attitudinal Advocacy

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 



Sometimes people will state an opinion or otherwise support a point of view that is actually against their own beliefs.

For example, where we tell white lies in order to help other people or where stating our beliefs could harm us. When we do this, we will seek to reduce dissonance by justifying our actions. If we cannot find external justification, we will seek internal justification. This then leads to us change our beliefs.

Counter-Attitudinal Advocacy is particularly effective where it is difficult for the person to later deny that the dissonance-causing behavior actually took place. Thus written (and especially signed) statements and public activities can be powerful tools of persuasion.


Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) got experiment participants to do a boring task and then tell a white lie about how enjoyable it was. Some were paid $1, others were paid $20. Later, they were asked openly how much they had enjoyed the task. Those who were paid $20 said it was boring. Those who had been paid $1 rated the task as significantly more enjoyable.


Counter-Attitudinal Advocacy has been extensively used for brainwashing, both with prisoners-of-war and peacetime cult members. It usually is done by making incrementally escalating requests. Small rewards are offered, which are too small for the victims to use to attribute their behavior change to, thus forcing internal attribution.

So what?

Using it

Get people to agree with you, perhaps on a small point, about something which you want to persuade them. Ensure there is no significant external justification. After a while, their beliefs will change.

See also

Attribution Theory, Cognitive Dissonance, Consistency Theory, External Justification


Festinger and Carlsmith (1959)


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