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

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  • M. Keith Chen

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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Paper provided by David K. Levine in its series Levine's Working Paper Archive with number 122247000000002336.

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Date of creation: 29 Aug 2008
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Handle: RePEc:cla:levarc:122247000000002336

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  1. Nalebuff, Barry, 1987. "Choose a Curtain, Duel-ity, Two Point Conversions, and More," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, American Economic Association, vol. 1(2), pages 157-63, Fall.
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Cited by:
  1. Mikael Elinder, 2012. "Correcting mistakes: cognitive dissonance and political attitudes in Sweden and the United States," Public Choice, Springer, Springer, vol. 153(1), pages 235-249, October.
  2. Bellemare, Marc F., 2010. "As You Sow, So Shall You Reap: The Welfare Impacts of Contract Farming," MPRA Paper 23638, University Library of Munich, Germany.
  3. Arad, Ayala, 2013. "Past decisions do affect future choices: An experimental demonstration," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, Elsevier, vol. 121(2), pages 267-277.
  4. Steinar Holden, 2009. "Do Choices Affect Preferences? Some Doubts and New Evidence," CESifo Working Paper Series 2868, CESifo Group Munich.
  5. Sandroni, Alvaro & Cherepavov, Vadim & Feddersen, Timothy, 2013. "Rationalization," Theoretical Economics, Econometric Society, Econometric Society, vol. 8(3), September.
  6. Bellemare, Marc F. & Holmberg, Andrew M., 2010. "The Determinants of Music Piracy in a Sample of College Students," MPRA Paper 23641, University Library of Munich, Germany.

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