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

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  • M. Keith Chen

    () (School of Management, Yale University)

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.

Suggested Citation

  • M. Keith Chen, 2008. "Rationalization and Cognitive Dissonance: Do Choices Affect or Reflect Preferences?," Cowles Foundation Discussion Papers 1669, Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics, Yale University.
  • Handle: RePEc:cwl:cwldpp:1669
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    References listed on IDEAS

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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, vol. 1(2), pages 157-163, 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, vol. 153(1), pages 235-249, October.
    2. Jonathan Lowell, 2012. "Managers and Moral Dissonance: Self Justification as a Big Threat to Ethical Management?," Journal of Business Ethics, Springer, vol. 105(1), pages 17-25, January.
    3. Carlos Alós-Ferrer & Fei Shi, 2015. "Choice-induced preference change and the free-choice paradigm: A clarification," Judgment and Decision Making, Society for Judgment and Decision Making, vol. 10(1), pages 34-49, January.
    4. Steinar Holden, 2009. "Do Choices Affect Preferences? Some Doubts and New Evidence," CESifo Working Paper Series 2868, CESifo Group Munich.
    5. Bellemare, Marc F., 2012. "As You Sow, So Shall You Reap: The Welfare Impacts of Contract Farming," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 40(7), pages 1418-1434.
    6. Arad, Ayala, 2013. "Past decisions do affect future choices: An experimental demonstration," Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Elsevier, vol. 121(2), pages 267-277.
    7. repec:eee:joreco:v:19:y:2012:i:1:p:67-77 is not listed on IDEAS
    8. Holden, Steinar, 2009. "How Prevalent is Post-Decision Dissonance? Some Doubts and New Evidence," Memorandum 18/2009, Oslo University, Department of Economics.
    9. Muhammad Abid & Ahmed Imran Hunjra & Babar Khalid, 2015. "The Impact of Safety Training on the Performance of Employees of an Electricity Distribution Company in Pakistan," Journal of Policy Research (JPR), Research Foundation for Humanity (RFH), vol. 1(3), pages 100-116, September.
    10. 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.
    11. Cherepavov, Vadim & Feddersen, Timothy & Sandroni, Alvaro, 2013. "Rationalization," Theoretical Economics, Econometric Society, vol. 8(3), September.

    More about this item

    Keywords

    Cognitive dissonance; Revealed preference;

    JEL classification:

    • A12 - General Economics and Teaching - - General Economics - - - Relation of Economics to Other Disciplines
    • C91 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Design of Experiments - - - Laboratory, Individual Behavior
    • D01 - Microeconomics - - General - - - Microeconomic Behavior: Underlying Principles

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