Multilab Replication Challenges Long-held Theories on Cognitive Dissonance

One of the foremost models that scientists use to measure the effects of cognitive dissonance may have some deficiencies, a new multilab registered replication indicates.  

The results of this research are published in Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science. The project, examining whether individuals’ attitudes shift when they are faced with an interpersonal conflict, involved nearly 4,900 participants across 39 labs in 19 countries.  

The replication focused on an experimental design known as the induced compliance paradigm, which involves prompting study participants to act in a way that contradicts their beliefs, then observing how they resolve that conflict. According to the theory behind the model—cognitive dissonance—people are more likely to change their attitudes when they feel free to refuse to act against their beliefs rather than when they feel obligated to do so.  

Results from the replication, however, indicate that attitudes change regardless of whether participants act of their own volition, thereby contradicting the main prediction from the induced compliance paradigm.  

The findings are significant given that the theory of cognitive dissonance and how it is studied is found in most psychology textbooks, said lead authors David C. Vaidis (Université de Toulouse) and Willem W. A. Sleegers (Tilburg University).  

“Many of the established findings from the cognitive dissonance literature stem from papers that are decades old,” Sleegers said. “The studies from those papers were not conducted with current best practices, such as making sure the analyses are well powered and preregistered.” 

An old paradigm 

Social psychologist Leon Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance in the 1950s. He theorized that people struggle to make sense out of conflicting thoughts to keep their lives feeling stable and predictable. He also pioneered the use of compliance paradigms to test the influence of cognitive dissonance on attitudes (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959).  

Vaidis, Sleegers, and colleagues focused the replication on a 1983 experiment. The core of that experiment was to have college students make arguments that countered their actual views. To accomplish this, the experimenters had the participants write an essay in favor of banning alcohol consumption on campus, assuming that the participants actually opposed the policy and would therefore experience cognitive dissonance. They found that participants who wrote the essay voluntarily (the high-choice condition) showed more of an attitude change about an alcohol ban compared with those in a low-choice condition, who felt they were forced to do so (Croyle & Cooper, 1983).  

In that and similar experiments, researchers might assume that participants in the high-choice condition must reconcile their cognitive dissonance by shifting their attitudes toward the arguments they’ve written. By contrast, the low-choice participants can claim they were required to make the discrepant arguments and thus don’t experience the same mental tension.  

Adjusting the design 

The replication project was a constructive rather than direct replication; instead of mirroring the original experiment exactly, the scientists adjusted the model to reflect modern research practices.  

Most labs began with a preliminary test in which they asked students to rate their opinions on several hypothetical policy changes at their university. For the main phase of the study, the experimenters selected a potential tuition increase—something that most students generally opposed—as the subject the participants would be asked about. 

Experimenters told the participating students that a committee at their university was considering a tuition increase. (Labs at two tuition-free institutions chose a different university-policy topic for the exercise.)  

Some participants were then directed to write an essay that supported the tuition increase, while others were given the option of doing so. The researchers asked a control group of participants to suggest other topics that the committee should explore. Students then filled out a questionnaire designed to assess their attitudes about tuition increases and their feelings and perceived control over their participation in the writing task.  

Analysis of the results showed that students who wrote the essay in favor of the tuition hike were more likely to change their attitude about the topic than those who wrote the neutral essay. 

“This was important to observe because it tends to support the core hypothesis of cognitive dissonance theory,” Sleegers said. 

But counter to the original experiment, the students who were given the choice of writing the tuition-hike essay were no more likely to change their attitude than those who were directed to write about that topic.  

“In other words, we did not replicate the effect of choice on attitude change,” Vaidis said. “Overall, the results call into question whether the induced compliance paradigm provides robust evidence for cognitive dissonance.” 

The researchers say they hope their replication will spur additional cognitive dissonance research and a reassessment of the theory. 

”I’d like people to take away from our paper that we are still working on improving the rigor of psychological science,” Sleegers said. “That means we continue to run carefully designed replication studies, even on what seem to be established and treasured findings in the literature.” 

Feedback on this article? Email [email protected] or login to comment.


Vaidis DC, Sleegers WWA, van Leeuwen F, et al. A Multilab Replication of the Induced-Compliance Paradigm of Cognitive Dissonance. Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science. 2024;7(1). doi:10.1177/25152459231213375

Croyle, R. T., & Cooper, J. (1983). Dissonance arousal: Physiological evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(4), 782–791. 

Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 203–210. 

APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.