Consistency Theories (2023)

In social psychology, consistency theories constitute a body of four theories: Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory (1957), Fritz Heider’s balance theory (1946, 1958), Charles Osgood and Percy Tannenbaum’s consistency theory (1955), and Rosenberg’s model of affective–cognitive consistency (1956).

Consistency theories are characterized by the assumption that humans strive for a balanced state of cognitions and behaviors. If a set of cognitions or of cognitions and behaviors are contradictory in some manner to the person experiencing them, a state of imbalance, i.e., “dissonance,” occurs. The affected person perceives this state as unpleasant and is therefore motivated to reduce dissonance. Both behavior and cognitive activity are suitable for reducing dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

The most influential of these four theories is Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory. Initiated by this contribution, consistency became one of the most studied topics in social psychology from 1960 to 1970. The theory implies that people fall into an unpleasant state of affairs if the different cognitions and the behaviors they produce are inconsistent. According to Festinger (1957, 13), “two elements are in dissonant relationship if, considering these two alone, the obverse of one element would follow from the other.” Consequently, to reduce dissonance a person might change or add elements that led to dissonance, or he or she might engage in active behavior either to avoid situations and information that increase dissonance or to actively reinterpret the situation or information.

The selective exposure hypothesis states that dissonant information is avoided except when attitudes are very strong or very weak. If attitudes are strong, the affected person can find enough opposing arguments to integrate dissonant information into his or her cognitive system. If attitudes are weak, this person might better discover the truth and change his or her personal attitude. In this manner dissonance is avoided more effectively over time. In subsequent research on cognitive dissonance, selective perception and selective retention were observed.

Varying kinds of selective exposure have been differentiated in terms of which information was selected, how much importance and meaning viewers and listeners allocated to it, and how they evaluated this type of media content. Researchers applying cognitive dissonance theory in empirical research discovered a number of methodological and theoretical problems, and found that the theory is unable to predict information behavior in the way its protagonists first thought possible. Nevertheless, cognitive dissonance can explain some variance in exposure to news, although the valence (positive or negative), the news value, and the positioning of a news item can overrule its influence on exposure (Donsbach 1991).

Balance Theory

Heider’s balance theory was derived from gestalt psychology (1946, 1958). Additionally, its formulation was influenced by Lewin’s field theory, i.e., all kinds of human perceptions such as objects or events can be summarized into a cognitive field (1951). Balance theory describes the relationships between a certain person (P), another person (O), and an attitude, object, or topic (X). A balance between all three elements is said to occur if they have positive relationships, e.g., P liking O (positive relationship), O disliking X (negative relationship), and P disliking X (negative relationship). This example depicts a balanced triad. It is supposed to be perceived as pleasant and remain stable over time.

Humans can encounter eight different relationships, four of which are balanced and the other four unbalanced. According to Heider, people prefer to have attitudes that are consistent with each other compared to those characterized by inconsistency. Humans try to retain consistency in their attitudes toward and in their relationships with other people and elements of the environment. People try to establish balanced triads in their day-today lives. As a consequence of unbalanced triads, people are motivated to alter elements and relationships within them. For instance, they could terminate the relationship with another person (O) or change their attitude toward an object or an event (X). However, we humans do not always try to resolve inconsistency in that way. Sometimes people would rather “reorganize” triads. For instance, they would not talk rudely about another person’s (O) hobby (X), if they liked this person but not the hobby. In empirical studies subjects rated balanced triads as more pleasant and stable; however, research also shows that real-life triads are much more complex and that assumptions from balance theory are not always able to predict the complexity encountered in real-life triads.

The most important expansion of balance theory has been suggested by Newcomb (1953, 1961, 1978), who differentiates between balanced and unbalanced triads as well as triads without balance. He also investigates the relationship O has to P. A triad “without balance” is defined as one in which the P–O relationship is negative in at least one direction, e.g., O dislikes P. Accordingly, no interpersonal system can be defined and therefore the question of balance is not posed. Also, Newcomb addresses the relevance of relationships as a determinant of consistency. If, for instance, the relationship between P and O is perceived as very important, they are more likely to establish a state of balance.

Consistency Theory and Affective-Cognitive Theory of Consistency

This idea is also depicted in the consistency theory by Osgood and Tannenbaum (1955; Tannenbaum 1968). The authors expand balance theory in terms of quantifying how positively or negatively the other person (O) and the attitude, object, or event (X) are evaluated. These evaluations are made on semantic differential scales. Osgood’s semantic differential method measures attitudes on a bipolar scale with opposite adjectives at the poles (e.g., good–bad, strong–weak). Subjects are asked to rate an object between the poles of given adjective pairs. Poles usually range from –3 to +3. The five spaces in between –3 and +3 are not indicated by words or numbers. Respondents are asked to check the space in between both poles that best indicates their attitude.

Congruity occurs if a person (P) evaluates an object (X) in a similar manner to how another person (O) did. If the evaluation relationships are balanced (e.g., a person evaluates an object as positively as another person did and both these people like each other), yet differ according to their quantitative value (e.g., P evaluates the object very positively, but O appreciates it only mildly), incongruity is the consequence. As with the other consistency theories, incongruity implies an unpleasant state of mind and leads to increased motivation to re-establish congruity.

Rosenberg’s affective–cognitive theory of consistency states that attitudes encompass a cognitive and an affective component (1956, 1960). The affective component implies the evaluation of the attitude object (e.g., positive evaluation of a politician) and the cognitive component implies the instrumental means (e.g., knowing that the politician is a Republican). Accordingly, humans strive for consistency among affective and cognitive components of their attitudes. Empirical research on this subject matter provided sound evidence that changes in one component will lead to the motivation to alter the other (Rosenberg 1960).

State-Of-The-Art of Consistency Theories

Since 1960, consistency theories have increasingly lost recognition in social psychology, because information processing models have gained popularity and because consistency theories lack the complexity to predict behavior. In fact, in some instances, people may be happy in situations characterized by imbalance and inconsistency. Yet despite criticism, consistency theories have inspired an enormous body of research and, until today, many of these results cannot be predicted by other approaches.

Apart from their outreach in social psychology, consistency theories have had a tremendous impact on the understanding of selective exposure to communication. In fact, they are still used to explain selective exposure, along with other theories such as mood management or theories of social identity. The impact of consistency theories for communication certainly lies in their scope to predict motivation. Communication scholars are able to define all kinds of subsequent actions of perceived inconsistency (e.g., selective exposure to mass media), cognitions (e.g., evaluation of mass media content or attitude change), and emotions. However, not all of the four theories named above have been equally addressed in communication research.

The theory of cognitive dissonance has gained the most attention and it has very often been applied to explain selective exposure to news and advertisements. However, research on mass media effects has usually been realized in the form of correlational field research. Cotton (1985) and Donsbach (1991) have reviewed research on consistency theories in psychology and communication within recent decades. Accordingly, corresponding work addressed the question of how attitudes, e.g., toward political parties, are related to selective exposure to newspapers. It was hypothesized that subjects with strong or weak beliefs in political parties or candidates only show moderate interest in selective exposure, because they do not experience dissonance. On the contrary, a person with a moderate belief in a certain party or candidate shows strong interest in publications dealing with the subject matter, because he or she experiences cognitive dissonance. Findings produced in field research of this kind were not always replicated in laboratory research conducted earlier in the domain of social psychology.

Research on cognitive consistency was criticized on the grounds that it lacked appropriate consideration of inter-individual differences and characteristics of media content and format. Also, it was noted that scholars were not able to explain whether cognitive dissonance or some other psychological process was the reason for selective exposure. In addition, communication scholars have very often used cognitive dissonance as a theoretical inspiration rather than taking into account all corresponding research conducted in social psychology before. For instance, Donsbach (1991) holds that this manner of dealing with cognitive dissonance theory in communication hindered its development. Instead of doing rigorous research and appropriately recognizing such work, similar designs have been replicated over and over again. Cotton (1985) suspected that research on cognitive dissonance might decrease or even extinguish, because results are unequivocal and no new, inspiring issues have been raised. Donsbach (1991) argues that only rigorous research and consideration of all results on consistency theories can lead to adequate and groundbreaking progress. Consequently, the future directions that research on consistency theories will take are regarded as obscure.


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  13. Tannenbaum, P. H. (1968). The congruity principle: Retrospective reflections and recent research. In R. P. Abelson, E. Aronson, W. J. McGuire, T. M. Newcomb, M. J. Rosenberg, & P. H. Tannenbaum (eds.), Theories of cognitive consistency: A sourcebook. Chicago, IL: Rand McNally, pp. 52 –72.

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