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

19 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2008 Last revised: 20 Jul 2008

See all articles by M. Keith Chen

M. Keith Chen

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - Anderson School of Management

Date Written: July, 15 2008

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.

Keywords: Cognitive dissonance, Revealed preference

JEL Classification: A12, C91, D01

Suggested Citation

Chen, Keith, Rationalization and Cognitive Dissonance: Do Choices Affect or Reflect Preferences? (July, 15 2008). Cowles Foundation Discussion Paper No. 1669. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1160268

Keith Chen (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - Anderson School of Management ( email )

110 Westwood Plaza
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1481
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.anderson.ucla.edu/faculty/keith.chen/index.html

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