Explaining Attitudes from Behavior: A Cognitive Dissonance Approach

Journal of Politics, Vol. 80, No. 2 (2018): 400-411
A classic example of cognitive dissonance

(with Avi Acharya and Maya Sen)

The standard approach in positive political theory posits that action choices are the consequences of attitudes. Could it be, however, that an individual’s actions also affect her fundamental preferences? We present a broad theoretical framework that captures the simple, yet powerful, intuition that actions frequently alter attitudes as individuals seek to minimize cognitive dissonance. This framework is particularly appropriate for the study of political attitudes and enables political scientists to formally address important questions that have remained inadequately answered by conventional rational choice approaches – questions such as “What are the origins of partisanship?” and “What drives ethnic and racial attitudes?” We illustrate our ideas with three examples from the literature: (1) how partisanship emerges naturally in a two party system despite policy being multi-dimensional, (2) how ethnic or racial hostility increases after acts of violence, and (3) how interactions with people who express different views can lead to empathetic changes in political positions.