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Journal of Cognitive Psychology


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Dissonance-induced false memories: Evidence


from a free-choice paradigm
a

Dario N. Rodriguez & Deryn Strange


a

Department of Psychology, University of Dayton, 300 College Park, Dayton, OH


45469-1430, USA
b

Department of Psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, 524 W.


59th Street, New York, NY 10019, USA
Published online: 09 Jun 2014.

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To cite this article: Dario N. Rodriguez & Deryn Strange (2014) Dissonance-induced false memories: Evidence from a
free-choice paradigm, Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 26:5, 571-579, DOI: 10.1080/20445911.2014.925459
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Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 2014


Vol. 26, No. 5, 571579, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/20445911.2014.925459

Dissonance-induced false memories: Evidence from a


free-choice paradigm
Dario N. Rodriguez1 and Deryn Strange2

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Department of Psychology, University of Dayton, 300 College Park, Dayton, OH


45469-1430, USA
2
Department of Psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, 524 W.
59th Street, New York, NY 10019, USA
People often misremember the past as consistent with the present. Recent research using an inducedcompliance paradigm has revealed that cognitive dissonance is one mechanism that can underlie
this memory distortion. We sought to replicate and extend this finding using a free-choice paradigm:
Participants made either an easy or a difficult choice between two smartphones and, either immediately
or two days later, reported their memories for their decision experience. Participants who made a
difficult decision produced the spread-of-alternatives effect expected by dissonance theory, and they
were also more likely than those in the easy conditions to misremember their initial decision more
favourably than they had initially rated it. Overall, our findings replicate the effect of dissonance on
memory distortion and, further, show that the effect generalises to other dissonance-inducing situations.

Keywords: Attitudes; Cognitive dissonance; Consistency; False memories.

Psychologists have long acknowledged the fallibility of human memory, particularly noting peoples
propensity to distort or fabricate memories of past
experiences in ways that are consistent with their
present selves (Ross, 1989). Cognitive dissonance
is one mechanism that has been proposed to
underlie this tendency and account for a wide
range of both mundane and unusual false memories (e.g. Goethals & Reckman, 1973), but it was
not until recently that direct empirical support for
this possibility emerged (Rodriguez & Strange,
2014). We sought to increase the external validity
of this finding by replicating and extending the
link between cognitive dissonance and distorted
memories for prior experience in another classic
dissonance paradigm: the free-choice paradigm.

Cognitive consistency and distorted


memories
Festinger (1957) proposed that people strive for
cognitive consistency (e.g. consistency between
attitudes and behaviours). Violation of this need
for consistency creates a state of aversive arousal
he called cognitive dissonance, which motivates
a person to restore consonance among the relevant cognitions. Decades of research has revealed
numerous routes by which one can effectively
restore consonance following a dissonance-inducing event, including changing ones behaviour to
match ones attitudes, changing ones attitudes to
match ones behaviour, adding consonant cognitions regarding ones behaviour (i.e. rationalisation), trivialising the inconsistency associated with

Correspondence should be addressed to Dario Rodriguez, Department of Psychology, University of Dayton, 300 College Park,
Dayton, OH 45469-1430, USA. E-mail: drodriguez1@udayton.edu
We would like to thank Nicholas Bonomo and Marita Salwierz for their help in data collection.
2014 Taylor & Francis

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572

RODRIGUEZ AND STRANGE

ones behaviour (particularly in light of ones


other redeeming qualities) and denying responsibility for ones behaviour (see Harmon-Jones,
Amodio, & Harmon-Jones, 2009, for an extensive
review). Recent work has found that this drive for
consistency is a fundamental aspect of human
functioning, underlying a wide range of human
behaviours and judgments such as impression
formation and prejudice (Gawronski, 2012) and
memory (Rodriguez & Strange, 2014).
Several investigators have examined memory
distortion as the product of theoretically related
attitude-change mechanisms (e.g. persuasion).
These researchers have shown that people often
misremember the past as consistent with their
current attitudes, even if their attitudes have
been experimentally manipulated. For example,
Ross, McFarland, and Fletcher (1981) used persuasive messages to manipulate participants attitudes towards brushing their teeth, and then
assessed participants memories for the frequency
with which they brushed their teeth. Participants
who were persuaded to devalue tooth-brushing
behaviour remembered brushing their teeth less
frequently than participants who were persuaded
to value toothbrushing. Similarly, participants who
were convinced that extroversion is superior to
introversion misremembered engaging in more
extroverted behaviours in the past (Sanitioso,
Kunda, & Fong, 1990). Analogous effects have
been found for attitudes across a wide range of
topics, such as social issues, romantic partners, and
person perception, and for a variety of target
memories (Ross, 1989).
Some have used cognitive dissonance to explain
these patterns of memory distortion, but methodological issues preclude inferences regarding
whether dissonance was induced or true memory
distortion took place. For example, Goethals and
Reckman (1973) found that participants misremembered prior attitudes towards bussing as
consistent with present attitudes; however, they
manipulated attitudes via minority influence, leaving open the possibility that students attitudes
were influenced by persuasion rather than dissonance. Similarly, Scheier and Carver (1980) found
that those who ostensibly chose to write an essay
arguing that students should not have control over
their undergraduate curricula (a dissonance induction) evaluated their arguments as less opposed to
student control than those who were forced to
write the essay; however, they did not assess
baseline attitudes towards the target issue, and
did not assess participants actual memories for

their own behaviour. Indeed, despite a lack of


empirical support, the link between dissonance
and memory distortion has been assumed by the
literature for decades (e.g. Stice, 1992).
Recently, Rodriguez and Strange (2014) directly
tested the relationship between dissonance and
memory distortion using an induced-compliance
paradigm. Undergraduate participants were either
forced or induced to choose to write a counterattitudinal essay supporting a tuition increase and
then reported their memories for prior attitudes
(which had been assessed two days prior) and
their experimental experience. Consistent with
classic dissonance research, participants who chose
to write the essay (i.e. experienced cognitive dissonance) shifted their attitudes to be more favourable to a tuition increase than those who were
forced to write the essay (i.e. did not experience
cognitive dissonance). Additionally, those in dissonance conditions were more likely to misremember their initial attitudes as more favourable
towards a tuition increase, and were more likely
to misremember the experimental instruction they
received in a manner that absolved them of
responsibility for their behaviour. Furthermore,
attitude shift fully mediated the effect of dissonance induction on distorted memories for initial
attitudes. This experiment provided preliminary
support for the link between the two phenomena,
but further evidence utilising different methods
and measures is required to confirm that the effect
is not a paradigm-specific phenomenon. We
sought to provide such evidence using a classic
free-choice paradigm.

The free-choice paradigm and false


memories for choices
In the classic free-choice paradigm (Brehm, 1956),
participants evaluate a number of items and are
then presented with a choice between two of them.
For some, this is an easy choice, and for others it is
a difficult choice. Difficulty is manipulated by
presenting options the participant had previously
rated similarly (difficult choice) or differently
(easy choice). After choosing, participants then
re-evaluate their decision options. Typically, those
who make a difficult choice evaluate their chosen
option more positively, and the rejected option
more negatively than they had before the choice
was made (i.e. the spread-of-alternatives effect).
Participants who make an easy choice, however,
do not exhibit this spread. This effect is typically

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DISSONANCE-INDUCED FALSE MEMORIES

interpreted in terms of cognitive dissonance: A


difficult choice creates dissonance, which is then
reduced via the addition of consonant cognitions,
resulting in the change of evaluations of chosen
and rejected options. An easy choice creates no
dissonance, so differential evaluations of decision
options remain consistent after the choice is made.
Several researchers have investigated memory
distortion for past choices using methods that are
similar to the classic free-choice paradigm (e.g.
Benney & Henkel, 2006). In these studies, participants view pairs of decision options and associated features and then choose (or are assigned)
one option from each pair. Later, participants
recall which features (some previously seen,
some not) were associated with the chosen and
rejected options. Results typically show that people selectively remember positive aspects of their
chosen options, or misremember details that support their choice. These studies have often been
interpreted as supportive of a systematic misattribution or inference process whereby present
attitudes influence the construction of memories
for previous experiences. Similar mechanisms
have been suggested to underlie numerous related
instances of memory distortion, including the
reconstruction of personal histories (Ross, 1989),
memory errors in prose recall (Spiro, 1980) and
the hindsight bias (Hoffrage, Hertwig, & Gigerenzer, 2000). This same misattribution mechanism
likely underlies the hypothesised link between
dissonance and memory errors, as well: Present
attitudes that have been influenced by dissonance
likely influence (distort) the reconstruction of
memories for the initial dissonance-inducing
event. However, previous studies have not incorporated the critical decision difficulty manipulation necessary to identify dissonance as the
motivating force driving the misattribution process
and resulting in differential patterns of memory
errors. The present study was thus designed to
address this gap in the literature.

The present study


We examined the influence of post-decision dissonance reduction on memory for the initial
decision experience. We added a memory test
phase to a classic free-choice paradigm and predicted that participants who made a difficult
decision would: (1) exhibit the traditional
spread-of-alternatives effect and (2) misremember their initial decision experience more

573

positively than they had initially rated it, whereas


those who made an easy decision would not. Also,
we manipulated the delay (immediate vs. two
days) between the decision and the memory test
in an exploratory fashion to examine the degree to
which the strength of the memory trace for the
decision might moderate the influence of
dissonance induction on memory distortion
(cf. Spiro, 1980). We report herein all data exclusions, manipulations and measures for the
experiment.

METHOD
Participants and design
We recruited 177 undergraduates and randomly
assigned them to one of four conditions in a 2
(Decision: difficult vs. easy) 2 (Delay: immediate
vs. two days) between-subjects design. Forty-three
participants in the 2-day delay conditions did not
return for the second session and were removed
from the data-set. Eleven participants across the
four conditions were eliminated because they
rated all eight cell phone options similarly, preventing the experimenters from appropriately
constructing the choice manipulation. Thus, our
analyses focus on 123 participants (73.2% female)
who ranged from 18 to 56 years of age (M = 20.49,
SD = 5.01). Sample size (n = 120) was determined
via power analysis based on an effect size estimate
of d .50 (see Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones,
2002), a power estimate of .80, and = .05.

Materials and procedure


Session 1. Participants came to the laboratory
individually, ostensibly to participate in a marketing study about cell phones. After obtaining
consent, the experimenter (blind to the hypotheses) gave all participants eight cell phone
product profiles in a predetermined random order
to read and complete. Each profile contained a
picture of a cell phone (labelled with a letter,
brand names and identifying information digitally
removed), a list of six specifications, and typical
ranges within which similar phones usually fall
with respect to the displayed specifications (e.g.
number of minutes of battery life given regular
use). At the bottom of each sheet, participants
completed four 9-point items assessing the phones
desirability, value, quality and attractiveness.

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574

RODRIGUEZ AND STRANGE

Higher values indicated more favourable evaluations. These four ratings were used to construct
and confirm the effectiveness of the dissonance
manipulation. Profiles were pilot-tested to ensure
a wide range of desirability.
Participants then completed a filler demographic survey while the experimenter constructed
the Decision manipulation: In the difficult decision
condition, the experimenter selected two phones
the participant had rated as approximately 6 or 7
on the desirability scale; in the easy decision
condition, the experimenter selected one phone
the participant rated as 6 or 7, and one phone
rated as approximately 3 or 4 (see Harmon-Jones
& Harmon-Jones, 2002).1 After the participants
finished the survey, the experimenter explained
that the (fake) sponsoring market research firm
had provided a few of each type of cell phone to
be awarded via lottery to the participants as
additional compensation for completing the study.
Further, the experimenter said that they had
randomly selected two phones from which participants could choose. The experimenter then introduced the Decision manipulation by asking the
participant to choose a phone from the options
presented. The experimenter recorded the participants choice and gave the participant a fake compensation agreement to sign, reinforcing his or her
selection. The experimenter then asked participants to rate the ease of, confidence in, and satisfaction with their decisions on 10-point scales.
These three ratings established a baseline against
which participants memories could be compared
to examine dissonance-induced memory distortion.
The experimenter told the participants that the
firm was also interested in whether product
reviews influence consumer appraisals of cell
1
A few participants ratings did not include the exact
values prescribed a priori for the construction of the
manipulation. In these cases, experimenters chose phone
options whose ratings were comparably favourable in
difficult decision conditions (e.g. both rated as 8s), or
whose ratings differed by at least two points in easy
decision conditions. Excluding these participants did not
change the pattern of results, so they are included in our
analyses. The use of two similarly undesirable phones
would also theoretically produce dissonance. However, we
decided against this form of dissonance induction to avoid
the risk of participants disengaging from the task due to a
perceived lack of sufficient reward. Finally, although an
alternative method for distinguishing easy and difficult
decision groups is to use participants own ratings of the
decision, we opted for the present method to remain
consistent with methods employed in previous dissonance
research (e.g. Harmon-Jones & Harmon-Jones, 2002).

phones. The experimenter presented each participant with reviews of four cell phones, including
their chosen option, their rejected option, one very
desirable phone and one undesirable phone
(according to participants own ratings). Reviews
were approximately 100 words long and contained
the same number of positive and negative statements about each phone. Participants read these
reviews, making note of characteristics that stuck
out to them as being particularly good or bad
about each. This aspect of the procedure was
designed to provide participants with greater
fodder for dissonance reduction (i.e. adding consonant cognition: see Brehm, 1956). Last, participants provided their ratings on these cell phones
again, using the same four rating scales as earlier
(i.e. quality, value, attractiveness and desirability).
Participants in the 2-day delay conditions were
then reminded to return to the lab two days later
to finish the study. For no delay participants,
Session 1 flowed seamlessly into Session 2.
Session 2. The experimenter showed the participants the pictures of their two cell phones options
and asked them to remember which phone they
had chosen.2 The experimenter then asked participants to think back to when they initially made
their choice and rate how they felt about their
decision at the time they made it, along the same
three dimensions (i.e. ease, confidence and satisfaction).3 The experimenter then probed for suspicion, provided a written debriefing and
dismissed the participant.

RESULTS
Data preparation
Spread-of-alternatives indices. Participants pre- and
post-decision evaluations of chosen and rejected
decision options are displayed in Table 1. We
2
Eight participants (6.5%) across the four conditions
could not remember which phone they had selected. These
participants were reminded of their actual selection before
proceeding with the memory items. Excluding these participants did not affect the pattern of results, so they are
included in the reported analyses.
3
Participants also completed open-ended memory tests
for their decision options technical specifications. The vast
majority of participants indicated that they could not recall
any of the specifications, preventing meaningful statistical
analysis of these data. We do not discuss these measures
further.

DISSONANCE-INDUCED FALSE MEMORIES

575

TABLE 1
Mean (SD) evaluations of chosen and rejected options as a function of decision difficulty
Easy

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Attribute
Quality
Pre-decision rating
Post-decision rating
Spread of alternatives
Value
Pre-decision rating
Post-decision rating
Spread of alternatives
Attractiveness
Pre-decision rating
Post-decision rating
Spread of alternatives
Desirability
Pre-decision rating
Post-decision rating
Spread of alternatives

Difficult

Chosen

Rejected

Chosen

Rejected

6.95 (1.92)
7.03 (1.41)

5.87 (2.22)
5.59 (1.70)

7.24 (1.48)
7.19 (1.32)

7.65 (1.13)
6.27 (1.60)

.36 (3.59)

1.32 (1.91)

6.81 (1.75)
7.02 (1.32)

5.72 (2.18)
5.52 (1.69)

7.26 (1.16)
7.05 (1.64)

7.50 (1.29)
6.10 (1.61)

.39 (3.52)

1.19 (2.12)

6.80 (1.86)
6.93 (1.77)

5.00 (2.39)
4.95 (2.15)

6.98 (1.44)
7.00 (1.76)

6.94 (1.56)
5.69 (2.01)

.39 (3.86)

.76 (2.32)

6.43 (2.04)
6.51 (1.77)

4.49 (2.34)
4.64 (2.07)

6.98 (1.40)
7.00 (1.62)

7.05 (1.29)
5.34 (2.12)

.07 (4.00)

1.73 (2.15)

computed a spread-of-alternatives index for each


of the four rating scales (i.e. quality, value, attractiveness and desirability) by subtracting the differences between the pre-decision ratings of the
chosen and rejected alternatives from the differences between the post-decision ratings of the
chosen and rejected alternatives (see Harmon-Jones
& Harmon-Jones, 2002). Positive values on these
measures indicate the classic spread-of-alternatives
effect (expected among those in the difficult
decision condition); values of zero indicate no
change in participants evaluations of the decision
options.

Memory-shift indices. Table 2 displays participants decision experience ratings and memory
ratings as a function of the manipulated variables.
We subtracted participants initial decision experience ratings (i.e. ease, confidence and satisfaction)
from their memories for the initial decision experience ratings to assess the amount and direction of
participants memory shift as a function of the
manipulated variables. Positive values indicate
participants misremembered their decisions more
favourably than they initially rated them; values of
zero indicate no memory distortion for the initial
decision experience.

TABLE 2
Mean (SD) evaluations of decision experience as a function of decision difficulty and delay
Easy
Attribute
Ease
Initial rating
Memory rating
Memory-shift index
Confidence
Initial rating
Memory rating
Memory-shift index
Satisfaction
Initial rating
Memory rating
Memory-shift index

Difficult

Immediate (n = 30)

2 days (n = 31)

Immediate (n = 31)

2 days (n = 31)

7.97 (2.28)
8.17 (2.23)
.20 (1.61)

7.94 (1.73)
7.58 (1.75)
.35 (1.64)

7.55 (2.19)
8.19 (2.20)
.64 (1.43)

7.35 (1.89)
7.90 (1.66)
.55 (1.57)

7.97 (2.24)
7.93 (1.95)
.03 (1.61)

7.06 (2.22)
7.26 (2.03)
.19 (.98)

7.87 (1.82)
8.29 (1.74)
.42 (.89)

7.74 (1.53)
7.94 (1.61)
.19 (1.05)

8.07 (1.74)
7.97 (1.79)
.10 (.92)

8.03 (1.82)
7.71 (1.83)
.32 (1.17)

7.97 (1.45)
8.26 (1.53)
.29 (.78)

8.06 (1.55)
8.16 (1.53)
.10 (.79)

576

RODRIGUEZ AND STRANGE


TABLE 3
Hierarchical regression analyses for the prediction of spread-of-alternatives and memory-shift indices
Quality

Predictor
Decision manipulation
(R2 change)

Value

.17
(.17*)

1.86

.06

.14
(.14)

Attractiveness

1.53

.13

Ease

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Predictor
Decision manipulation
Delay manipulation
Decision Delay
(Block 1, R2 change)
Decision manipulation
Delay manipulation
Decision Delay
Quality
Value
Attractiveness
Desirability
(Block 2, R2 change)

.18
(.18*)

Desirability

2.01

.05

Confidence

.21
.10
.07
(.06*)
.21
.08
.10
.05
.16
.25
.20
(.05)

2.40
1.45
.81

.02
.25
.42

2.26
.93
1.04
.30
1.01
1.99
1.29

.03
.36
.30
.77
.32
.05
.20

.10
.01
.10
(.02)
.08
<.01
.10
.08
.04
.16
.08
(.02)

.27
(.27*)

3.10

<.01

Satisfaction
p

1.07
.01
1.08

.29
.99
.28

.87
.04
1.02
.47
.22
1.23
.53

.39
.97
.31
.64
.82
.22
.60

.22
.11
.01
(.06*)
.24
.10
.06
.14
.31
.04
.08
(.03)

2.42
1.24
.09

.02
.22
.93

2.42
1.14
.60
.86
1.93
.31
.52

.02
.26
.55
.39
.06
.76
.60

For top panel, all df = 121; for Block 1 of bottom panel, all df = 119; for Block 2 of bottom panel, all df = 115. Decision was coded
as 0 = easy, 1 = difficult; Delay was coded as 0 = immediate, 1 = 2-day delay.
*p .06.

Test of primary hypotheses


We used hierarchical regression analyses to examine the influence of the manipulations on spreadof-alternatives and memory-shift indices. First, the
four spread-of-alternatives indices were regressed
on the Decision manipulation.4 Then, in Block 1 of
a separate set of regression analyses, the three
memory-shift indices were regressed on the
Decision and Delay manipulations, and their
residualised interaction term. In Block 2, the four
spread-of-alternatives indices were added to the
model as predictors. These analyses are summarised in Table 3.
The Decision manipulation predicted three of
the four spread indices (quality, attractiveness and
desirability: top panel of Table 3). Consistent with
classic dissonance research, participants who made
a difficult decision exhibited a larger spread of
alternatives on these indices than those who made
an easy decision. Inspection of the individual
means reported in Table 1 reveals that this effect
was driven mainly by the tendency of participants
in difficult decision conditions to devalue the
rejected option. Decision also significantly
4
Delay was not included in this analysis because it was
manipulated after participants had completed all the relevant spread-of-alternatives items.

predicted two of the three memory-shift indices


(ease and satisfaction: Block 1 of bottom panel of
Table 3), replicating Rodriguez and Strange
(2014): Participants who made difficult decisions
misremembered the initial decision more favourably than those who made easy decisions. The
analyses further revealed that the spread in
participants attractiveness ratings predicted their
memory shift for the ease index, and the spread in
participants value ratings predicted their memory
shift for the satisfaction index. However, adding
these spread variables to the regression models did
not significantly improve their explanatory power
(Block 2 of bottom panel of Table 3). The pattern
of significant paths suggested that the attractiveness spread index might mediate the effect of
Decision on the ease memory-shift index. However, this indirect effect was not significant (b = .10,
p = .18).

Follow-up analyses
A ceiling effect may have accounted for the effect
of Decision on memory distortion: Perhaps participants in the easy conditions initially rated the
decision at the extreme positive end of the scales,
preventing a positive shift in their ratings. To
examine this possibility, we conducted three

DISSONANCE-INDUCED FALSE MEMORIES

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independent-samples t-tests with Decision as the


independent variable and participants initial
decision ratings as the dependent variables.
Results indicated that participants in difficult and
easy conditions rated the initial decisions similarly
on all three dimensions, ease: t(121) = 1.37, p =
.17; confidence: t(121) = .84, p = .41; satisfaction:
t(121) = .11, p = .91. Thus, the distorting effect of
dissonance on memory for the experience of the
initial decision is unlikely to be a statistical
artefact, as the ceiling effect would have affected
both decision groups equally.

DISCUSSION
We designed the present study to examine
whether the link between cognitive dissonance
and memory distortion recently observed in an
induced-compliance paradigm (Rodriguez &
Strange, 2014) would generalise to the free-choice
paradigm. We found support for this possibility:
Participants who made a difficult choice and
exhibited the spread-of-alternatives effect predicted by dissonance theory were also more likely
to misremember their initial decision experience
more favourably (i.e. easier, more satisfying) than
those who made an easy decision. These effects
are consistent with predictions made by various
models of motivated memory, whereby memories
may become distorted to preserve cognitive consistency in the present. In the present study,
remembering ones decision as more difficult and
less satisfying would essentially re-activate ones
experience of dissonance. Through the memory
distortion observed here, this re-activation is
averted.5
Interestingly, the effect of the dissonance induction on memory distortion was not mediated by
the direct measures of dissonance as it was in
Rodriguez and Strange (2014). This may not
represent a truly direct effect of dissonance induction on memory distortion. Rather, the misattribution process proposed to underlie memory
distortion in related areas of cognitive psychology
(e.g. prose recall: Spiro, 1980; hindsight bias:
5

The lack of an effect of decision difficulty on participants initial decision experience ratings, however, is somewhat surprising, as the other results indicate the
manipulation was indeed successful. Perhaps the parity of
initial decision ratings for the two groups is itself the
product of dissonance reduction among those in the
difficult decision condition (i.e. elevated ratings resulting
from rationalisation).

577

Hoffrage et al., 2000) likely underlies this effect,


as well. It is possible that the dimensions assessed
by the spread-of-alternatives indices (i.e. quality,
value, attractiveness and desirability) in the present study were just too dissimilar from those
assessed by the memory-shift indices (i.e. ease,
confidence and satisfaction) to produce the mediating relationship. Assessing dissonance reduction
and memory distortion along more closely related
dimensions may reveal the predicted effect. Nonetheless, these results indicate the dissonance is one
motivating force that can set this misattribution
process in motion.
We manipulated the delay between the dissonance and the memory phases to examine the
extent to which memory strength for the initial
experience may moderate the effect of dissonance
on memory distortion (cf. Spiro, 1980). Delay did
not affect any of the decision experience memory
measures. Many factors may account for this null
result. First, our delay condition may have not
been long enough to observe effects on memory
distortion. Whereas others have used rather
long delays to investigate related memory errors
(e.g. accommodative errors have been shown to
increase from a delay of two days to delays of
three and six weeks: Spiro, 1980), we only used a
2-day delay. Second, this null result may reflect
characteristic differences between memory for
subjective experiences versus memory for facts or
details (Kelley & Jacoby, 1990). That is, memory
for facts may be much more strongly influenced by
delay than memory for subjective experience.
Last, the lack of an interaction effect between
delay and decision difficulty may also suggest that
the distorting influence of dissonance on memory
may not be constrained by memory strength.
Additional research is needed, however, to examine these possibilities.

Alternative explanations for dissonance


effects
Numerous alternative interpretations of dissonance effects have appeared over the decades (e.g.
self-perception and impression-management perspectives) and, to the extent that alternative
explanations account for the spread-of-alternatives
effect, secondary effects on memory distortion
cannot be considered the product of dissonance
processes. Research directly testing these alternative explanations of preference change has generally yielded results favourable to the original

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578

RODRIGUEZ AND STRANGE

dissonance theory (see Harmon-Jones et al., 2009).


Recently, however, Chen and Risen (2010) suggested that the spread-of-alternatives effect could
arise in the absence of any actual preference
change, purely as the product of a statistical artefact. Participants ratings of decision options
reflect true preference as well as some degree of
measurement error. Therefore, the pre- to postchoice shift in evaluations could merely represent
regression to the mean of their true preferences
(as indicated by which option they chose). Chen
and Risen provided a formal mathematical proof
of their preference-driven model of choice and a
simulation study based on their proof supported
their conclusions (Izuma & Murayama, 2013).
Other recent evidence indicates, however, that
dissonance-induced preference change in the freechoice paradigm does exist. Als-Ferrer and Shi
(2012) noted a flaw in Chen and Risens (2010)
proof, and provided their own proof showing that,
although participants ratings may change over
repeated assessments, they do not systematically
shift in accordance with the spread-of-alternatives
effect; the effects found in the decades of research
employing the free-choice paradigm, then, suggest
some additional motivating force (for which
dissonance is the dominant interpretation). Additionally, experiments involving methodological
modifications to control for this potential artefact
have still produced the pattern of results predicted
by dissonance theory (e.g. Arad, 2013).6 Furthermore, there is no theoretical reason to expect this
statistical artefact would be associated with the

patterns of memory distortion observed in the


present study. Therefore, although we did not
include all the control conditions and items to
rule out this alternative explanation in our experiment, we are confident that cognitive dissonance is
the mechanism that is driving the spread-of-alternatives effect. Nonetheless, additional research on
dissonance-induced memory distortion that incorporates such control conditions in a free-choice
paradigm would be valuable.

6
Izuma and Murayamas (2013) meta-analysis of freechoice studies (k = 4) that included methodological features
controlling for this potential statistical artefact revealed a
mean effect size (d = .26 [.10, .42]) that was smaller than
one reported in another recent meta-analysis (Kenworthy,
Miller, Collins, Read, & Earleywine, 2011); they argued,
then, that past studies substantially overestimated the
effect due to the methodological artifact (p. 7). However,
the Kenworthy et al. effect size they used for comparison
(d = .61 [.56, .66]) actually represents the average mean
effect size of dissonance effects across several paradigms,
not just the free-choice paradigm. The mean effect size for
the free-choice paradigm alone was slightly smaller, with a
wider confidence interval (d = .59 [.46, .73]). In addition, it
is noteworthy that Kenworthy et al. conducted their metaanalysis not only to estimate the size of the spread-ofalternatives effect, but also to examine the mediating
mechanisms underlying it. They confined their literature
search to studies published in a small number of journals,
selected only studies that reported significant results and
based their mean effect size estimate on only 21 effect sizes
from 18 articles. Consequently, their mean effect size is
likely an overestimate of the true population effect size.

Als-Ferrer, C., & Shi, F. (2012). Choice-induced preference change: In defense of the free-choice paradigm. Social Science Research Network. Retrieved
from http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2062507
Arad, A. (2013). Past decisions do affect future
choices: An experimental demonstration. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes,
121, 267277. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/
10.1016/j.obhdp.2013.01.006
Benney, K. S., & Henkel, L. A. (2006). The role of free
choice in memory for past decisions. Memory, 14,
10011011. doi:10.1080/09658210601046163
Brehm, J. W. (1956). Post-decisional changes in desirability of alternatives. The Journal of Abnormal and
Social Psychology, 52, 384389. doi:10.1037/h0041006
Chen, M. K., & Risen, J. L. (2010). How choice affects
and reflects preferences: Revisiting the free-choice
paradigm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 573594. doi:10.1037/a0020217
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance.
Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson.
Gawronski, B. (2012). Back to the future of dissonance theory: Cognitive consistency as a core motive.

CONCLUSION
The present results are consistent with the
hypothesised link between cognitive dissonance
and memory distortion. This area of research is still
in its infancy, however, and follow-up research
should seek to replicate this relationship in other
dissonance paradigms (e.g. severity of initiation),
and identify the complex moderating and mediating variables likely underlying the effects (see
Rodriguez & Strange, 2014). Nonetheless, the present results complement the existing literature,
helping to fill an oft-overlooked gap in the motivated cognition and memory knowledge base.
Original manuscript received January
Revised manuscript received May
Revised manuscript accepted May
First published online June

2014
2014
2014
2014

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