Heider’s Balance, Newcomb’s Symmetry, Osgood’s Congruity & Cognitive Dissonance Theories

Discuss the following theories:

  1.         Heider’s Balance Theory
  2.          Newcomb’s Symmetry Theory
  3.        Osgood’s Congruity Theory
  4.    Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.


Heider’s Balance Theory:

Most writers usually credit Fritz Heider (1946) with the earliest articulation of a consis­tency theory, although the informal concept can be traced back to earlier work (see Kiesler et al., 1969, p. 157). As a psychologist, Heider was concerned with the way an individual organizes attitudes toward people and objects in relation to one another within that individual’s own cognitive structure. Heider postulated that unbalanced states produce tension and generate forces to restore balance. He says that “the concept of a balanced state designates a situation in which the perceived units and the experienced sentiments co-exist without stress” (1958, p. 176).

Heider’s paradigm focused on two individuals, a person (P), the object of the analysis, some other person (O), and a physical object, idea, or event (X). Heider’s concern was with how relationships among these three entities are organized in the mind of one individual (P). Heider distinguished two types of relationships among these three entities, liking (L) and unit (U) relations (cause, possession, similarity, etc.). In Heider’s paradigm, “a bal­anced state exists if all three relations are positive in all respects or if two are negative and < one is positive” (1946, p. 110). All other combinations are unbalanced.

In Heider’s conception, degrees of liking cannot be represented; a relation is either posi­tive or negative (Figure 8.1). It is assumed that a balanced state is stable and resists outside influences. An unbalanced state is assumed to be unstable and is assumed to produce psy­chological tension within an individual. This tension “becomes relieved only when change within the situation takes place in such a way that a state of balance is achieved” (Heider, 1958, p. 180). This pinpoints the communicator’s interest in the theory for it implies a model of attitude change and resistance to attitude change. Unbalanced states, being unsta­ble states, are susceptible to change toward balance. Balanced states, being stable states, resist change. Data supporting Heider’s balance theory are discussed in Zajonc (1960), Kiesler et al. (1969), and Abelson et al. (1968)

Newcomb’s Symmetry Theory:

Social psychologist Theodore M. Newcomb took Heider’s idea of balance out of the head of one person and applied it to communication between people. He uses the term symme­try to distinguish it from balance theory and contends that we attempt to influence one another to bring about symmetry (or balance or equilibrium). As discussed in some detail



Figure 8.1 • Examples of Balanced and Unbalanced States according to Heider’s Definition of Balance (Solid Lines Represent Positive Relations; Broken Lines, Nega­tive Relations.)

From R. B. Zajonc, “The Concepts of Balance, Congruity, a”-1. Dissonance,” Public Opinion Quarterly 24 (1960): 283. Copyright 1960 by Princeton University. Reprinted by p.’mission of University of Chicago Press.

Newcomb postulates that attempts to influence another person are a function of the attraction one person has for another. In this respect Newcomb’s theory is more of a theory of interpersonal attraction than one of attitude change. If we fail to achieve symme­try through communication with another person about an object important to both of us, we may then change our attitude toward either the other person or the object in question in order to establish symmetry.

Because Newcomb’s model (see Chapter 3) deals with two people and the communica­tion between them, he labels them A and B (rather than Heider’s (P and O) and retains X to represent the object of their attitudes. As with Heider, he assumes a human need for con­sistency, which he calls a “persistent strain toward symmetry.” If A and B disagree about X, the amount of this strain toward symmetry will depend on the intensity of A’s attitude toward X and A’s attraction for B. An increase in A’s attraction for B and an increase in A’s intensity of attitude toward X will result in (1) an increased strain toward symmetry on the part of A toward B about their attitudes toward X, (2) the likelihood that symmetry will be achieved, and (3) the probability of a communication by A to B about X. The last item, of course, is the focus of our concern.

Newcomb says, “The likelihood of a symmetry-directed A to B re X varies as a multiple function of the perceived discrepancy (i.e., inversely with perceived symmetry), with va­lence toward B and with valence toward X” (Newcomb, 1953, p. 398).

Newcomb, in contrast to Heider, stresses communication. The less the symmetry be­tween A and B about X, the more probable that A will communicate with B regarding X. Symmetry predicts that people associate with or become friends of people with whom they agree (“Birds of a feather flock together”).

However, for attitude change to take place, a person must come imo contact with infor­mation that differs from his or her presen* trudes. Newcomb’s syma ry model predicts

that the more A is attracted to B (a person or a group), the greater the opinion change on the part of A toward the position of B.

Osgood’s Congruity Theory

The congruity model is a special case of Heider’s balance theory. Though similar to bal­ance theory, it deals specifically with the attitudes persons hold toward sources of informa­tion and the objects of the source’s assertions. Congruity theory has several advantages over balance theory, including the ability to make predictions about both the direction and the degree of attitude change. The congruity model assumes that “judgmental frames of reference tend toward maximal simplicity.” Because extreme judgments are easier to make than refined ones (see discussion of either-or thinking and two valued evaluation, valuations tend to move toward the extremes, or there is “a-e«ntinuing pressure toward polarization.” In addition to this maximization of simplicity, the assumption is also made that identity is less complex than discrimination of fine differences (either-or think­ing and categorization). Because of this, related “concepts” are evaluated in a similar man­ner.

In the congruity paradigm a person (P) receives an assertion from a source (S), toward which he has an attitude, about an object (O), toward which he also has an attitude. In Osgood’s model, how much P likes S and O will determine if a state of congruity or consis­tency exists (Figure 8.2).

According to congruity theory, when a change occurs, it is always toward greater con­gruity with prevailing frames of reference. Osgood uses his semantic differentia


In essence, the definitions of balance and congruity are identical. Incongruity exists when the attitudes toward the source and the object are similar and the assertion is negative or when they are dissimilar and the assertion is positive. An unbalanced state has either one or all negative relations.

Percy Tannenbaum had 405 college students evaluate three sources—labor leaders, the Chicago Tribune, and Senator Robert Taft—and three objects—gambling, abstract art, and accelerated college programs. Sometime later the students were presented with newspaper clippings that contained assertions attributed to the sources about the objects. The entire range of predicted changes was supported by Tannenbaum’s data, as summarized in Table 8.1. The direction of change is indicated by either a plus or a minus sign, while the extent of change is indicated by one or two such signs.

   Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the term used in modern psychology to describe the state of holding two or more conflicting cognitions (e.g.,ideasbeliefsvaluesemotional reactions) simultaneously. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment.[1] The theory of cognitive dissonance in social psychology purposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing cognitions, adding new ones to create a consistent belief system, or alternatively by reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements.[1] An example of this would be the conflict between wanting to smoke and knowing that smoking is unhealthy; a person may try to change their feelings about the odds that they will actually suffer the consequences, or they might add the consonant element that the short term benefits of smoking outweigh the long term harm. The need to avoid cognitive dissonance may bias one towards a certain decision even though other factors favour an alternative.[2]

The phrase was coined by Leon Festinger in his 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, which chronicled the followers of a UFO cult as reality clashed with their fervent belief in an impending apocalypse.[3][4] Festinger subsequently published a book called “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance”, published in 1957, in which he outlines the theory. Cognitive dissonance is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology.

Cognitive dissonance theory warns that people have a bias to seek consonance among their cognitions. According to Festinger, we engage in a process he termed “dissonance reduction”, which he said could be achieved in one of three ways: lowering the importance of one of the discordant factors, adding consonant elements, or changing one of the dissonant factors.[5] This bias gives the theory its predictive power, shedding light on otherwise puzzling, irrational, and even destructive behavior.

  • Decision Making
  • Forced Compliance
  • Selective Exposure and Selective Attention
  • Entertainment Choices.


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