University of Central Florida Undergraduate Research Journal - Exploring Cognitive Dissonance between College <br/> Students’ Religious and Spiritual Beliefs and Their <br/> Higher Education
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Cognitive Dissonance and Beliefs

According to cognitive dissonance theory, when two or more cognitive elements (such as behaviors and attitudes) are inconsistent, psychological tension develops, which individuals seek to resolve (Festinger 1962; Dunford and Kunz 1973; DeLamater and Myers 2007; Mahaffy 1996; Elkin and Leippe 1986). Dissonance theory supposes three kinds of relationships between cognitions: consonant, dissonant, or irrelevant (Festinger 1962). A consonant relationship occurs when cognitions logically follow one another, and a dissonant relationship occurs when they contradict or oppose one another. Dissonance can occur when new events, knowledge, or behaviors conflict with a current cognitive schema (Festinger 1962) and these new behaviors are believed to have been chosen voluntarily (Linder, Cooper and Jones 1967). This often produces psychological tension (Festinger 1962), as well as a physiological response (Elkin and Leippe 1986).

Since dissonance is uncomfortable, individuals seek to reduce the tension by changing their behaviors, seeking new information, adding new cognitive elements (Festinger 1962), or by changing the importance of the elements (DeLamater and Myers 2007). The magnitude of the dissonance may relate to the importance of the cognition (Festinger 1962) or the level of commitment to the counter-attitudinal behavior ( Joule and Azdia 2003). The higher the level of commitment, the higher the level of dissonance in forced compliance situations that result in counter-attitudinal behavior ( Joule and Azdia 2003)

The purpose of this study is to explore the dissonant relationship between students' beliefs and counter- attitudinal behavior or contradictory information. Fesinger (1962) explains cognitions as containing knowledge, which includes "opinions, beliefs, values or attitudes, which function as 'knowledge.'" So if students perceive their religious or spiritual beliefs to be a truth, then behavior or information that runs counter may produce a dissonance effect. An example of this type of dissonance is a study by Mahaffy (1996) that looked at how Christian lesbians resolved cognitive dissonance when their religious teachings contradicted their sexual identity. Mahaffy found that lesbians who experienced an internal conflict between their religious beliefs and their sexuality were more likely to change their cognitions, unless they became a Christian in their adulthood, in which case they just lived with the tension. Further, the later that the respondents became aware of their homosexuality, the more likely they were to change their beliefs or leave the church. Mahaffy argues that these individuals may have constructed beliefs that support and allowed for both of their identities to coexist.

In conjunction with the awareness or adoption of a conflict model, if a students' beliefs are challenged at an institution of higher education by conflicting epistemological theories, such as secular theories, that contrast their preconceived beliefs, stress may result (Winterowd et al. 2005). This resulting stress may stem from cognitive dissonance. Certain college experiences, such as partying, may also result in cognitive dissonance as well, if those experiences involve normative deviance and conflict with religious doctrine (Uecker et al. 2007).

Although, if first year students are still acclimating to their new environment and social networks, religious students may not have engaged in significant counter- attitudinal behavior or normative deviant behavior that may result in cognitive dissonance. Conversely, if Clydesdale's (2007) "lockbox" argument is correct, then students have disassociated their religious identities in their first year. If so, then they probably do not experience cognitive dissonance, unless the "lockbox" is "semi-permeable," as Reimer (2010) contends. As well, most students espousing a conflict perspective move away from that perspective in subsequent years (Scheitle 2011). Therefore, progressive years in college may or may not have an effect on cognitive dissonance incurred in relation to their religiosity and spirituality, when those years of college introduce conflicting "truths" and experiences.

In sum, literature points to an increase in spirituality (Bryant et al. 2003; Hartley 2004; Cherry et al. 2001), religious behaviors (McFarland et al. 2011), and strengthened religious beliefs (Lee 2002) for college students. In addition, studies also argue that there is a current perception of a conflict narrative between science and religion (Evans and Evans 2008; Russell 1997; Ecklund and Park 2009; Scheitle 2011), and that while not widespread, a conflict perspective is present for some students (Scheitle 2011). If a students' religious beliefs are challenged, they may feel anger or stress (Winterowd et al. 2005). Currently, no literature explores whether students experience cognitive dissonance between their religious and spiritual beliefs and their higher education. This study seeks to address this gap, as well as exploring other college factors that may have an effect on this type of cognitive dissonance.

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