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Communication Question

November 12, 2017 0 Comment

Cognitive dissonance refers to the feelings of discomfort we tend to have when confronted withconflicting beliefs, ideas, or values. We tend to seek consistency between our expectations and our reality. Leon Festinger’s (1957) Cognitive Dissonance Theory says that when individuals become psychologically uncomfortable, they will seek to reduce their dissonance, as well as actively avoid situations and information that might cause or increase dissonance. This video explains how cognitive dissonance was studied in 1959 and what researchers inferred from its findings:

A related study, “Obedience,” by Yale University psychology professor Stanley Milgram in 1962 looked at people’s willingness to obey authority figures. The study was inspired by the Nuremberg Trials where many Nazis justified their immoral actions by saying that they were just following orders. Milgram wanted to understand why people will physically hurt other people if told to do so by an authority figure. Here’s a 5-minute introduction with actual footage from the study. I do want to warn you that there are a few scenes of the Nazi extermination camps at the start of the clip:

Here are the findings from Milgram’s study, which showed that only 35% of the people refused at some point to give people painful and even life threatening electric jolts when told to do so by a person claiming to be the study director (and wearing a white lab coat!). Instead, 26 out of 40 test subjects were willing to give life threatening electric jolts to people when told to do so. The study was replicated with similar results around 2009 in Great Britain. Getting permission to do these kinds of studies is virtually impossible because of the mental anguish incurred in the participants who are asked to be “teachers” and to administer the jolts. 

Communication research from the Asch studies, the Festinger Cognitive Dissonance research, and the Milgram studies indicate that humans have strong mental structures that dictate attitudes and behaviors. Even when people experienced “cognitive dissonance” through immoral commands to hurt another person, they could still justify this behavior if they gave up responsibility for their personal behavior by giving that responsibility to an authority figure.

As you read the about this theory in our course materials, think about the “intrapersonal” dialogue that goes on when we feel an internal conflict. (Intrapersonal communication is the internal dialogue we have inside our own minds.) Indeed, we so dislike psychological discomfort or a sense of inconsistency between our values and our actions that we actively seek to NOT feel cognitive dissonance.

Because of their internal discomfort, people who experience cognitive dissonance are relatively easier to motivate to behave a particular way. They are looking for ways to reduce their internal discomfort. The four assumptions of CDT are pretty clear, so spend a little time absorbing the ideas about “magnitude of dissonance,” “coping with dissonance,” and “minimal justification.”


Once you have reviewed the video clips and completed all the readings linked to this discussion prompt, please address the following:

1. An important aspect of this theory is how it applies to the way we “manage” our perceptions through selection. Can you think of ways that you look for information that is consistent with your values and world view?

2. What makes CDT difficult to test is not that it can be proved, but that it is difficult to disprove. Why does that happen when researchers look at CDT? What is it hard to disprove the theory? Can you think of a test that you could perform that would yield more definitive results?

3. How could you relate Cognitive Dissonance Theory to hegemony theory, as it is presented in the Encyclopedia of Communication Theory’s discussions of Cultural Studies. In other words, can Cognitive Dissonance Theory be applied to larger social/political theories?

Please write a cogent, coherent response; make sure to support your remarks with researched evidence. Do not hesitate to add to our knowledge by sharing the links to any authoritative resources on this topic that you may discover on the Internet.

2. Let’s spend some time considering Symbolic Interaction Theory. One idea that may seem either obvious or obscure has to do with the creation of “meaning.” Who creates “meaning?” Humans do, but sometimes we believe that our creations of meaning have an intrinsic value. To begin to understand this, see the seven assumptions of this theory.

Think about the word “cake.” It is closely related to our ideas of a dessert with layers of baked product mixed with layers of a butter/sugar mixture (icing). When you read the word “cake” here, did it conjure up an image of a sheet cake for you, or a double or triple layer cake? Maybe you saw in your mind’s eye a chocolate cake, a carrot cake, or a coconut-covered cake. Perhaps you saw candles? Now, consider this clip from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”:

In Social Interaction Theory, our notions of “cake” come from our personal experiences and what we think we imagine other people (society) think about when the word “cake” is mentioned. Indeed, if I say “gloop” to mean “cake,” no one will know what I am talking about! So, we create a shared meaning for the word “cake” that is both a mixture in my mind of my personal experiences of cake and what the social meaning of “cake” is — as I understand it from communicating with others.

This lesson from a TEDx presentation sums up how this shared understanding of symbols creates meaning for a community of people:

You can see the complexity of that shared meaning in language from this RadioLab video called “Words” by NPR:

We want to keep in mind that the symbolic sound and written squiggles we’ve assigned to “cake” are also completely arbitrary — over the years, we English-speaking humans have a generally-agreed-upon sense of the meaning of that sound and those written squiggles! In French, they’ve decided that the word cake should be written as “gateau” and should be pronounced “gah-tow.” However, our friends in Spain assure us that the sound “gah-tow” means “cat” (gato). The word “cake” means nothing to them.

By now, you are beginning to understand how arbitrary meaning is! Just to add to the confusion, think of the word “caked” as in The horse’s legs were caked with mud. How did we English-speaking humans come up with that secondary meaning of the word “cake”? Why does one mean “dessert” and one means “coated” or “covered with?” Which meaning do you think came first?

Consider the three assumptions on how the “Self” is constructed through a process of interactions with others. Indeed, much of what we think about ourselves as individuals comes from how people treat us and reflect back to us what kind of person they think we are.


Before you tackle this exercise, please make sure you have read the materials at all of the links in this discussion question.

Then, please take a look at this short clip from the movie “You’ve Got Mail:”


Some questions for you:

The two characters, Joe and Kathleen, are friends on the Internet, but only Joe realizes as the scene opens that his online friend is his opponent in the “real” world. As you watch this clip, look for physical symbols that the two main characters respond to — what different meanings do they give to a rose and the book Pride and Prejudice?

  • What does Kathleen imagine Joe thinks about her? Why does she not like Joe?
  • What is Kathleen’s self-concept? How does it change in this interaction with Joe?
  • What is Joe’s self-concept? How does it change in this interaction with Kathleen? How do you know, or think you know, that his self-concept has changed?
  • Finally, what do you find most useful about Social Interactionism? Does it support the notion that people can shape their own lives through how they communicate to themselves and to others?

Please write a cogent, coherent response; make sure to support your remarks with researched evidence. Do not hesitate to add to our knowledge by sharing the links to any authoritative resources on this topic that you may discover on the Internet.

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