Neural activity predicts attitude change in cognitive dissonance

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When our actions conflict with our prior attitudes, we often change our attitudes to be more consistent with our actions. This phenomenon, known as cognitive dissonance, is considered to be one of the most influential theories in psychology. However, the neural basis of this phenomenon is unknown. Using a Solomon four-group design, we scanned participants with functional MRI while they argued that the uncomfortable scanner environment was nevertheless a pleasant experience. We found that cognitive dissonance engaged the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula; furthermore, we found that the activation of these regions tightly predicted participants' subsequent attitude change. These effects were not observed in a control group. Our findings elucidate the neural representation of cognitive dissonance, and support the role of the anterior cingulate cortex in detecting cognitive conflict and the neural prediction of attitude change.

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Figure 1: Trial sequence during the task.
Figure 2: fMRI results.
Figure 3: Time courses of activation of the left and right dACC and anterior insula (AI).
Figure 4: Partial correlation plots between activation and final attitude score, controlling for mean reaction time, pretest presence and pretest score.


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We are grateful to M. Greenberg, G. Hein and K. Ochsner for discussions, and to S. Ravizza, D. Tamir, S. Ursu and A. Watrous for help with data collection. This research was supported by grants from the US National Institute of Mental Health and the Burroughs-Wellcome Foundation to C.S.C.

Author information

V.v.V., J.W.S. and C.S.C. designed the study. M.K.K. gathered fMRI data and administered questionnaires. V.v.V. developed stimuli, gathered pilot data and conducted analyses. V.v.V. wrote the paper with contributions from M.K.K., J.W.S. and C.S.C.

Correspondence to Vincent van Veen or Cameron S Carter.

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Supplementary Results, Methods, Discussion, Figure 1 and Tables 1,2 (PDF 392 kb)

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van Veen, V., Krug, M., Schooler, J. et al. Neural activity predicts attitude change in cognitive dissonance. Nat Neurosci 12, 1469–1474 (2009) doi:10.1038/nn.2413

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