From Sweet to Sour: Cognitive and Post Decision Dissonance

Brendan Cooney
Director of Behavioral Science, Sentient Decision Science

Some choices are hard to make, especially when the options we are faced with are nearly equivalent. Nevertheless we manage to make decisions every day and, buyer’s remorse notwithstanding, we frequently feel satisfied with our choices. And those previously attractive alternatives?

Well, we tell ourselves, they were somehow lacking anyway. But have we arrived at that conclusion through rational consideration of each alternative’s objective value, or do we subjectively—and retroactively—adjust the value we place on rejected options in order to feel better about the choice we made?

“In ancient Rome, there was a poem about a dog who found two bones. He picked at one, he licked the other. He went in circles. He dropped dead.” –DEVO

Post Decision Dissonance in Action

I was talking recently to several groups of high school seniors preparing for their first year of college. These students had invested a lot of time and effort in the process of searching for candidate schools, narrowing down to a smaller set to which they would apply, visiting campuses, fielding offers of admission, and finally making their choice.

What made these groups of students interesting to us was that they all had declined offers of admission to our client University, despite heavy recruiting and in many cases generous offers of financial aid and/or scholarships. Our client asked us to investigate why and how they had lost these applicants to other schools.

In our discussions, the students in our study frequently took a strong, negative tone when talking about our client institution. However the negative sentiment was not universal – indeed, we discovered a note left behind by a student that read, “[X University] is actually a pretty nice school.” And when asked directly about how they came to apply to that University in the first place, most of the students were able to identify several positive characteristics that contributed to their initial attraction.

Clearly, the University in question was attractive enough that it withstood at least one and perhaps several early rounds of elimination, and earned its way into a semi-final consideration set of maybe four to six schools worthy of an application. For some students the University was at one point their first choice school.  So how did the sentiment toward this University go from sweet to sour?

Why We Create Post-Decision Dissonance

There is a wealth of research in cognitive dissonance, selective attention and decision theories that offers some insight into the apparent contradiction between some students’ initial attraction toward a candidate institution and their subsequent negative attitudes after declining that school’s offer of admission.

As human beings we need to feel confident in our decisions, which often results in justifying our choices as well as rationalizing our rejections. Drawing from studies of decision-making, choice behaviors and visual attention, Tavassoli (2008) offers a brief review of findings demonstrating that it is quite natural, common and automatic to enhance the value of a chosen option, and to devalue rejected options.

Affective enhancement of a chosen option is influenced by several factors, such as the mere act of choosing (simply choosing an option over others results in enhanced valuation of that option); the degree to which an option helps satisfy internal goals (goal-oriented options receive more positive valuation than do irrelevant options); and the degree to which subjects perceive their choices are freely made (options are judged as more desirable if they have been freely chosen rather than imposed).

Cognitive Dissonance Makes Us Feel Better

According to cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957) these and other factors subconsciously and retroactively enhance the options we choose to make us feel good about our choices, reduce task uncertainty and orient us toward future actions.

In our study of soon-to-be college students, however, affective enhancement alone does not explain why students would start expressing negative sentiments toward a University that at one time had roughly equivalent value to other options. Under enhancement alone, sentiment toward rejected options should remain the same post-decision as it was pre-decision. How did students come to devalue the rejected options?

As it happens, ignoring has a negative impact on affective valuation, such that people will devalue rejected options in order to further minimize cognitive dissonance and facilitate subsequent goal-directed behaviors. Studies of selective attention (e.g., Tipper, 1985; Strayer & Grison, 1999) demonstrate that objects that previously had been targets (i.e., previously having values roughly equivalent with the chosen object) show even stronger devaluation after being rejected compared to objects that had not been in the original consideration set.

Not only do we enhance the value of our chosen options to feel better about what we chose, we tend to downplay the value of rejected options to further decrease any uncertainty or cognitive dissonance that might linger after the decision.

Choosing a college may be the most difficult decision these young adults have faced up to this point in their lives, so it is no surprise that students and their families invest in the process great amounts of time, effort and resources, and that the eventual choices they make involve a strong emotional commitment. In order to make that commitment we not only enhance the object of our choice but we also devalue the rejected alternatives, and thus avoid turning in indecisive circles until we drop dead.

Sentient Prime Implicit Research Studies


Casale, G. & Mothersbaugh, M. (1980). Freedom of Choice [Recorded by DEVO]. On Freedom of Choice [LP record].  Burbank, CA: Warner Bros.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Strayer, D. L., & Grison, S. (1999). Negative identity priming is contingent on stimulus repetition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 25(1), 24-38.

Tavassoli, N. T. (2008). The effect of selecting and ignoring on liking. In Wedel, M & Pieters, R (eds). Visual Marketing: From attention to action, 73-89. New York: Laurence Erlbaum Associates, Taylor & Francis Group.

Tipper, S. P. (1985). The negative priming effect: Inhibitory priming by ignored objects. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology A: Human Experimental Psychology, 37A, 571-590.


  • Thomas says:

    Very interesting study! I’m a senior in high school that is applying to many different schools, so I hope that being cognizant of the possibility of cognitive dissonance resulting from choosing a school will allow me to avoid logically fallacious assumptions about schools that I turn down in favor of being happy and content with the choice that I made. On the other hand, I really don’t know how I will react until I’m a year into college and realize that I’ve made the wrong decision, causing me to bash the schools I didn’t go to in order to sedate any dread that I have for the time being. Anyway, I don’t know if anyone will read this, but I appreciate your post.

    • Alena Jule Alena Jule says:

      Thomas – thank you for your comment. Given your depth of thought on the issue, I’d be willing to bet that if you apply that kind of thinking to your passion at college you will meet some like minded people and through those relationships you’ll find that the choice you have made is lined with reward.

4 Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *