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Faculty Research Working Paper Series
Maya Sen
Associate Professor of Public Policy
phone: (617)495-8628
Explaining Attitudes from Behavior: A Cognitive Dissonance Approach
Acharya, Avidit, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen. "Explaining Attitudes from Behavior: A Cognitive Dissonance Approach." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP15-026, June 2015.
The standard approach in positive political theory posits that action choices are the consequences of attitudes. Could it be, however, that an individual’s actions also affect her fundamental preferences? We present a broad theoretical framework that captures the simple, yet powerful, intuition that actions frequently alter attitudes as individuals seek to minimize cognitive dissonance. This framework is particularly appropriate for the study of political attitudes and enables political scientists to formally address questions that have remained inadequately answered by conventional rational choice approaches – questions such as “What are the origins of partisanship?” and “What drives ethnic and racial hatred?” We illustrate our ideas with three examples from the literature: (1) how partisanship emerges naturally in a two party system despite policy being multidimensional, (2) how ethnic or racial hostility increases after acts of violence, and (3) how interactions with people who express different views can lead to empathetic changes in political positions.



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