Cognitive dissonance and the point of minimum justification - Part 1 of 3

Creating cognitive dissonance through your packaging and offering a minimum point of justification can result in positive feelings for the consumer about purchasing your product.

By Dr. R. Andrew Hurley
Contributing Editor, Packaging World

An important element of human behavior is the idea of reward. Even with products that are essential to our everyday lives, we want to feel that we’ve somehow “won”; we’ve beat the system, solved a problem, alleviated a stressor, or just accepted that we deserve a treat. As marketers, we have a number of tools at our disposal to capitalize on these feelings, and one (somewhat controversial) method is the purposeful creation of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is defined as the state of having inconsistent cognitions—thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes—especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change. For example, if cognitions agree, there is consonance. But, when cognitions disagree, there is dissonance, and dissonance results in stress. We’ll do everything we can to mitigate dissonance and return to consonance. Think of your last disagreement with your partner; the desire to convert thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes to your way of thinking is powerful. If you can achieve this, you feel relieved, and more importantly ... rewarded.

So, how do marketers use this? A well-published example of cognitive dissonance is a promotion for diamonds. There is a lot of conspiracy surrounding the diamond industry—and they don’t help themselves with their highly dissonant roots in statements like, “a diamond is forever.” This anchoring into “forever” trumps just about every other option, but I digress. In an ad from Helzberg Diamonds, the leading message is “Make her ask, ‘What have you done with my husband?’” When read, dissonance immediately sneaks in, making the reader question whether he is a good husband. This type of stress happens routinely, and we quickly find methods of mitigating the stress and moving on. But, there is a little line of sub copy under the diamond pendant in the ad. It says, “over 500 gifts under $100.”

This is it! The 500 gifts under $100 is the real diamond here; it’s the “point of minimum justification” that is critical to successfully incentivizing a behavior change through cognitive dissonance. The 500 options immediately alleviate any initial worry of breaking the bank to please your partner. The stress is gone and back to consonance. You should know that the purpose of this ad was not to sell the diamond pendant pictured. The purpose was to change your cognitions (beliefs, attitudes, and thoughts) about buying diamonds; to create dissonance, then provide the minimum justified incentive to change your behavior. Spending more than the point of minimum justification trades your effort (or payment) for the dissonance, which typically does not result in a behavior change. But paying at this magic point not only alleviates the dissonance, but it also has the potential to change your beliefs, attitudes, and thoughts around the activity itself.