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Cognitive dissonance theory and alcohol awareness messages : college student reactions

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Mettille, Thomas
Welch, S.A.
Sep 02, 2008
College students--Alcohol use--Prevention; College students--Attitudes
College students spend more money on alcohol than they do on books, coffee, tea, juice and soda, combined (Wechsler & Wuerthrich, 2002). Recent studies have shown that binge drinking rates range from 34 to 44% of college students (Douglas et al., 1997; Wechsler, Davenport, Dowdall, Moeykens & Castillo, 1994; Wechsler, Lee, Kuo, Seibring, Nelson & Lee, 2002). Alcohol is so prevalent in the college environment, that students, parents and even professors link the college experience with excessive drinking (Butler, 1993; Lederman, Stewart & Russ, 2007). Yet, the risks of binge drinking (Lederman, Stewart, Goodhart & Laitman, 2003) are serious. Research has identified a wide variety of harmful consequences as a result of excessive drinking among college students. These risks include: unprotected sexual behavior (Desiderato & Crawford, 1995), blackouts (Perkins, 2002), and even death (Hingson, Heeren, Zakocs, Kopstein & Wechsler, 2002). Perhaps even more alarming is the annual frequencies of these negative consequences, identified by Hingson et al. (2002), including 600,000 student assaults, 500,000 accidental injuries and 1,400 deaths. In an attempt to deal with this alarming information campus administrators have developed campaigns and programs designed to curb college drinking. However, results have been elusive, as dangerous drinking has not declined over the past decade (Faden & Fay, 2002; Wechsler et al., 2002; Hingson et al., 2005; Larimer & Crone, 2002; Peele, 2006; Wechsler, Lee, Kuo & Lee, 2000). In order to craft the most effective message, one must consider the reaction of the intended audience. Festinger’s (1957) Cognitive Dissonance Theory provides insight into the cognitive processes individuals experience when they receive information that is counter to their beliefs. Festinger states that information that challenges the beliefs or behavior an individual already has will create psychological discomfort. The theory continues to suggest there are predictable responses that form individuals experience that discomfort, or dissonance: they will accept the information as accurate but make no changes, accept the information as accurate and make changes, they will attack the messenger as incredible or they will rationalize the information in some way to relieve the discomfort. The present study applied Festinger’s (1957) Cognitive Dissonance Theory to alcohol public service messages. Participants were measured to determine whether they were currently in a state of dissonance concerning their alcohol use. The participants then viewed three alcohol public service announcements, concerning alcohol poisoning, date rape and drunk driving. The researcher captured responses the participants had in order to determine if particular dissonance-reducing strategies were utilized. Three conclusions are offered. College students appear to be utilizing “attack the messenger” regarding messages of binge drinking and drunk driving, while utilizing rationalization when viewing messages of date rape. Additionally, for all message contents, the students responded that they did not intend to change their behaviors based on the information presented. The results of this study can be illuminating to alcohol educators, campus administrators and future scholars.
Date original was created May 20, 2008. This file was last viewed in Adobe Reader 8.0.
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