Experiences that motivate moral development: The role of cognitive dissonance Academic Article uri icon


  • It has been found in previous research concerning Kohlberg's stages of moral development that engagement in a "real-life" moral dilemma sometimes leads to an advance in an individual's level of moral thought. It is argued in this study that such moral growth is often motivated by the need to reduce cognitive dissonance, which, it is suggested, frequently accompanies choice and commitment in moral contexts. Subjects in the present study delivered counterattitudinal messages that contained arguments that were either 1 stage higher or 1 stage lower than their characteristic level of moral reasoning. Half of the subjects freely chose to deliver these messages, and half did not. Afterwards, subjects' attitudes toward the issues discussed in their messages and their tendency to conceptualize moral issues in terms of the higher or lower levels of reasoning contained in their messages were assessed. The subjects who (a) had freely chosen to deliver the message, and (b) had delivered the message containing higher level arguments used significantly more advanced moral reasoning after their counterattitudinal advocacy than they had before it. These subjects showed greater change in their attitudes regarding the topic discussed in their message than other subject groups. These results suggest that moral behavior will be likely to promote moral growth (a) if it occurs under circumstances that promote cognitive dissonance (e.g., free choice) and (b) if advanced moral ideas are made salient during the dissonance reduction process. © 1982.

altmetric score

  • 1.85

author list (cited authors)

  • Rholes, W. S., Bailey, S. u., & McMillan, L.

citation count

  • 9

publication date

  • November 1982