The Avoidance of Cognitive Dissonance at the Eden Project



Nicholas Sherriff

Timothy May

Sabine Keller


Executive Summary


Cognitive dissonance was examined at the Eden Project utilising the media coverage, an interview with the director of marketing and three individual visits to the site itself. The research took a qualitative approach encompassing observational, interview and participatory techniques. It was found that cognitive dissonance is nearly always going to be present and that it is hard to please all of the people all of the time. The Eden Project however did seem to go a long way to alleviate such cognitive dissonance utilising novel and innovative schemes and ideas.












The researchers would like to take this opportunity to thank Dave Meneer for his insightful and honest help, Ian Gilhespy for his trust in our ideas and the Eden Project for being such an interesting topic to investigate.




This report was compiled and conducted by a small research group of students from the College of St Mark and St John, Plymouth, Devon.

The group consisted of three mature students, one of which was an overseas student from Germany. The researchers were Mr Nicholas Sherriff and Mr Timothy May both third year students and Miss Sabine Keller a second year overseas student.


The subject matter for the study will be the recently opened Eden Project at Bodelva near St Austell in mid-Cornwall. The research for this report took place during the months of March and April 2001 and consists of views expressed via an interview with the marketing manager (Dave Meneer), a critique of the media publicity and consumer experiences sampled by the researchers.


The focus for the report will be centred around the issue of 'cognitive dissonance' at the Eden project and whether this can be successfully avoided via a marketing strategy method.

What is Cognitive dissonance?


This subject matter is generally one that lies within the realms of psychology, however, due to it's links with consumer behaviour via product and service satisfaction it can be seen as a relevant and interesting component for study within the leisure sector.


A brief coverage of cognitive dissonance will aid the clarity of this subject and provide insight into the research critique of this report.


As a consumer individual cognition's for products are often expressed via values, beliefs, attitudes and opinions, these affiliations however are not purely accidental. Perhaps the objective of many marketing activities is to 'implant' particular information into a consumers mind (Cooper & Argyris 1998:426).


Before the consumer purchases the product or service it has attached to it the consumers expectations and pre-existing notions, moreover, Cooper and Argyris posit that this can be facilitated both by marketing and individual cognitions outside the marketing sphere, although it is in the post-purchase state of mind that cognitive dissonance is more likely to exist



From this it could be suggested that individuals who are dissatisfied may have suffered cognitive dissonance due to the product actualisation failing to meet the perception. In terms of this report, could the Eden Project fulfil the visitor’s perceptions and pre-existing notions? The existence of cognitive dissonance is for Lewis psychologically uncomfortable to individuals and they develop strategies to reduce/eliminate it to regain consonance (cited in Cooper&Argyris 1998:83). Festinger (1957) posits three ways to eliminate dissonance:


(1)   Reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs.

(2)   Add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs.

(3)   Change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent.  


However, more often a bad visitor experience results in increased negative promotion of the product, perhaps we are more inclined to promote a poor experience to others rather than a good one. Festinger further posits this example,


“Consider someone who buys an expensive car but discovers that it is not comfortable on long drives. Dissonance exists between their beliefs that they have bought a good car and that a good car should be comfortable. Dissonance could be eliminated by deciding that it does not matter since the car is mainly used for short trips (reducing the importance of the dissonant belief) or focusing on the cars strengths such as safety, appearance, handling (thereby adding more consonant beliefs). “

(Festinger, L. 1957.)



Leisure and product marketers seem to be aware of these issues and could be seen to consequently strive to produce "A bundle of satisfactions to avoid a loss of interest with the product or service".


With these issues in mind the report was centred around the research groups individual visitor experiences and pre-existing notions of the Eden Project. The subject matter could be described as a bastardisation of the SWOT analysis, with the ‘Weakness’ element being refined to the lowest denominator of cognitive dissonance. Subsequently the report facilitates an experiential reflective view rather than a more orthodox scientific approach.



  As the title indicates this piece of work is concerned with trying to find how cognitive dissonance is avoided at the Eden Project. Within the umbrella term ‘Methodology there are two distinct classifications of research ‘quantitative’ and ‘qualitative’ although that is not to say that research cannot contain elements of both. Exploration of both schools of thought will enhance the understanding of the method undertaken at any given time. Baxter, Hughes and Tight posit,

Quantitative research is, as the term suggests, concerned with the collection and analysis of data in numeric form. It tends to emphasize relatively large-scale and representative sets of data, and is often, falsely in our view, presented or perceived as being about the gathering of ‘facts’. (1996:60)


This does beg the question of whether social aspects of life or in this case the disinterest with the product can be solely represented in a numerical fashion? Quantitative research is also as stated usually large-scale which is not only expensive in manpower but also financially something that this small-scale study can ill afford. Therefore a qualitative study was generally employed which is, ‘more open and responsive to its subject’. (Best and Kahn. 1989) Further Baxter et al offer qualitative research as,

…concerned with collecting and analysing information in as many forms chiefly non-numeric, as possible. It tends to focus on exploring, in as much detail as possible, smaller numbers of instances or examples which are seen as being interesting or illuminating, and aims to achieve ‘depth’ rather than ‘breadth’. (1996:60)


Rather than data that lends itself to statistical manipulation (quantitative), qualitative research is more concerned that ‘satisfactory explanations of social activities [disinterest with the Eden Project] require a substantial appreciation of the perspectives, culture and world-views of the actors [visitors] involved’. (Burgess. 1984) One of the criticisms of qualitative research is that it is ‘impressionistic’ and ‘non-verifiable’, (Allan and Skinner. 1991) although it is the remit of the researcher to assume a position of naivety and therefore be open to new ideas or suggestions. As such perhaps good research is impressionistic (Allan et al. 1991) but as to it being non-verifiable is to oversimplify the nature of the research.  The key aspect of science is verification and the ability to test empirical evidence by replication, which it is agreed, cannot be totally achieved by qualitative methods alone. However, the beauty of qualitative research lies in its flexibility and that a researcher can develop themes as and when they arise, exploring avenues that fall outside ‘the previously set formula’ (Allan et al. 1991:182) The manner in which one particular researcher asks a question and then develops it makes the data collected less likely to be replicated and perhaps more prone to bias. This does make the notion of replication very difficult to achieve but those who favour this approach argue that the quality of the data gathered affords a greater, ‘reflexivity about the theoretical and conceptual assumptions being made than do those methods which produce apparently more reliable, highly structured data’. (Allan et al. 1991:182) This in-depth style could not be facilitated had a more large-scale method been employed especially on a students budget.

The interview has been likened to marriage as Oakley posits, ‘…everybody knows what it is, an awful lot of people do it, and yet behind each closed door there is a world of secrets’. (1986:231) This particular interview was qualitative in that it was less structured and informal allowing the researcher to explore beyond the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses more common in survey interviews. (Allan et al. 1991:203) Lummis (1987:62) extrapolates further suggesting,


…the art of good interviewing lies in being able to keep most of the interview conversational while following various digressions, remembering which questions the flow of information has answered and yet being prepared to question more deeply and precisely when necessary.’


During the interview the previous knowledge of the researcher (the visitor experiences) facilitated a more in-depth analysis forming an insider’s view similar to that of Allan (1991:203) who posits a change in the ‘research relationship where interacting rather than merely establishing a rapport has been observed.’ In order to keep track of a possible meandering interview a pocket tape recorder was used after first gaining permission from the interviewee although during the interview general notes were made as a reference for the topics discussed thus far. 


This could however be seen as facilitating unforeseen variables such as the preferences or value judgements of the marketing manager, notwithstanding the well documented but unintended observer effects which have been noted by Scott (1985) who further offers,


‘The presence and personality of the interviewer are thus acknowledged as variables in the research process, and there is a recognition of the fact that ‘ all researchers operate from within a theoretical overview and … affects the data at all stages.’



As you can see this sort of subject matter is difficult to pin down but an attempt has been made none the less. It is acknowledged that the sample is relatively small and more extensive research will have to address this. Difficulties have been raised concerning the study of such personal and polymorphous notions of interest; hence the rather messy feel to the research. Finally our own inexperience within research has lead to many imperfections but despite all this a genuine attempt has been made into a worthwhile subject area.

  Research Findings


The media coverage was examined through selected clippings of the local, national and international press before and during and after the opening time. In the international press particular focus was given to Germany of which we had greater access. In addition a presentation of the Eden Project was examined broadcasted through The National Geographic, which could be suggested as a more credible source.

 The Eden Project was well reported by all the local papers with articles about the building progress and the content on a daily basis prior to the opening. It was presented in a rather positive light that could be seen as raising the profile in order to encourage visitors. Certain publicity (National Geographic, Video) described Eden as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’, thus perpetuating the myth of an auspicious spectacle to visitors. The reports included background stories detailing the origin of the plants and the planned events at the Eden Project. The founder Tim Smit and his vision to contribute to the relationship between nature and people was emphasised. The commercial aspect was avoided by means of stressing the 'Green issue' that lies behind the project. The articles were heavily supported through relatively big coloured photos compared to the generally small amount of text; perhaps the visual spectacle eroded the need for text!


The national press as expected did not have as much emphasis on the Eden Project, although generally it acquired mostly complementary reports. The success in publicity and popularity was stressed in stark contrast to the failure of Millennium Dome, which suggests a lack of themes and consistency (TelegraphMagazine:18/03/01). The articles in the national press were not as detailed and comprehensive compared to the local coverage. The positioning showed that there was less relevance for the reports. Pictures were smaller

and often uncoloured. In addition some articles presented the picture of the founder Tim Smit more controversially and pointed out that behind the 'Green Idea' lies also a commercial interest. Furthermore the contradiction in building a huge car park to the green theme was stressed (Daily Telegraph: 12/03/01).

 The Eden Project did however attract global coverage; at the opening there were journalists from USA, Japan, Australia and Europe. In Germany the Eden Project received regular media exposure for two months prior to it’s opening. It was covered by quality magazines (Spiegel: 10/01/01) as well as local and national broad sheets. The emphasis being on the ‘science fiction style’ construction of the building and the extraordinary visitor experience.


In general it can be said that the information about the themes and purpose of the Eden Project were contradictory amongst different newspapers, this could lead to confusion by the reader and facilitate cognitive dissonance should a persons definition of Eden not be fulfilled.

At the opening there was some negative press coverage because of the fear visitors could spread the foot and mouth disease. These concerns were supported by demonstrating farmers at the opening and reported on the regional news broadcast (Westcountry News:17/03/01) Furthermore the foot and mouth disease caused a certain reluctance amongst American and Australian visitors, subsequently overseas visitors failed to materialise ‘en mass’.



The Marketing manager gave a lengthy and somewhat honest interview, which can be found in Appendix 1.  Selected comments have been utilised within the compilation of this report and verification can be secured via the taped interview.


When asked about the use of the media and its generally positive press he posits,

“Smit is a kind of a Branson figure, what he had already achieved at Helegan [gardens] and the Channel 4 programmes, people were waiting to see what he would do next.”


“It was all planned, some of the media happened by accident but then the way we looked after them when they came here obviously had something to do with it.”


“This was a natural thing that grew out of Tim Smit and Paul Travers, just these two individuals with experience in that field [media], Tim’s a media junky anyway and that’s the way that worked.”


When asked about the grandiose nature of statements such as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’ he replied,


“Well you know we’ve had so much TV and press up here I just can’t keep up with it all, we’re quite good at kind of blagging things up here, you know talking things up. I mean we’ve had to talk the project up for 5 years just to get the bloody thing off the ground…um…we’ve just sort of never stopped really.”



“So things like the eight wonder of the world, vast living theatre and history in the making… they’re a deliberate plan of information. I spent 25 yrs in advertising so I don’t want to spend much on advertising and we don’t you don’t see vast adverts, you see the odd leaflet because we prefer to go about it in other ways which is why you see TV programmes and things which aren’t advertising.”


“We look after internals very well, we look after photographers and reporters we haven’t got to do much…buy them a pint, look after them while they’re here and give them access and the next day you’re on the front page of the Telegraph which is worth like £50,000 quid and haven’t paid for it so it is part of the strategy that we court all this unpaid-for stuff and if that means constantly talking the place up so be it. I don’t know where ‘the eight wonder of the world’ came from but you know…fine, ‘history in the making’ is great because it’s been picked up and that’s an important point that says it ain’t finished yet, the same with the name Project, people have said why not just call it Eden and because project gives it that scientific underpinning and says your going to run and run and run.”


Staff related answers,


“Staff attitude was the 2nd highest score in our survey.”


“You could steal the architecture, you could probably get the plants but you couldn’t get the people. There’s a very collegiate way of doing things around here, everybody discusses things with everybody else.”


Answers concerning visitor costs,

“Our top score in our own survey was value for money, we got 9.5 out of 10. This year it will be lower than that because then [the pre-construction tour] it was a surprisingly good deal for £3, currently it’s an unfinished garden for £9.50 but coupled with the Passport idea, I think we’ll get good scores.”


“We are the most expensive attraction in the county but we think we’re the best and the most interesting.”


Refund management,


“But you know we’ve had complaints, we’ve had such a busy Easter but what we do is pick up the phone. If they have had a bad day I give them their money back or ring them because they write ‘shittygrams or nastygrams’ but the most letters we get are kind of ‘disapointedgrams’ saying I’m awfully sorry to have to write this but we will be back to visit again though.”


“Out there right now I think we’ve probably got 5000 people bad-mouthing us and we have had 300,000 through this year, a small percentage but we’ve got to stop that.”


“So big numbers, shitty weather, not enough car parks…yet…there has been problems but the vast majority are loving us.”





“The thinking was to build something that would knock people’s eyes out, the thinking behind opening last year was a very smart move, the passports, the business with the train, the pricing this year, the tone of our literature – history in the making, eighth wonder of the world – the way we talk to people on site, all of that has been meticulously planned and that in the end is what marketing is all about.”


“They’ll [the public] give us this year [honeymoon period], it doesn’t worry me at all because I know we will get there, I know what’s coming, I know we opened too soon and it looks unfinished, personally I would have opened a month later.”


“There is pressure to open, you know what it’s like you have to open sometime.”


Visitor Experiences


Pre-Construction Tour

This was somewhat stumbled upon by accident, a typically windy afternoon on a Cornish beach resulted in a friend suggesting a trip to the nearby Bodelva site to see 'what all the fuss was about'. Knowing the area relatively well was a bonus as road signage and promotion of the site was conspicuous by its absence.


Entering from the Par/Luxulyan entrance, which is a typical narrow country lane, other than the chalky white lines left on the road by heavy machinery, it was hard to imagine anything was being constructed at all! On arrival at the site it was much as I had expected being born into the construction business, dusty with a rough hardcore surface acting as the road. After parking we joined a group of about a dozen other visitors all with the same inquisitive state, however, there was very little to see from our vantage point. Suddenly a man appeared in a yellow hardhat and hi-visibility jacket, beckoning us towards him we sheepishly joined him. He greeted us all warmly to 'Eden' and told us that we would be taken to the 'edge' for a glimpse and the rest of the tour would be by land train.


A small tractor with about six carriages then proceeded to collect us and for safety reasons we were supplied with hard hat and jackets. This was highly entertaining for the youngsters in the group and a pleasant surprise for the adults. The tour was highly informative with facts being surrendered by the guide at every opportunity, "the second largest earth move in Europe that year" and the 'largest free standing scaffold structure ever built' to mention a few. The guides were not just well informed but extremely friendly and professional, this surprised me as after all they were showing people around a construction site!


The price of the tour was extremely reasonable £3 for adults and two of the children in our group went for free.


The Eden Project Experience
On arriving at Eden there was the inconvenience of queuing to gain access to the car park which although relatively brief is never a pleasant experience. This was alleviated by short conversations with the staff who were warm, friendly and generally jovial characters. The car parks were well organised if a little far away and built to minimise the hassle of searching for a space. Swathes of tarmac on the hillside are an eye soar at the best of times which was countered by playful car park names like plum and apple fenced by blustering flags of all colours.


The entrance to the Eden Project was uncovered and could cause cognitive dissonance whilst queuing in inclement weather however an attempt had been made to combat this with the handing out of umbrellas which were kept for the day and given back at your car in the car park.  Sculptures by local artists please the eye during the queuing system at the visitor centre and once inside an innovative puppet show depicts our link to and need for nature’s plant life. Prices have the usual discounts for children, students and OAPs but unusually you can join for life costing £1000, join the Friend’s Scheme for around £60 [family ticket] allowing free access for the year as well as exclusive events every month or return your admission ticket [£9.50] with a photo to gain a Passport giving free access for this year. Upon exiting the turn-styles the visitor is greeted by a truly awe inspiring sight that of the Bio-domes looking more at home on the set of a Science fiction film. However there is still some distance to travel on a meandering descent again possibly off-putting to some but potentially alleviated by the novel use of tractors and trailers carrying the visitors down into the heart of the ex-clay pit much like a train. As the train meandered down it afforded a closer inspection of the surrounding site, which did look unfinished in places with the old clay bed visible at times. The journey, thankfully is available for the return trip ascent but queuing was observed although the cheery and jester like staff were on hand to lighten the stress of the situation.


The media hype of the Eden Project did not meet reality once inside the ‘Biomes’ and thus the expectations of the visitor were dashed. Cables and pipes were still visible which detracted from the visitor experience. The promised flowers, fruits and butterflies were missing, even certain plants looked in very bad condition and seemed not to have recovered from their replanting. The highly stressed educational purpose of Eden praised through the media was almost entirely missing. There were few signs provided to give information about the names and the origin of the plants although they are expected to be in operation shortly and with guides. The green idea behind the Eden Project was partly unclear and extremely weakly expressed which for me was particularly disappointing thus educational and ecological awareness presented by the media simply failed to materialise for me. The catering facilities could be described as 'demographic dining' with two distinct areas, one with seats and a view to the entrance to one of the domes serving good food with a bar and high prices possibly targeting the middle-class whilst the other possibly aimed at the working class with stools, a self service cafeteria, a television and cheaper prices. The shop could easily be by-passed so visitors did not feel trapped or pressured to purchase. Finally the return journey to the car park is a lengthy up hill struggle but armed with the memories of a remarkable day the journey soon faded.



Cognitive dissonance is perhaps never totally unavoidable but as seen with the Eden Project can be managed. Such is the omni-presence of cognitive dissonance that it affords phrases like ‘soft values’ and as such is extremely difficult to pin down. By employing the right staff and company policies loss of interest in the product can be both identified early and managed. It may be suggested that many visitors eliminate cognitive dissonance as predicted by Festinger (1957) by looking past the little unfinished errors and seeing the greater good in the project as a whole although this is an assumption. The name ‘Project’ as confirmed by the Marketing Manager is used to suggest an ongoing and never finalised idea, which may ease the possibilities of dissonance amongst the consumers. The Marketing Manager was aware of a ‘honeymoon’ period and as such was looking ahead, formulating strategies. Due to the foresight of the management The Eden Project has in place many attributes that can combat cognitive dissonance although as Torkildsen suggests,


“The job of management is never to be concerned with restoring maintaining normality because normality is the condition of yesterday. The major concern of management, if they are to make their business effective, must be in the direction of systematically trying to understand the condition of the future so that they can decide on the changes that can take their business from today into tomorrow.”

(Torkildsen, G.1999.)



A larger scale study possibly longitudinal is needed to fully examine the diverse aspects of cognitive dissonance. The Eden Project is rather new and may still have a novelty value, which could eventually rub off in which case this sort of research needs to be ongoing. Cognitive dissonance can be considered as polymorphous and may benefit from further research into its categorisation.

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