Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term that describes how people experience discomfort when they hold two incongruous thoughts, beliefs, values, or attitudes at the same time.
For example, a person may believe that drinking cola is bad for their health but still has one every day. It can lead to guilt and anxiety caused by the dissonance between their knowledge about the dangers of sugar and their behavior.
Another example is believing climate change is real but still using products and services to accelerate it.
People naturally strive for internal consistency and harmony. So, when inconsistency or dissonance is encountered, they are motivated to resolve it to reduce the resulting discomfort.
Cognitive dissonance can motivate people to address these internal conflicts by changing their attitudes or behavior to bring them back into alignment.
So, cognitive dissonance plays a significant role in shaping people’s beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors and in how they process and integrate new information.
Definition of Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon where people experience discomfort or tension due to simultaneously holding two contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.
Cognitive dissonance is rooted in the human need for consistency and cognitive balance.
According to Green (2020),
“…cognitive dissonance is the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change” (p. 65).
In its simplest form, cognitive dissonance occurs when someone holds two thoughts that are incompatible with one another.
Festinger (1957) states that
“…non-fitting relations among cognitions generate a state of discomfort, now generally considered as involving negative arousal, that motivates people to cope with this situation, typically by adjusting one cognition to the other” (Vaidis & Bran, 2019, p. 2).
For example, professing that pollution is bad while still using activities that create pollution can cause feelings of guilt and anxiety related to the inconsistency between knowledge and behavior.
Cognitive dissonance has been studied extensively by psychologists who have developed cognitive dissonance theories to explain how it affects people’s behavior and how people try to reduce it by changing either their attitude or behavior.
10 Examples of Cognitive Dissonance
- Unhealthy eating: Eating unhealthy food despite knowing its adverse health effects is an example of cognitive dissonance. Such tension arises from believing that one should eat healthy, nutritious food but then eating unhealthy items.
- Energy hypocrisy: Believing in the importance of reducing energy consumption but opting for convenience instead and using inefficient energy sources such as gasoline or coal.
- Justice inaction: Someone with a strong sense of justice may feel distressed when they witness injustice occurring yet do nothing about it, creating a conflict between their beliefs and their behavior.
- Cruelty contradiction: A person who campaigns against animal cruelty may experience discomfort when they continue to wear fur or leather products, going against their values even though they know the consequences.
- Academic procrastination: A student who strives for academic success but also procrastinates and avoids studying can create a conflict between their ambition and their behavior, resulting in feelings of guilt or anxiety caused by cognitive dissonance.
- Environmental paradox: Someone may be passionate about environmental conservation yet own multiple gas-guzzling vehicles, creating an internal struggle due to conflicting views on sustainability and personal wants versus needs.
- Education conflict: Believing in the value of education while failing to complete school assignments creates a conflict between what one knows (the importance of education) and what one does (failure to complete tasks).
- Religious inconsistency: Holding religious beliefs yet engaging in activities contrary to those beliefs can create cognitive dissonance, such as feeling guilty for turning away from your faith during times of temptation.
- Emotional ambivalence: Experiencing both attraction and reluctance towards something or someone despite knowing that it might be bad for oneself is another instance where cognitive dissonance can arise due to conflicting thoughts and emotions towards the same thing/person/situation.
- Political turmoil: Having conflicting views on different political issues can lead to inner turmoil if one believes in contradicting points on a given issue—for example, being pro-choice yet simultaneously believing in controlled immigration policies.
- Post-decision dissonance: This occurs after you have made a decision, and you feel the sense that you made the wrong decision, causing you to seek a way to rationalize your choice to overcome this dissonance.
Origins of Cognitive Dissonance Theory
Cognitive dissonance theory was first proposed by American social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957, and it states that individuals have a fundamental need to hold consistent attitudes, beliefs, and values.
He argued that people have an innate need for consistency and, as a result, experience psychological discomfort when their beliefs and behaviors don’t align (Festinger, 1957).
This idea has since been supported by research that has found that cognitive dissonance is most likely to occur when there is an inconsistency between two or more beliefs, values, or attitudes.
Festinger (1957) suggested that when faced with such inconsistencies, individuals may either change one of their beliefs or take action to reduce their perceived inconsistency.
In his research, Festinger (1957) found evidence for both these strategies and suggested that each individual will rely on whichever one is easier or immediately available to them.
Ever since then, numerous studies have built on Festinger’s original insight into cognitive dissonance and its implications for understanding human behavior.
Causes of Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance can originate from either internal sources, such as doubts and inconsistencies in one’s own thinking, or external sources, such as disagreements with others.
Here is a brief overview of some common internal and external causes of cognitive dissonance:
1. Internal Conflicts
Internal conflicts can arise when a person has competing beliefs or values that do not align with each other (Festinger, 1957).
For example, someone may believe that drinking is bad for their health yet still continue to drink.
In this case, cognitive dissonance would arise due to the inconsistency between their belief that drinking is bad and their behavior of continuing to drink.
2. Dissimilar Values
Cognitive dissonance can also occur when individuals have different sets of values, which create a conflict in situations where they must choose between two options (Yahya & Sukmayadi, 2020).
For instance, an individual who highly values both environmental conservation and economic growth may be faced with an internal struggle if presented with two options that prioritize one of these qualities over the other.
3. Disagreements with Others
Cognitive dissonance can originate from disagreements with others as well.
For example, when someone believes something contrary to what another individual is saying despite knowing it is probably true (Festinger, 1957).
In such cases, cognitive dissonance might manifest itself because of the incompatibility between what one believes and what others tell them is true or correct.
Effects of Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance can have a wide range of effects on individuals – from the feeling of discomfort and anxiety to changes in behavior, reactions to new information, and decision-making processes.
Here is a brief overview of the most common effects:
1. Changes in Behavior
One of the most common effects of cognitive dissonance is changes in behavior. When faced with an inconsistency between beliefs and behaviors, people may attempt to reduce their discomfort by taking action to resolve the conflict (Harmon-Jones, 2000).
For example, someone who believes drinking is bad for their health but still drinks might try to quit drinking to reduce the cognitive dissonance they are feeling.
2. Reactions to New Information
Cognitive dissonance can also affect how individuals react to new information—especially if it challenges their beliefs (Festinger, 1957).
In such cases, individuals may reject or discount the new information or be unwilling to accept it due to its potential negative implications for their existing beliefs or worldviews.
3. Decision-Making Processes
Cognitive dissonance can also influence how people make decisions by affecting how much weight individuals give different factors when choosing between two options (Harmon-Jones, 2000).
People with conflicting beliefs might be less likely to weigh all factors equally and instead focus more on those that fit better with what they already believe to reduce potential conflicts between their thoughts and actions.
See More: Decision Making Examples
4. Personal and Social Change
Not only can cognitive dissonance be discouraging, but it has the potential to act as a catalyst for personal and social transformation (Festinger, 1957).
By highlighting an individual’s inconsistencies between their actions and beliefs, one can draw attention to this contradiction, which may push them towards taking action.
How to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance
Reducing cognitive dissonance can be achieved in various ways, including accepting the inconsistency and adopting a more flexible attitude to beliefs and behaviors (Festinger, 1957).
1. Changing beliefs and Behaviors
One relatively simple way to reduce cognitive dissonance is to re-evaluate your beliefs and challenge any that might be causing an internal conflict.
According to cognitive development theorist Jean Piaget, you can re-evaluate your beliefs in two ways:
- Assimilation: Assimilating new information into existing cognitive schema to address misconceptions that cause cognitive dissonance. This is a ‘yes, and’ approach to addressing cognitive dissonance.
- Accommodation: Changing existing cognitive schema and replacing old outdated information with new information that can achieve cognitive equilibrium. This is the ‘no, but’ approach to addressing cognitive dissonance.
2. Tolerating Uncertainty
Another effective way to reduce cognitive dissonance is by increasing one’s ability to tolerate uncertainty and conflicting opinions.
By recognizing that your thoughts and ideas are always liable to change due to new evidence, you can become more open-minded and accept that any inconsistencies between beliefs and behaviors may not always need immediate resolution.
Seeking out alternate perspectives also helps reduce cognitive dissonance as it allows individuals to gain insight from different points of view and hear arguments from both sides of an issue before making a decision.
This approach can broaden one’s understanding of the topic in question, potentially altering their thoughts or ideas about it.
Cognitive dissonance is a fundamental aspect of human psychology, arising when individuals simultaneously hold conflicting thoughts, beliefs, values, or attitudes.
This mental discomfort can manifest in various ways and can impact decision-making, behavior, and the way people process new information.
The numerous examples illustrate how cognitive dissonance can emerge in different contexts and situations, highlighting its ubiquity in everyday life.
Understanding and recognizing cognitive dissonance can help individuals become more self-aware, allowing them to address inconsistencies in their beliefs and behaviors and promoting personal growth.
By re-evaluating beliefs, increasing tolerance for uncertainty, and seeking alternate perspectives, individuals can actively reduce cognitive dissonance and work towards achieving greater cognitive harmony and personal well-being.
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford University Press.
Green, H. (2020). The path to self-love & world domination: A no-nonsense approach to feeling awesome and living your best life. Health Communications, Inc.
Harmon-Jones, E. (2000). Cognitive dissonance and experienced negative affect: Evidence that dissonance increases experienced negative affect even in the absence of aversive consequences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(12), 1490–1501. https://doi.org/10.1177/01461672002612004
Vaidis, D. C., & Bran, A. (2019). Respectable challenges to respectable theory: Cognitive dissonance theory requires conceptualization clarification and operational tools. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01189
Yahya, A. H., & Sukmayadi, V. (2020). A review of cognitive dissonance theory and its relevance to current social issues. MIMBAR : Jurnal Sosial Dan Pembangunan, 36(2). https://doi.org/10.29313/mimbar.v36i2.6652
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]