Cognitive dissonance theory states that our minds go through a process of confusion and logical conflict called cognitive dissonance when faced with new information that is incongruous with existing information. We aim to resolve this to return to a state of cognitive equilibrium.
The concept of “cognitive dissonance” was first introduced by Leon Festinger, a student of Kurt Lewin, in 1957 to explain changes in opinions and beliefs to eliminate semantic conflict situations.
This theory is based on the idea that when an individual experiences conflict between two mental states, they experience tension (cognitive dissonance) which leads to a change in one of the two mental states, or both.
So, for example, if a person is presented with new information that contradicts their existing beliefs or opinions (creating cognitive dissonance), they may seek to change one of their mental states to reduce the conflict and tension experienced.
Definition of Cognitive Dissonance Theory
Cognitive dissonance is an internal conflict that occurs in a person when their conflicting beliefs collide. According to Willingham (2014), cognitive dissonance “literally means having mental conflicts” (p. 151).
Cognitive dissonance causes a feeling of tension: a person experiences unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, anger, shame, and guilt – and will strive to get rid of discomfort in various ways.
Leon Festinger (1957) suggested that in the presence of conflicting beliefs, people would experience emotional discomfort (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 2019).
In his study of rumor belief, Festinger (1957) concluded that people always strive for an internal balance between personal motives that determine their behavior and information received from outside.
Festinger’s theory describes how people try to rationalize their behavior (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 2019).
Cognitive Dissonance Theory Examples
- Smoking vs. Health: Smoking is generally known to be harmful to health, yet people continue to smoke despite this knowledge. It presents a cognitive dissonance for the smoker who must accept that their behavior contradicts their beliefs about health and well-being.
- Weight Loss vs. Fast Food Consumption: When someone desires to lose weight but continues to consume unhealthy fast food, there is a cognitive dissonance between the desire to lose weight and the consumption of fast food, which will prevent them from reaching this goal.
- Religion vs. Self-Destructive Behaviors: If a person holds religious beliefs that dictate they should not engage in self-destructive behaviors yet still participates in such activities, cognitive dissonance will occur.
- Working Long Hours vs. Family Time: A person who values family time and career success may be faced with a conflict between the two when they must either put in extra hours at work or spend quality time with family members.
- Academic Success vs. Laziness: A student may have a strong desire to achieve in school yet still finds themselves procrastinating and being lazy leading up to tests.
- Risk-Taking Behaviors vs. Safety Consciousness: People who value safety but engage in risky behaviors such as extreme sports or reckless driving face cognitive dissonance.
- Environmentalism vs. Plastic Use: A person who places value on environmental protection may be challenged with cognitive dissonance when choosing between using plastic products or opting for more eco-friendly options.
- Career Advancement vs. Popular Opinion: When a person is torn between gaining career advancement by conforming to popular opinion or making unpopular decisions that will benefit them in the long term, cognitive dissonance may arise.
- Fun vs. Responsibility: When someone’s responsibilities and obligations conflict with the urge to enjoy themselves, they may experience cognitive dissonance. This inner turmoil can lead to indecision or even guilt – but it is essential to remember that finding ways to balance fun and responsibility is always possible!
- Buying Luxury Items vs. Frugality: People who value thriftiness and frugality may experience cognitive dissonance when they are tempted to buy luxury items. The dissonance can be resolved by practicing “smart” shopping, such as waiting for sales or using rewards programs.
- Role Conflict: People often occupy two roles that conflict – e.g. being a good father and a hard-working employee – which lead a person to feel inner conflict that needs to be resolved through change or rationalization.
- Religion and science: Many new atheists argue that religion does not fit with science, and that religious people need to reconcile the cognitive dissonance that occurs when trying to reconcile what is written in religious texts and what scientific evidence suggests.
- 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.
Causes of Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance can arise for various reasons, including logical inconsistencies, cultural practices, if an individual opinion is not part of a larger one, or due to the inconsistency of past experience for the present situation (Festinger, 1957).
- Logical Inconsistencies: If a person’s beliefs or actions contradict an established logical pattern, cognitive dissonance will arise as the person is forced to confront the contradiction.
- Cultural Practices: While societal norms may influence someone’s beliefs, they may not always agree with or have the same views as the majority. It can lead to cognitive dissonance if their opinion is not part of the more considerable collective opinion.
- Not Being Part of a Larger Opinion: When an individual holds a particular opinion but is not part of the more considered opinion, it can lead to cognitive dissonance since the individual may feel that their opinion is not being heard or taken into account.
- Past Experience vs. Present Situation: Cognitive dissonance can also arise from past experiences that do not align with the current situation. For example, people may experience cognitive dissonance when their beliefs about themselves or the world do not match their current circumstances.
Ultimately, cognitive dissonance is a regular and natural occurrence in our lives. It can be uncomfortable and sometimes even paralyzing. Still, it is essential to remember that the conflict can be resolved with awareness and understanding.
Effects of Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance can cause diverse reactions in humans. It either brings about distress or has the potential to trigger individualized defense mechanisms as a coping strategy.
Experiencing cognitive dissonance can be a profoundly uncomfortable sensation, causing immense anxiety and potentially resulting in long-term stress or unhappiness (Montecinos, 2020).
People may even feel powerless to address the issue at hand, leaving them feeling perpetually distressed.
When people ignore, downplay, or forget about the inconsistencies within their beliefs and behaviors, it can lead to an inability to face reality.
Such denial of cognitive dissonance may sound harmless at first – but unchecked avoidance has severe implications for individuals and those around them (Festinger, 1957).
Without taking steps to resolve the issue, people are likely setting themselves up for more significant hardship.
Cognitive dissonance is not only a potential hindrance. It can also be good in the long run. For example, it could be beneficial for personal and social transformation (Festinger, 1957).
People can learn to understand themselves better and make necessary adjustments to maintain a healthier mindset by recognizing and facing the conflict between their beliefs and behaviors.
So, while cognitive dissonance can be uncomfortable, it is a reminder that life is full of choices and decisions.
Learning to navigate this inner turmoil will help us recognize and address any conflicting feelings, leading us to a path of fulfillment and balance.
How People Resolve Cognitive Dissonance
There are various ways to resolve cognitive dissonance. They include avoiding or devaluing factual information, rationalizing, changing one’s behavior, or developing critical thinking.
1. Avoiding or Devaluing Factual Information
This strategy helps people continue to support behaviors they do not fully agree with (for example, I know that smoking is terrible, but I continue to do so).
To reduce cognitive dissonance, a person may limit access to new information that does not fit their beliefs or devalue these facts, perceiving them as false (Morvan & O’Connor, 2017).
Of course, this has negative consequences: you’re choosing to put your head in the sand in order to make yourself feel better!
Rationalization means justifying oneself and trying to make sure that there is no internal conflict.
People begin to seek support from those who share similar views or try to convince others that the new information is inaccurate, looking for ways to justify behavior that goes against their beliefs.
Unfortunately, often behind explanations that seem rational to us, there are irrational beliefs containing logical errors that are not supported by facts, and this causes us suffering.
3. Changing One’s Behavior
Discomfort can push people to change their behavior so that actions are consistent with their beliefs.
As a result of cognitive dissonance, many people are faced with a conflict of values, resolving which they can bring positive changes to their lives and get closer to the ideal following they want to live (Morvan & O’Connor, 2017).
It is where cognitive dissonance can have a positive impact. For example, a person eats a lot of sugary, fatty foods every day while he is at risk of diabetes, and he is aware of the consequences.
Feeling uncomfortable with cognitive dissonance, he eventually changes his behavior. He adjusts his diet, thereby taking a step towards his value – health.
4. Developing Critical Thinking
It is essential to develop sound reasoning skills so that a person can evaluate facts to draw their conclusions and make decisions that are consistent with their beliefs.
Developing critical thinking involves obtaining information from reliable sources, weighing evidence, and analyzing facts to make an informed, reasoned decision.
Cognitive dissonance is a phenomenon that everyone encounters. It means that the person has a conflict of values, making them uncomfortable. So, it influences our decisions in many different areas.
Cognitive dissonance theory was initially proposed to understand how people cope with conflicting beliefs and behaviors. While it can cause discomfort, it is also an opportunity for personal growth and transformation.
To resolve cognitive dissonance, people can avoid new facts that contradict their existing beliefs, rationalize them away, change their behavior, or develop their critical thinking skills.
Ultimately, it is up to each person to decide how to navigate cognitive dissonance to make decisions that align with their values.
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford University Press.
Harmon-Jones, E., & Mills, J. (2019). An introduction to cognitive dissonance theory and an overview of current perspectives on the theory. Cognitive Dissonance: Reexamining a Pivotal Theory in Psychology (2nd Ed.)., 3–24. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000135-001
Montecinos, S. (2020). New perspectives on cognitive dissonance theory. Stockholm University. https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1411016/FULLTEXT01.pdf
Morvan, C., & O’Connor, A. (2017). An analysis of Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance. Routledge.
Willingham, R. (2014). The people principle. St. Martin’s Press.