Cognitive dissonance is discomfort or distress caused by conflicting beliefs, behaviors, feelings, ideas, or values. It is an uncomfortable psychological state that people experience when they have an inconsistency between how they think and how they act. This feeling of dissonance may be experienced as anxiety, stress, or discomfort.
To relieve the discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance, people can either change their behaviors or their attitudes.
In this article:
- What Is Cognitive Dissonance?
- Signs of Cognitive Dissonance
- Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance
- Examples of Cognitive Dissonance
- What Causes Cognitive Dissonance?
- Factors That Influence Cognitive Dissonance
- The Effects of Cognitive Dissonance
- How to Cognitive Dissonance
- Unhealthy Ways to Reduce Dissonance
What Is Cognitive Dissonance?
People tend to prefer it when their attitudes align with their perceptions of the world. When these beliefs don’t match up to what we experience, it can leave us feeling uncomfortable and unsure.
Definition: Cognitive dissonance refers to the sense of unease and discomfort people experience when there is an inconsistency between what they think or how they act and what they perceive in the world.
Signs of Cognitive Dissonance
These feelings are not always easy to recognize, even though we all experience them from time to time. Some signs you might be feeling dissonance include:
- Doing things you don’t want to do because you think that others will judge you if you don’t do them
- Seeking reassurance or affirmations to avoid having to change your beliefs or actions
- Feeling discomfort or anxiety that doesn’t have an identifiable source
- Having conflicting feelings about a subject
- Feeling uneasy about a decision
- Experiencing shame or embarrassment about your actions
- Engaging in hypocritical behavior, which involves doing or saying things that go against your known beliefs
- Avoiding facts about a situation to avoid having to face a lie
- Acting defensive when people point out a mismatch between your beliefs and actions
- You always feel like you have to spend a lot of time trying to justify your actions
- You tend to avoid conversations that will bring up feelings of discomfort
In some cases, you might be aware that your beliefs and behaviors are out of step with one another. While you perceive this conflict, you might not understand what to do or how to change the situation.
Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance
It was a psychologist named Leon Festinger who first described cognitive dissonance and the role it played in attitude and behavior change. He described his theory in his 1957 book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.
Festinger had studied members of a cult who believed that the world would be destroyed by a flood. Many cult members had given up their homes and jobs to prepare for what they believed was the end of the world.
Festinger was interested in what happened to cult members, particularly the most devoted believers, when the world-ending event they predicted didn’t happen.
He found that the less devoted members of the cult could recognize that they had been wrong and moved on from the group. Those most devoted and committed to the belief instead reinterpreted what had happened.
Rather than changing their beliefs, they instead suggested that they had been right all along and that their faith had been so steadfast that the earth had been saved by their devotion.
Festinger suggested that people strive to maintain a state of internal consistency. When things are psychologically unbalanced, it creates discomfort and distress.
As a result, people are motivated to relieve this discomfort in some way. Festinger referred to this need to reduce dissonance as the principle of cognitive consistency.
Examples of Cognitive Dissonance
There are many everyday situations that might cause a person to experience feelings of cognitive dissonance:
- Even though you value your health and generally try to follow a healthy lifestyle, you consistently stay up late and rarely get the recommended 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. As a result, you find yourself feeling guilty about your poor sleep habits.
- You love animals and care about their welfare, but you continue to eat meat and feel guilty about not following a vegetarian or vegan diet.
- While your religion requires you to hold certain beliefs and take certain actions, you engage in behaviors that are in direct opposition to your religious beliefs, which results in feelings of guilt or shame.
What Causes Cognitive Dissonance?
Several different factors can contribute to the emergence of cognitive dissonance. In most cases, it is a mismatch between what a person believes and their behaviors that induces these uncomfortable feelings.
However, Festinger and other researchers suggested that there were a few common situations that could trigger cognitive dissonance. These causes include:
Choosing between two similar things can contribute to feelings of dissonance. After you make a choice, you might wonder if the option you didn’t choose might have been better. This conflict between your attitude (liking the item you didn’t choose) and your actions (choosing the item that you did pick) results in feelings of cognitive dissonance.
You can also experience dissonance if you are pressured to engage in an action that goes against something you believe in. For example, you might modify your behavior to fit in socially or to meet expectations at school or work.
To reduce dissonance, you might justify your actions by reminding yourself that you didn’t have a choice. In other cases, however, you might even alter your own attitudes. You may convince yourself that you actually wanted to engage in those actions.
Discovering new information that conflicts with something that you already believe can create feelings of discomfort. For example, people who believe in doomsday prophecies may feel confused and upset when the predictions don’t come to fruition.
To resolve this discomfort, people often either look for information that supports their existing beliefs or seek out ways to undermine or discredit the new information they have learned.
When you work hard for something, you want to believe that all of that effort is worth it. But when the results don’t end up measuring up to your expectations, you are likely to experience feelings of cognitive dissonance.
To deal with this, you might convince yourself that the outcome or results were better than they really were. This allows you to justify the required efforts to reach the goal.
To cope with this discomfort, you may look for things that justify your choice. Or you might focus on the negative features of the item that you didn’t choose to convince yourself that your decision was the right one.
Factors That Influence Cognitive Dissonance
It is important to note that people only experience discomfort when they are aware of the conflict between their attitudes and reality. And some people simply have a higher tolerance for inconsistency and distress.
In fact, Festinger suggested that in some cases, people cope with inconsistency by disregarding it entirely and simply blindly believing whatever they want.
Factors that can play a role in how people experience cognitive dissonance include:
- The nature of the belief: When the inconsistency involves a personal core belief central to a person’s identity, they are more likely to experience discomfort to a higher degree.
- The degree of disparity: A small inconsistency is less likely to trigger uneasy feelings than a substantial conflict.
- The importance of the belief: If the disparity involves a belief that is important to the individual, they will experience stronger feelings of dissonance.
However, there are also a wide variety of other influences that can play a part in whether a person experiences cognitive dissonance. Other influences can include:
- Past trauma
- The need to maintain social relationships
- Benefits gained by not challenging beliefs or behaviors
- Fear of change
- Mental health conditions
The Effects of Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance can motivate people to take steps to reduce the discomfort or distress that they feel. The more dissonance people feel, the more likely they will do something about it.
Dissonance affects a person’s:
- Mental health
- Stress levels
If you are experiencing dissonance, you might grapple with feelings of anxiety, shame, regret, or sadness. You might worry that other people will see you as a hypocrite. It might even affect your sense of self or self-esteem.
How to Cognitive Dissonance
There are a number of tactics that people use to try to reduce dissonance. Some of these include:
- Rationalization: One way to reduce discomfort is to look for ways to justify the actions that are creating distress.
- Avoidance: People also often simply try to avoid information that contradict their beliefs or behaviors. This is an example of a cognitive bias known as the confirmation bias. People will seek out information that confirms what they already believe to be true while avoiding things that conflict with their beliefs.
- Blaming: Another tactic often involves blaming other people for the behavior that created the conflict.
- Hiding: The fear of others noticing the disparity may cause people to hide their true beliefs or actions.
- Discounting: This tactic involves reducing the importance of the belief, attitude, or behavior that is creating conflict.
- Compensating: People may also try to engage in certain actions that compensate for the behaviors that go against what they believe.
Unhealthy Ways to Reduce Dissonance
Ultimately, changing the belief that is out of step with reality is also an effective way to reduce dissonance. It is also often the most difficult. This is particularly true if it is a deeply held conviction central to an individual’s sense of self.
Unfortunately, how people cope with these conflicts are not always healthy.
Festinger noted that when people realize that behavior is unhealthy, they often find ways to reduce the tension to continue engaging in the behavior.
For example, a person might recognize that smoking has negative health consequences. To avoid kicking the habit:
- They might decide that indulgence is worth the risk.
- Or they might engage in other healthy behaviors to try to “make up” for their smoking habit.
- In other cases, they might simply discount the risk and choose to believe that they won’t be affected by negative health outcomes.
Cognitive dissonance can have an important influence on your behavior, decisions, and even your well-being. One thing you can do is try to recognize these uncomfortable feelings when they arise and then look for effective and healthy ways to reduce conflict. Analyzing the information, making an informed decision, and sometimes even changing your belief or behavior are strategies that can help you make the right choices.
American Psychological Association. Cognitive dissonance.
Cooper, J. Cognitive Dissonance: 50 Years of a Classic Theory. London: Sage Publications; 2007.
Dilakshini VL, Kumar SM. Cognitive dissonance: A psychological unrest. CJAST. Published online October 1, 2020:54-60. doi:10.9734/CJAST/2020/v39i3030970
Festinger L. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press; 1957.
Festinger L. Some attitudinal consequences of forced decisions. Acta Psychologica. 1959;15: 389-390. doi:10.1016/S0001-6918(59)80203-1
Vaidis DC, Bran A. Respectable challenges to respectable theory: Cognitive dissonance theory requires conceptualization clarification and operational tools. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1189. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01189