What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

(Last Updated On: September 2, 2021)

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.

In order to relieve the discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance, people can either change their behaviors or their attitudes.

Definition

People tend to prefer it when their attitudes align with their perceptions of the world. When there is an inconsistency between what a person thinks or how they act and what they perceive in the world, they tend to feel uneasy or uncomfortable.

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
  • Feeling discomfort or anxiety that doesn’t have a clearly identifiable source
  • Having conflicting feelings about a subject
  • Feeling uneasy about a decision
  • Experiencing shame or embarrassment about your actions

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.

History

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 in order 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.

What he found was that the less devoted members of the cult were able to recognize that they had been wrong and moved on from the group. Those who were the 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.

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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.

Causes

There are a number of different factors that can contribute to the emergence of cognitive dissonance. These causes include:

Decision-Making

The process of making a choice between two similar things can contribute to feelings of dissonance. After you make a choice, you might continue to 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.

Forced Compliance

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 in order to fit in socially or to meet expectations at school or at work. 

In order 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.

Conflicting Information

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 be left feeling confused and upset when the predictions don’t come to fruition.  

In order 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.

Effort Justification

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. 

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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 efforts that were required to reach the goal.

In order to cope with this discomfort, you may look for things that justify the choice you made. 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 Play a Role

It is important to note that people only experience discomfort when they are actually 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 that is 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 has great importance to the individual, they will experience stronger feelings of dissonance.

Effects on Behavior

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 are to do something about it. 

Dissonance affects a person’s:

  • Attitudes
  • Behaviors
  • Emotions
  • Mental health
  • Stress levels
  • Thoughts

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.

Reducing 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 either 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 seem to compensate for the behaviors that go against what they believe.
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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 that is central to an individual’s sense of self.

Unfortunately, the ways in which people cope with these conflicts are not always healthy. Festinger noted that when people realize that a behavior is unhealthy, they often find ways to reduce the tension so they can continue engaging in the behavior.

For example, a person might recognize that smoking has negative health consequences. In order to avoid kicking the habit, the individual might decide that the 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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Sources:

Cooper, J. Cognitive Dissonance: 50 Years of a Classic Theory. London: Sage Publications; 2007.

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