Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive dissonance theory explained - toolsheri

This article gives a practical explanation of the cognitive dissonance theory by Leon Festinger. After reading, you’ll understand the basics of this powerful psychology tool.

What is the cognitive dissonance theory?

In psychology, cognitive dissonance means experiencing psychological stress when a person has two or more psychological ideas, values, or beliefs. It’s also called a psychological discomfort. In practice, cognitive dissonance occurs most in situations in which a person has to choose between two of these contradictory beliefs or actions. When two alternatives are equally interesting for the person in question, the dissonance is at its greatest. If cognitive dissonance arises, people will do everything to change their believes until they are consistent with each other.

According to the cognitive dissonance theory, people tent to seek consistency between these cognitions. For instance, if there is an inconsistency or dissonance between beliefs and behaviour, something will have to change to resolve that dissonance. In the case of dissonance between beliefs and behaviour, it’s likely that the belief will change in order to restore cognitive consonance.

Who proposed the cognitive dissonance theory?

It was Leon Festinger who proposed the concept of cognitive dissonance in his 1957 book, ‘A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance’. In this book he posited that all people strive toward internal psychological consistency to be able to function well mentally in the real world. A person experiencing cognitive dissonance becomes uncomfortable and is always focused and motivated to resolve this dissonance. He or she does so by justifying stressful behaviour or by avoiding certain circumstances and contradictory beliefs.

What is the main element from the cognitive dissonance theory?

The main element from the cognitive dissonance theory is about two factors that affect the intensity of the dissonance. This is about the number of dissonant beliefs a person has, and the importance that is assigned to each belief/value. There are a number of ways to eliminate dissonance.

Why some cognitive dissonance might not be a bad thing

Dissonance isn’t always a bad thing in a person’s development. Recognising situations in which beliefs and behaviours contradict each other can help to discover underlying values and understand better what you stand for. That’s the explanation given clinical assistant professor Paraskevi Noulas. Dr Curry states that, ‘Working on the cognitive dissonance in your life can be a positive and eye-opening, life-changing experience.’ ‘It can allow a person to grow in terms of control over one’s self and help you to become more confident in yourself and your decision making.’

On a broader level, mankind has cognitive dissonance to thank for enormous progress. Noulas claims that successes in women’s rights, reducing child marriages, and ending slavery are examples that result from cognitive dissonance. These changes are the result of people recognising contradictions between how women or slaves were seen, and how society treated them. People recognised cognitive dissonance and implemented revolutionary changes to have society’s values more closely match society’s actions.

In what ways can cognitive dissonance be resolved?

The cognitive dissonance theory says that people seek psychological consistency between their beliefs and the real world. In order to function properly, people constantly reduce their cognitive dissonance to align their cognitions with their actions.

By striving for psychological consistency, people with cognitive dissonances can reduce mental stress by taking actions that reduce the dissonance. In practice, people reduce cognitive dissonance in the following three ways:

Cognitive Dissonance Theory solving cognitive dissonance - toolshero

1. Changing behaviour

The first way to reduce cognitive dissonance is to change dissonant behaviour. A person who drinks excessively can choose to not drink, or call a cab after a few drinks. Changing both behaviours will relieve the cognitive dissonance because their actions are then in harmony with what they know about the dangers of drinking and driving.

This method of dissonance reduction is often problematic and difficult to implement in practice. That’s because it’s difficult for people to change learned behavioural responses. Another example of this is quitting smoking. Everyone knows the dangers of smoking, and despite us being aware of the possible consequences, some are not able to align their behaviour to reality by giving up smoking.

2. Changing beliefs

People’s beliefs are constantly being adjusted to relieve dissonance. In other words, the human brain is always filtering conflicting matters to support certain beliefs. In the example of the smoker, that person can look at research and believe that smoking doesn’t necessarily cause cancer. That way they experience less dissonance when they continue their unhealthy behaviour.

3. Justification of beliefs and behaviour

A good example of this is a person who spends all the money they earn. They can convince themselves that spending your money is fine, as you can’t take it with you after you die. Any person displaying regular risky behaviour can justify it by claiming that you have to live every day like it might be your last. These are all attempts to rationalise risky behaviour and reduce cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance tolerance levels

Every person has a different level of tolerance for cognitive dissonance, so it’s hard to measure it objectively. Most people experience cognitive dissonance as discomfort, comparing it to a nagging sense that something isn’t right. At the same time, it doesn’t lead to an insurmountable problem in your life. Eventually most people will feel the need to change something to change the nagging discomfort.

The spectrum of cognitive dissonance is one of extremes. On the extreme end of it, it can manifest as anxiety. This mainly happens when it’s a long-held belief, such a religious beliefs or morals that conflict with behaviour or feelings. People who grew up in a conservative religion believe premarital sex is a sin. If it then happens anyway, it can lead to cognitive dissonance. The same happens for same-sex couples. This type of cognitive dissonance isn’t as prevalent these days, fortunately. The imbalance can lead to serious worry and feelings of fear, shame, or anger. If the dissonance is particularly large, people will feel they’re immoral, or might develop a lack of self-esteem until balance is restored.

Applications of the cognitive dissonance theory

The cognitive dissonance theory is used in many ways in everyday modern life. We go into some of the applications below.

Education

Cognitive dissonance has been made a part of different models for basic learning processes in students. The goal is to improve the self-awareness of students regarding psychological conflicts in their beliefs, ideals, and values. This requires that students learn to defend their personal beliefs. After that the students learn to look at new facts and information objectively in order to reduce the psychological stress caused by the conflict between their beliefs and reality. Studies have shown that psychological interventions that cause cognitive dissonance with the goal to implement deliberate change can improve students’ learning skills.

Psychotherapy

The general effectiveness of psychotherapy and psychological interventions can be partially explained by the cognitive dissonance theory. Social psychology has found that a patient’s mental health is positively influenced by the freedom to opt for a specific form of therapy and making the required effort to reduce cognitive dissonance.

Social behaviour

The cognitive dissonance theory is also used to stimulate positive social behaviour. One example of this is encouraging the use of prophylactics in different parts of the world. Other actions based on cognitive dissonance are campaigns against littering, against racism, and against traffic violations. The theory can also be used to explain why people give to charities.

Example of cognitive dissonance

Researcher Hank Rothgerber stated that people who eat meat may experience internal conflict between their eating habits and their love for animals. This dissonance occurs when someone’s behaviour as meat eater conflicts with a belief, value, or attitude. The person in question can do a number of things, including avoidance or wilful ignorance to prevent that this type of cognitive dissonance occurs. In order to resolve the dissonance, the person will anthropomorphise animals less, refuse to accept the responsibility for eating meat, or adopt the belief that meat is healthy based on studies they have consulted.

Summary of the cognitive dissonance theory

In psychology cognitive dissonance is a form of psychological stress that is experienced when a person holds two or more conflicting beliefs, behaviours, or values. According to the cognitive dissonance theory, all people tend to want to find consistency in their cognitions. If there are inconsistencies between, for example, beliefs and behaviour, then one of the two will have to be changed to relieve the discomfort. The phrase cognitive dissonance was proposed by Leon Festinger, who presented the theory behind it in his 1957 book, ‘A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance’.

Because there is an imbalance, or discomfort, cognitive dissonance is often considered to be negative. However, the concept and process of cognitive dissonance is vital to anyone’s development. Dr Curry posits that working on cognitive dissonance can be a positive and eye-opening life-changing experience. Certain things that are taken for granted are the direct result of natural cognitive dissonance, such as equal rights for men and women, ending slavery, ending child brides, and child labour.

In order to resolve the discomfort that occurs as a result of cognitive dissonance, people will consciously or unconsciously use one of three ways. The first is to adjust certain beliefs so they no longer conflict with behaviour. The second is to adjust certain behaviours, so they no longer conflict a person’s beliefs. Finally, justifying certain actions or behaviours can be used to resolve cognitive dissonance.

The cognitive dissonance theory is also an important part of education that people should receive during their development. The goal is to improve students’ self-awareness. By teaching students how they have to objectively look at new facts and information, the psychological stress of their beliefs conflicting with their behaviour or reality can be reduced, and vice versa. The process of cognitive dissonance also happens in psychotherapy and in attempts to affect positive social change, such as the use of prophylactics and combatting racism.

Now it’s your turn

What do you think? Do you recognise the explanation about the cognitive dissonance theory? Do you experience psychological stress – or have you experienced it – and do you now understand better where it comes from? If you look back on your development, would you say you’ve experienced cognitive dissonance? Do you recognise this process of self-awareness in the people around you? Do you have any tips or additional comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

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More information

  1. Brehm, J. W., & Cohen, A. R. (1962). Explorations in cognitive dissonance.
  2. Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford university press.
  3. Greenwald, A. G., & Ronis, D. L. (1978). Twenty years of cognitive dissonance: Case study of the evolution of a theory. Psychological review, 85(1), 53.
  4. Harmon-Jones, E. E., & Mills, J. E. (1999). Cognitive dissonance: Progress on a pivotal theory in social psychology. In Scientific Conferences Program, 1997, U Texas, Arlington, TX, US; This volume is based on papers presented at a 2-day conference at the University of Texas at Arlington, winter 1997.. American Psychological Association.

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