What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

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cognitive dissonance

Hugo Lin

The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the feelings of discomfort that result when your beliefs run counter to your behaviors and/or new information that is presented to you. People tend to seek consistency in their attitudes and perceptions, so when what you hold true is challenged or what you do doesn't jibe with what you think, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance (lack of agreement). A classic example of this is "explaining something away."

Definition

Psychologist Leon Festinger first proposed a theory of cognitive dissonance centered on how people try to reach internal consistency. He suggested that people have an inner need to ensure that their beliefs and behaviors are consistent. Inconsistent or conflicting beliefs lead to disharmony, which people strive to avoid.

In his 1957 book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Festinger explained, "Cognitive dissonance can be seen as an antecedent condition which leads to activity oriented toward dissonance reduction just as hunger leads toward activity oriented toward hunger reduction. It is a very different motivation from what psychologists are used to dealing with but, as we shall see, nonetheless powerful."

Influential Factors

The degree of dissonance people experience can depend on a few different factors, including how highly they value a particular belief and the degree to which their beliefs are inconsistent.

The overall strength of the dissonance can also be influenced by several factors: 

  • Cognitions that are more personal, such as beliefs about the self, tend to result in greater dissonance.
  • The importance of the cognitions; things that involve beliefs that are highly valued typically result in stronger dissonance.
  • The ratio between dissonant (clashing) thoughts and consonant (harmonious) thoughts
  • The greater the strength of the dissonance, the more pressure there is to relieve the feelings of discomfort.

Cognitive dissonance can often have a powerful influence on our behaviors and actions.

Examples

Cognitive dissonance can occur in many areas of life, but it is particularly evident in situations where an individual's behavior conflicts with beliefs that are integral to his or her self-identity. A common example of cognitive dissonance occurs in the purchasing decisions we make on a regular basis. Consider a situation in which a man who places a value on being environmentally responsible just purchased a new car that he later discovers does not get great gas mileage.

The conflict:

  • It is important for the man to take care of the environment.
  • He is driving a car that is not environmentally friendly.

In order to reduce this dissonance between belief and behavior, he can sell the car and purchase another one that gets better gas mileage, or he can reduce his emphasis on environmental responsibility. In the case of the second option, his dissonance could be further minimized by engaging in actions that reduce the impact of driving a gas-guzzling vehicle, such as utilizing public transportation more frequently or riding his bike to work.

Most people want to hold the belief that they make good choices. When a purchase turns out badly, it conflicts with their previously-existing belief about their decision-making abilities.

In A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Festinger offers an example of how an individual might deal with dissonance related to a health behavior by discussing individuals who continue to smoke, even though they know it is bad for their health.

According to Festinger, a person might decide that they value smoking more than health, deeming the behavior "worth it" in terms of risks versus rewards.

Another way to deal with this dissonance is to minimize the potential drawbacks. The smoker might convince himself that the negative health effects have been overstated. He might also assuage his health concerns by telling himself that he cannot avoid every possible risk out there.

Festinger suggested that the smoker might try to convince himself that if he does stop smoking then he will gain weight, which also presents health risks. By using such explanations, the smoker is able to reduce the dissonance and continue the behavior.

Common Reactions

When there are conflicts between cognitions (thoughts, beliefs, opinions), people will take steps to reduce the dissonance and feelings of discomfort. They can go about doing this a few different ways:

  • Focus on more supportive beliefs that outweigh the dissonant belief or behavior. People who learn that greenhouse emissions result in global warming might experience feelings of dissonance if they drive a gas-guzzling vehicle. In order to reduce this dissonance, they might seek out new information that disputes the connection between greenhouse gasses and global warming. This new information might serve to reduce the discomfort and dissonance that the person experiences.
  • Reduce the importance of the conflicting belief. A man who cares about his health might be disturbed to learn that sitting for long periods of time during the day is linked to a shortened lifespan. Since he has to work all day in an office and spends a great deal of time sitting, it is difficult to change his behavior in order to reduce his feelings of dissonance. In order to deal with the feelings of discomfort, he might instead find some way to justify his behavior by believing that his other healthy behaviors—like eating sensibly and occasionally exercising—make up for his largely sedentary lifestyle.
  • Change the conflicting belief so that it is consistent with other beliefs or behaviors. Changing the conflicting cognition is one of the most effective ways of dealing with dissonance, but it is also one of the most difficult, particularly in the case of deeply held values and beliefs, such as religious or political leanings.

A Word From Verywell

Cognitive dissonance plays a role in many value judgments, decisions, and evaluations. Becoming aware of how conflicting beliefs impact the decision-making process is a great way to improve your ability to make faster and more accurate choices. Mismatches between your beliefs and your actions can lead to feelings of discomfort (and, sometimes, coping choices that have negative impacts), but such feelings can also sometimes lead to change and growth.

For example, if you believe that exercise is important for your health but you rarely make time for physical activity, you may experience cognitive dissonance. This resulting discomfort may lead you to seek relief by increasing the amount of exercise you get each week. In this instance, altering your behavior to increase consistency with your belief and reduce the cognitive dissonance you are experiencing can play a positive role in your life and health.

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Article Sources
  • Baumeister, RF & Bushman, B. Social Psychology and Human Nature. Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadworth; 2008.
  • Cooper, J. Cognitive dissonance: 50 years of a classic theory. London: Sage Publications; 2007.