Cognitive Dissonance

When Behavior and Beliefs Disagree

cognitive dissonance

Verywell / Hugo Lin

The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the mental conflict that results from holding two conflicting beliefs. People tend to seek consistency in their attitudes and perceptions, so this conflict causes feelings of unease or discomfort. People attempt to relieve this tension in different ways, such as by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding new information.

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: 

  • The importance attached to each belief. Cognitions that are more personal, such as beliefs about the self, and highly valued tend to result in greater dissonance.
  • The number of dissonant beliefs. The more dissonant (clashing) thoughts you have the greater the strength of the dissonance.

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

Examples of Cognitive Dissonance

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 their 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 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.

Ways to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance

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:

  • Add more supportive beliefs that outweigh dissonant beliefs. 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 may seek out new information that overrides the belief that greenhouse gasses contribute to global warming.
  • 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. To deal with the feelings of discomfort, he might instead find some way of rationalizing the conflicting cognition. He might justify his sedentary behavior by saying that his other healthy behaviors—like eating sensibly and occasionally exercising—make up for his largely sedentary lifestyle.
  • Change your belief. 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.

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Article Sources
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  1. Festinger L. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press; 1962.

  2. Festinger L. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press; 1962.

  3. Hasan U. Cognitive Dissonance and Its Impact On Consumer Buying BehaviourIOSR Journal of Business and Management. 2012;1(4):7-12. doi: 10.9790/487x-0140712

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

  • Baumeister, RF & Bushman, B. Social Psychology and Human Nature. Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadworth; 2008.