What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

cognitive dissonance

Verywell / Hugo Lin

What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. People tend to seek consistency in their attitudes and perceptions, so this conflict causes feelings of unease or discomfort.

Cognitive Dissonance Definition

The American Psychological Association defines cognitive dissonance as "an unpleasant psychological state resulting from inconsistency between two or more elements in a cognitive system."

The inconsistency between what people believe and how they behave motivates them to engage in actions that will help minimize feelings of discomfort. People attempt to relieve this tension in different ways, such as by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding new information.

Signs of Cognitive Dissonance

Everyone experiences cognitive dissonance to some degree but that doesn't mean that it is always easy to recognize. Some signs that what you are feeling might be related to dissonance include:

  • Feeling uncomfortable before doing something or making a decision
  • Trying to justify or rationalize a decision you've made or action you have taken
  • Feeling embarrassed or ashamed about something you've done and trying to hide your actions from other people
  • Experiencing guilt or regret about something you've done in the past
  • Doing things because of social pressure or a fear of missing out (FOMO), even if it wasn't something you wanted to do

Examples of Cognitive Dissonance

What does this inconsistency-related discomfort look like in everyday life? Here are just a few cognitive dissonance examples that you may notice in your own:

  • You want to be healthy, but you don't exercise regularly or eat a nutritious diet. You feel guilty as a result.
  • You know that smoking (or drinking too much) is harmful to your health, but you do it anyway. You rationalize this action by pointing to your high stress levels.
  • You'd like to build up your savings but tend to spend extra cash as soon as you get it. You regret this decision later, such as when facing an unexpected expense that you don't have the money to cover.
  • You have a long to-do list but spend the day watching your favorite shows instead. You don't want your spouse to know, so you try to make it look like you've worked hard all day.

Cognitive Dissonance Examples in TV Shows and Movies

Several television shows and movies contain characters experiencing cognitive dissonance. Examples to consider include:

  • Mean Girls
  • Friends
  • The Truman Show
  • Irresistible
  • Stand By Me

Causes of Cognitive Dissonance

There are a number of different situations that can create conflicts that lead to cognitive dissonance.

Forced Compliance

Sometimes you might find yourself engaging in behaviors that are opposed to your own beliefs due to external expectations at work, school, or in a social situation. This might involve going along with something due to peer pressure or doing something at work to avoid getting fired.

New Information

Sometimes learning new information can lead to feelings of cognitive dissonance. For example, if you engage in a behavior that you later learn is harmful, it can lead to feelings of discomfort. People sometimes deal with this by finding ways to justify their behaviors or findings ways to discredit or ignore new information.

Decisions

People make decisions, both large and small, on a daily basis. When faced with two similar choices, we are often left with feelings of dissonance because both options are equally appealing.

Once a choice has been made, however, people need to find a way to reduce these feelings of discomfort. We accomplish this by justifying why our choice was the best option so we can believe that we made the right decision.

Recap

Cognitive dissonance can be caused by feeling forced to do something, learning new information, or when faced with a decision between two similar choices.

What Influences Cognitive Dissonance?

The degree of dissonance experienced can depend on a few different factors. Among them are how highly a particular belief is valued and the degree to which the beliefs are inconsistent.

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

  • 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. It doesn't just influence how you feel; it also motivates you to take action to reduce feelings of discomfort.

How Cognitive Dissonance Feels

Cognitive dissonance can make people feel uneasy and uncomfortable. This is particularly true if the disparity between their beliefs and behaviors involves something that is central to their sense of self

For example, behaving in ways that are not aligned with your personal values may result in intense feelings of discomfort. Your behavior contradicts not just the beliefs you have about the world, but also the beliefs that you have about yourself.

This discomfort can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Someone with cognitive dissonance may feel:

Cognitive dissonance can even influence how people feel about and view themselves, leading to negative feelings of self-esteem and self-worth.

Impact of Cognitive Dissonance

Because people want to avoid discomfort, cognitive dissonance can have a wide range of effects. Dissonance can play a role in how we act, think, and make decisions. We may engage in behaviors or adopt attitudes to help relieve the discomfort caused by the conflict.

Some things that a person might do to cope with these feelings include:

  • Adopting beliefs or ideas to help justify or explain away the conflict between their beliefs or behaviors. This can sometimes involve blaming other people or outside factors.
  • Hiding beliefs or behaviors from other people. People may feel ashamed of their conflicting beliefs and behaviors, hiding the disparity from others to minimize feelings of shame and guilt.
  • Only seeking out information that confirms existing beliefs. This phenomenon, known as confirmation bias, affects the ability to think critically about a situation but helps minimize feelings of dissonance.

People like to believe that they are logical, consistent, and good at making decisions. Cognitive dissonance can interfere with the perceptions they hold about themselves and their abilities, which is why it can often feel so uncomfortable and unpleasant.

Dealing With Cognitive Dissonance

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

Adding More Beliefs to 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. To reduce this dissonance, they may seek out new information that overrides the belief that greenhouse gasses contribute to global warming.

Reducing the Importance of the Conflicting Belief

A person who cares about their health might be disturbed to learn that sitting for long periods during the day is linked to a shortened lifespan. Since they work all day in an office and spend a great deal of time sitting, it is difficult to change their behavior.

To deal with the feelings of discomfort then, they might find some way of rationalizing the conflicting cognition. For instance, they may justify their sedentary behavior by saying that their other healthy behaviors—like eating sensibly and occasionally exercising—make up for their largely sedentary lifestyle.

Changing Beliefs

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.

Recap

Some of the ways people reduce discomfort from cognitive dissonance include seeking information that aligns with and supports current beliefs, reducing the conflicting belief's importance, and changing beliefs to reduce the feelings of conflict.

Potential Pitfalls of Cognitive Dissonance

Sometimes, the ways that people resolve cognitive dissonance contribute to unhealthy behaviors or poor decisions.

In "A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance," Leon Festinger (the psychologist who first described this phenomenon) gives an example of how a person might deal with dissonance related to a health behavior by discussing individuals who continue to smoke, even though they know it is harmful to their health.

According to Festinger, there are a few ways that a person might resolve this dissonance.

  • They might decide that they value smoking more than they value health, deeming the behavior "worth it" in terms of risks versus rewards.
  • They may minimize potential drawbacks, such as by convincing themselves that the negative health effects have been overstated or by believing that they cannot avoid every possible risk out there.
  • They might try to convince themselves that if they do stop smoking, they will gain weight, which also presents health risks.

By using these types of explanations, the smoker is able to reduce the dissonance and continue the unhealthy behavior.

History of Cognitive Dissonance

Leon Festinger first proposed the 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."

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 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.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Cognitive dissonance.

  2. Cancino-Montecinos S, Björklund F, Lindholm T. Dissonance reduction as emotion regulation: Attitude change is related to positive emotions in the induced compliance paradigmPLoS One. 2018;13(12):e0209012. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0209012

  3. Festinger L. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.

  4. Vaidis DC, Bran A. Respectable challenges to respectable theory: Cognitive dissonance theory requires conceptualization clarification and operational toolsFront Psychol. 2019;10:1189. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01189

  5. Hasan U. Cognitive dissonance and its impact on consumer buying behaviourIOSR J Bus Manage. 2012;1(4):7-12. doi:10.9790/487x-0140712

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.