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What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

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Question: What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

People tend to seek consistency in their beliefs and perceptions. So what happens when one of our beliefs conflicts with another previously held belief? The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs. When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviors, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance.

How exactly does cognitive dissonance work and how does it influence how we think and behave?

Answer:

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

In his 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."

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

Cognitive dissonance can often have a powerful influence on our behaviors and actions. Let's start by looking at some examples of how this works.

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 his or her self-identity. For example, 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 has a few difference choices. 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 on occasion.

A more common example of cognitive dissonance occurs in the purchasing decisions we make on a regular basis. Most people want to hold the belief that they make good choices. When a product or item we purchase turns out badly, it conflicts with our previously existing belief about our decision-making abilities.

More Examples

  • "The person who continues to smoke, knowing that it is bad for his health, may also feel (a) he enjoys smoking so much it is worth it; (b) the chances of his health suffering are not as serious as some would make out; (c) he can't always avoid every possible dangerous contingency and still live; and (d) perhaps even if he stopped smoking he would put on weight which is equally bad for his health. So, continuing to smok is, after all, consistent with his ideas about smoking."
    (Festinger, 1957)

  • "Imagine that you prepared at great length for a dinner party at your home. You constructed the guest list, sent out the invitations, and prepared the menu. Nothing was too much effort for your party: you went to the store, prepared the ingredients, and cooked for hours, all in anticipation of how pleasant the conversation and people would be. Except it wasn't. The guests arrived late, the conversations were forced, and the food was slightly overcooked by the time all of your guests arrived. The anticipation and excitement of the great time you were going to have are discordant with your observation of the evening. The pieces do not fit. You're upset, partly because the evening did not go well, but also because of the inconsistency between your expectation and your experience. You are suffering from the uncomfortable, unpleasant state of cognitive dissonance."
    (Cooper, 2007)

How to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance

There are three key strategies to reduce or minimize cognitive dissonance:

  • Focus on more supportive beliefs that outweigh the dissonant belief or behavior
  • Reduce the importance of the conflicting belief
  • Change the conflicting belief so that it is consistent with other beliefs or behaviors

Why is Cognitive Dissonance Important?

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.

Observations

  • "The basic hypothesis I wish to state are as follows: 1. The existence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to try to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance. 2. When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase the dissonance."
    (Festinger, 1957)

  • "Festinger's insistence that cognitive dissonance was like a drive that needed to be reduced implied that people were going to have to find some way of resolving their inconsistencies. People do not just prefer eating over starving; we are driven to eat. Similarly, people who are in the throes of inconsistency in their social life are driven to resolve that inconsistency. How we go about dealing with our inconsistency can be rather ingenious. But, in Festinger's view, there is little question that it will be done."
    (Cooper, 2007)

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References:

Cooper, J. (2007). Cognitive dissonance: 50 years of a classic theory. London: Sage Publications.

Festinger, L. (1957) A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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