Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance refers to a mental state of conflict whereby an individual’s behaviour doesn’t go hand in hand with his/her mindset or psychology. This is because an individual’s mind is always stuck between different perceptions, values, beliefs and attitudes.

Today, his theory of cognitive dissonance is considered one of the most influential theories in social psychology. It has subsequently birthed numerous studies that have helped to provide insight into the determinants of attitudes and beliefs, the internalization of values, the consequences of decisions, the effects of disagreement among individuals, and other important psychological processes.

Content: Cognitive Dissonance

  • Theory
  • Symptoms
  • Causes
  • Example
  • Effects
  • Measures
  • Disorder
  • Conclusion

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Leon Festinger formulated the original theory of cognitive dissonance in the mid-1950s, and the first formal and complete presentation of the theory appeared in his 1957 work “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.” His theory espouses that pairs of cognitions [elements of knowledge] can be relevant or otherwise to each other. Where a couple of cognitions are relevant to each other, such relevance can either be consonant or dissonant.

Consonant cognition occurs if one follows from the other while dissonant cognition occurs if the obverse [opposite] of one cognition follows from the other. In simpler terms, there is dissonance if a person’s behaviour is in conflict with or contradicts his or her beliefs.

Furthermore, because it is a psychologically discomforting condition, the presence of dissonance motivates the affected individual to reduce the dissonance level. One way to achieve this is by avoiding any information capable of increasing the dissonance. The greater the magnitude or level of the dissonance, the more the pressure to reduce it.

According to Festinger, the term “dissonance” refers to both the contradicting cognitions [or cognitive inconsistency] and the psychological discomfort arising from them. 

The magnitude of dissonance between a cognitive element and all the other cognitions is dependent upon the number and importance of other cognitions or elements that are consonant and dissonant with that particular element. This expression is referred to as the dissonance ratio and can be mathematically formalized as:

Magnitude or Degree of Dissonance = Number of Dissonant Cognitions/Number of Consonant Cognitions + Number of Dissonant Cognitions

If the number and importance of consonant cognitions are held constant, as the number or importance of dissonant cognitions increases, so will the magnitude of dissonance increase. Also, if the number and importance of dissonant cognitions are kept constant, an increase in the number or importance of consonant cognitions will yield a decrease in the magnitude of dissonance.

Dissonance can be reduced by:

  1. removing dissonant cognitions,
  2. adding new consonant cognitions,
  3. reducing the importance of dissonant cognitions, and
  4. increasing the importance of consonant cognitions

Symptoms of Cognitive Dissonance

How can you recognize cognitive dissonance? The following symptoms can help you in self-analysis and identification of this mental conflict:

  • a feeling of discomfort taking an action or making a decision
  • taking decisions or actions due to social pressure or fear of missing out (FOMO)
  • Attempting to justify or rationalize an earlier decision
  • A feeling of confusion
  • A feeling of embarrassment or shame about earlier decisions or actions and  hiding them from others
  • A feeling of guilt or regret about an earlier decision or action

Causes of Cognitive Dissonance

Festinger theorized that dissonance is primarily caused by two conditions –  the emergence of new information and the need to make a decision where the cognition of actions differs from opinions or knowledge that can bring about other actions. He highlighted four factors that might cause the above conditions:

Logical Inconsistency

This is a situation where the logic of thoughts, reasoning, and arguments are in contradiction. For instance, someone who professes Christianity but doubts certain portions of the Bible.

Cultural Values

In this case, an individual’s cognition from one cultural perspective will probably differ when looking at other cultures.  A scholarly example of cultural dissonance can be found in a paper by Etsuko Hoshino-Browne, Shinobu Kitayama, and Sandra Dianne Lackenbauer which was published in 2005.

Forced Compliance Behaviour

Forced compliance behaviour is a situation where an individual is forced or coerced to exhibit a behaviour or take an action that is inconsistent with his or her beliefs. For instance, someone desperately seeking to win a contract can be forced into bribery to win the contract though he or she does not subscribe to bribery.

Prior Experience

This form of dissonance comes up if a person’s cognition is not consistent with his or her experience. For example, some sources on the internet are always seen as authorities in their niche. Dissonance may arise if you begin to notice unprofessionalism and inconsistencies after visiting such sites for a while.  

Cognitive Dissonance Example

In articulating his theory, Festinger used smoking as an example to explain his famous theory. According to him, a smoker who realizes that smoking can impact negatively his or her health will have a dissonant feeling because such knowledge is in contradiction with his or her smoking habit.

The smoker can stop the dissonance by engaging in a habit that is consonant with the cognition that smoking is a health hazard, that is, quitting smoking. 

The person may also decide to reduce the dissonance by:

  1. changing his or her cognition about the consequences of smoking on health such as adopting the belief that smoking is no harmful to health (eliminating the dissonant cognition).
  2. discovering new beliefs about some advantages of smoking, e.g., the belief that smoking reduces tension and helps to check body weight (adding consonant cognitions).
  3. believing that the risk to health from smoking is negligible compared with the danger of automobile accidents (reducing the importance of the dissonant cognition).
  4. Deciding that the utility derived from smoking is a very important aspect of his or her life [increasing the importance of consonant cognitions].

Effects of Cognitive Dissonance

As noted earlier, dissonance can induce feelings of discomfort and uneasiness in people especially if the contrast between their behaviour and belief concerns things that they consider important.

Depending on the individual, this feeling of discomfort can manifest in a number of ways such as:

Effects of Cognitive Dissonance
  • Low Self-Esteem
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Embarrassment
  • Sadness
  • Regret
  • Poor Decision-Making
  • Shame
  • Guilt

Suggested Measures

The following are some measures an affected person can use to cope with dissonance:

  • Imbibing beliefs, principles, or ideas that help to justify or explain away the contrasts, conflicts, or contradictions between beliefs or behaviours. It may entail blaming other persons or external factors.
  • Hiding personal beliefs or behaviours from other people. Some individuals may prefer hiding their contrasting beliefs and behaviours in other not to be made to feel ashamed and guilty.
  • Searching for and identifying with information that is in accordance with or confirms existing beliefs. This concept is referred to as confirmation bias. However, such bias can impact the ability to think critically albeit it can help but reduce dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance Disorder

Like noted earlier, numerous studies have emerged from Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory. Along this direction, cognitive dissonance has been developed as an effective prevention for eating disorders.

A 2005 study by Carolyn Becker, Lisa M. Smith, Anna C. Ciao concluded that sororities are a viable population to target in the prevention of eating disorders. The purpose of their study was to investigate the utility of a highly interactive cognitive dissonance prevention program in reducing empirically supported risk factors in sorority members.


The field of psychology has helped bring many important behavioural theories that have enriched the field of education as a whole. One of them is the theory of cognitive dissonance propounded by Leon Festinger in 1957.

Festinger’s original formulation has become one of the most robust, influential, and controversial theories in the history of social psychology. Although his theory has been challenged, modified, and extended, his key behavioural observation remains uncontested and continues to stimulate new research.

Cognitive Dissonance
Scroll to top