Cognitive Dissonance Theory

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Imagine that you see yourself as a fun person who everyone at work likes to be around. You then find out that your co-workers recently had a party and deliberately chose not to invite you. How would you feel? Quite likely, you would experience feelings of discomfort because what you now know—"Nobody wanted me at the party"—conflicts with what you previously thought—"Everyone likes me." What you are experiencing in this situation is what social psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance theory was first proposed by Leon Festinger. He defined cognitive dissonance as the psychological tension or discomfort we experience when faced with two conflicting cognitions. Cognition refers to all the mental activities associated with thinking, knowing and remembering. It involves our thoughts, attitudes and ideas, as well as knowledge about our behavior. Festinger called these "elements" of cognition.

If you know smoking is bad for your health but you still enjoy smoking, you will likely experience dissonance. So too would a person who considers himself to be honest but who is placed in a situation where he is forced to lie.

The basic assumption of cognitive dissonance theory is that humans have an innate need for consistency. We like to know that our beliefs and ideas fit together nicely and that they are in line with the way we act. When we become aware of inconsistencies in our thoughts and actions, we are motivated to correct this imbalance. In Festinger's view, cognitive dissonance functions much like a drive. Just as how hunger motivates people to eat in order to reduce their hunger, cognitive dissonance drives individuals to act in ways that will reduce their discomfort.

In explaining his theory, Festinger contrasted dissonance with what he termed "consonance." Dissonance occurs when our thoughts and/or actions clash (e.g. thinking you are a kind person but refusing to give money to the poor). Consonance occurs when cognitive elements are consistent with each other (e.g. thinking you are a kind person and giving generously to the poor).

Development of Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance was first published in 1957, but the event that inspired him to develop the theory occurred more than two decades before his book release. On January 15, 1934, the Himalayan region of Southern Nepal and Northern India experienced a magnitude 8.1 earthquake. The death toll exceeded 10,000. While residents in the worst-hit areas tried to come to grips with the devastation, those in nearby villages became struck with terror. Rumors began to spread in these surrounding regions about greater disasters to come. Although these villagers had experienced no damage from the earthquake, they became convinced that floods, cyclones and earthquakes of greater intensity would soon devastate the areas in which they lived.

Twenty years later, Festinger and a group of colleagues became interested in why those frightening rumors had been created when there was so little evidence to support them. After much thought, Festinger concluded that the rumors were created to justify the extreme fear and anxiety these villagers felt after experiencing such a close call. While some degree of fear was understandable, there was no rational explanation for the intense levels of trepidation that gripped these villagers since they had only experienced minor tremors. The dissonance between feeling extremely fearful (cognition #1) and realizing that there really wasn't much to fear (cognition #2) had to be resolved. To accomplish this, the villagers apparently changed one of their beliefs, convincing themselves that there really was something to fear. This initial idea that people may change their beliefs to justify how they feel is what later blossomed into cognitive dissonance theory.

But what if the expected disaster doesn’t happen? How would the people react?

Cognitive dissonance theory predicts that if an expected disaster does not occur, people who were convinced that it would occur would experience dissonance or uneasiness. Once aroused, this dissonance would need to be resolved in the minds of the individuals. But how? Festinger predicted that they would add new beliefs to explain away the inconsistency. For example, they may convince themselves that their strong belief in God or their fervent prayers caused disaster to be averted.

Festinger had the opportunity to explore this aspect of his theory by infiltrating a doomsday cult called The Seekers, along with colleagues Stanley Schachter and Henry Riecken. The men documented the behavior of the cult members before and after their prophesied doomsday event—a global flood that would destroy the world on December 21, 1954. The cult members were convinced that true believers would be whisked away to safety by extraterrestrials called the a flying saucer no less!

When the foretold flood did not occur, the group became convinced that their great faith and goodness had moved God to intervene and prevent the disaster. This new belief was added to rationalize the glaring inconsistency they faced, and to resolve the resulting dissonance. Festinger's prediction, not that of The Seekers, had come true.

Strategies for Reducing Cognitive Dissonance

As the foregoing discussion highlights, cognitive dissonance is an unpleasant state that motivates individuals to take steps to reduce it. This is not simply a matter of preference. Recall that Festinger viewed dissonance as a drive comparable to hunger. A hungry person does not simply prefer eating over starving; he is driven to eat. Similarly, a person experiencing dissonance does not simply prefer consistency over inconsistency, he is driven to achieve it. The greater the dissonance, the stronger the pressure to reduce it.

To better understand the strategies we use to reduce cognitive dissonance, consider a person—let's call him John—who believes bacon is bad for his health but who continues to indulge in a large serving of bacon several times per week. What are his options for resolving this inconsistency?

  1. He could modify one of the conflicting cognitions. The two conflicting cognitions John has are: 1) Bacon is bad for my health, and 2) I eat bacon several times per week. To resolve this inconsistency, John could modify the first cognition by reasoning: "Bacon is only bad for my health if I eat it every day, which I don't." Or he might decide that there is no sound evidence that bacon is bad for his health. In either case, his new view of bacon would be better aligned with his behavior.

    On the other hand, John could modify the second cognition by choosing to stop eating bacon. This too would reduce his dissonance since not eating bacon is consistent with the belief that bacon is bad for his health. The problem with this option is that it is not always easy or possible to change behavior.

    As in John's case, the behavior might be deeply satisfying (who doesn't love bacon?). In other cases, changing one's behavior might actually be painful (think of the withdrawal symptoms experienced by a drug addict who decides to stop using drugs) or incur a measure of loss (the decision to stop using drugs might mean losing a close circle of friends). In some cases, change may simply not be possible. A person who stutters cannot stop stuttering at will, and a person who cheated on an exam cannot go back and undo his behavior.

  2. A second way to decrease dissonance is to change the perceived importance of one of the cognitions. John could reason that he leads a generally healthy lifestyle. He exercises regularly, eats lots of fruits and vegetables and even engages in meditation to de-stress! He might therefore conclude that the health risks that come from eating bacon are negligible when viewed in light of his otherwise healthy lifestyle. Or, if John is like some people I know, he might reason: "Hey, we all have to go someday. Better to eat (bacon), drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die!" In both scenarios, the outcome is the same—the inconsistency becomes less important and dissonance is reduced.

  3. A third option John has is to add new cognitions. For example, he may actively seek out information that supports his behavior—such as articles that suggest bacon has several health benefits. If he believes bacon can actually improve some aspects of his health, he will likely experience much less dissonance the next time he helps himself to a generous serving.

    While actively seeking information that reduces dissonance, many people also deliberately avoid or deny information that increases it. So John may avoid reading studies that suggest bacon is truly bad for his health and may even convince himself that such studies are biased.

An important point to note is that none of the above strategies is guaranteed to reduce or eliminate dissonance. However, Festinger was convinced that once dissonance exists, there would be attempts to reduce it.

cognitive dissonance theory

Factors that Influence the Magnitude of Dissonance

Inconsistency is a normal part of life. You may hate the taste of beef but still eat it because that's what your host decided to serve. You may think you're an expert at math only to be stumped by a fifth grade math question. Or you may spend a huge sum of money on an item you thought was great only to find out its actually trash.

Of course, not all inconsistencies produce cognitive dissonance. Having to eat beef when you hate the taste of it might really suck, but it's unlikely to cause you much psychological discomfort. On the other hand, you would likely experience a great amount of dissonance if all your life you thought you were a math whiz only to realize you're no smarter than a fifth grader!

Several factors influence the magnitude of dissonance we feel:

  1. The ratio of dissonant to consonant cognitions. The more inconsistent cognitions there are in relation to consistent ones, the greater the level of dissonance will be. For example, you might experience a measure of dissonance if you believe exercise is beneficial (first cognition) but you never exercise (second cognition). However, you will likely experience much more dissonance if you also have the following cognitions: you are overweight, you have type 2 diabetes, and your doctor strongly recommends that you exercise regularly. These additional cognitions are all inconsistent with your behavior and will therefore add to the level of dissonance you experience.

  2. The importance of the conflicting cognitions to the person involved. The more valuable these cognitions are (or the more significant the inconsistency is), the greater the dissonance will be. Of course, the converse is also true. If the inconsistency is perceived as trivial, it is unlikely to cause much dissonance. For example, if you are of average weight for your height, always stick to a balanced diet, and are generally healthy, the knowledge that you don't exercise may not create much dissonance, even though you know it's good for you. Given all the other things you are doing, you may reason that regular exercise isn’t vital in your case.

  3. The degree of discrepancy between cognitive elements. The larger the discrepancy, the greater the level of dissonance. Let's say your doctor recommends that you exercise five times per week (first cognition), but you only do so twice a week (second cognition), you would likely experience dissonance, but not as much as you would if you did not exercise at all. In the latter case, there would be a greater discrepancy between what you know you should be doing and what you actually do.

Research Paradigms Used to Test Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Since the time Festinger published his theory of cognitive dissonance, hundreds of studies have been conducted on the topic. A review of these studies reveals three main paradigms, or models, that are commonly used to investigate predictions based on the theory: Free Choice, Forced/Induced Compliance, and Effort Justification.

The main difference between these models relate to the type of situation used to arouse cognitive dissonance. In the discussion that follows, a classic experiment from each paradigm is briefly described as an example.

Free Choice

Having to choose between two or more alternatives almost always creates dissonance. Why? Because life is complex. We hardly ever encounter situations that are purely black or white. There are usually advantages and disadvantages to each possible course of action. Choosing one over the other inevitably results in dissonance since we are forced to give up the advantages of the option we refused, while accepting the disadvantages of the one we chose. This type of situation is known as a multiple approach-avoidance conflict since we are faced with multiple options, each of which has aspects that appeal to us, as well as aspects that we wish to avoid. The more difficult the decision, the greater the dissonance it creates.

Consider this example: Let's say you have a choice between living on the ground floor versus the third floor of a small apartment building. If you choose to live on the third floor you would have a lovely view of the surrounding hillside but would have the hassle of climbing three flights of stairs. If you live on the ground floor, you would have easy access to your apartment but no view at all. In either case, you will experience dissonance because of the discrepancy between what you want and what you have.

Brehm's (1956) Study

Method: In this study, women were asked to rate common household products such as a toaster and a radio, on a scale from 1 (least desirable) to 8 (most desirable). After rating each product, participants were told that they could take one of two products as a free gift. Some participants were given an easy choice: they had to choose between two items which they had given very different ratings, while the others were given a difficult choice: they had to choose between items they had rated very closely. After making their selection, participants were asked to rate the items again. Participants in the difficult condition were expected to experience more dissonance than those in the easy condition since they had to choose between options that were, by and large, equally attractive.

Results: As predicted, those in the easy (low dissonance) condition did not change their ratings much, but those in the difficult (high dissonance) condition significantly increased their rating of the selected item and reduced their rating of the rejected item. They exaggerated the difference between the two items in order to justify the choice they made and thereby reduce their dissonance. This tendency to overstate the positive aspects of the chosen alternative and minimize the attractiveness of the rejected alternative is termed "spreading apart the alternatives." It is often used to reduce the dissonance we experience after making a difficult decision.

Induced Compliance

Dissonance typically results when individuals are induced or forced to behave in ways that are inconsistent with their beliefs and attitudes. For example, if a class assignment requires that you debate against a position that you strongly believe in, you would likely feel uncomfortable. Similarly, if your job involves promoting and speaking glowingly about a product that you really dislike, it is fair to assume you would experience some amount of dissonance.

Festinger and Carlsmith's (1959) Study

Method: Participants in this study were asked to perform two mind-numbingly boring tasks. One task involved placing spools on and off a tray repeatedly, while the other involved turning pegs on a pegboard, one after the other. Afterward, participants were asked to tell a waiting participant (actually a confederate of the experiment) that the tasks were really fun and enjoyable. Some participants were offered $1 for doing this, while others were offered $20, which in the 1950's was a pretty tidy sum. Before leaving, all participants were asked to rate the tasks based on how fun and enjoyable they had been.

Results: You might expect that those who received more money rated the tasks as more enjoyable, but just the opposite happened! Why? All the participants would have experienced inconsistency between how they truly felt (The tasks were boring) and what they had been induced to say (The tasks were fun). However, those in the $20 condition experienced much less dissonance because they were able to add a third cognition to resolve the inconsistency—"I was paid a lot of money to say the tasks were fun." For the other participants, $1 was not enough to justify lying. To resolve the inconsistency, they therefore modified one of their cognitions, convincing themselves that the tasks really were interesting, hence their higher ratings.

Effort Justification

Have you ever had the experience of investing a lot of time and energy into something, only to realize much later on that it wasn't worth all the effort? If so, you are likely familiar with the uncomfortable sense of dissonance that can result from such a situation.

Perhaps you worked really hard, spent a lot of money, and moved far away from home to get into a top-rated psychology program. Three months into the program, much to your dismay, you discover that you don't enjoy studying psychology at all! Given that it would be impossible to undo all that effort, you might settle for the next best thing—justify your effort by convincing yourself that it really was worth it: "Psychology wasn't such a bad choice after all...the knowledge I'm gaining now can be applied to so many other's really an excellent foundation on which to build any career"....whatever it takes to sleep at night...

Aronson and Mills' (1959) Study

Method: In this study, female students from the University of Minnesota were invited to join a sexual discussion group. However, they were told that they would first have to undergo a screening test. Some participants were assigned to a low embarrassment condition that involved reading aloud common words related to sex, such as 'petting,' 'love' and 'prostitute.' Others were assigned to a high embarrassment condition that involved reading aloud more obscene four-letter words as well as an explicit sexual passage. Afterwards, the participants were told they would be able to join the group the following week but could listen to the group's first discussion via headphones. The participants then listened to an extremely boring discussion about sex in lower animals that had been previously staged and recorded by the researchers. After listening to the recording, participants were asked to rate the group members and the discussion.

Results: Participants who underwent the "high embarrassment" test gave much more positive ratings than those who experienced the milder version of the test. For those in the "high embarrassment" condition, the knowledge that 1) "I just endured a very embarrassing test to join this group" was inconsistent with the knowledge that 2) "The group is extremely boring." Since it was impossible to change the fact that they had already done the test, the best way of reducing the dissonance was to develop a more favorable attitude toward the group. Those in the "low embarrassment" condition experienced much less dissonance because they did not have to exert as much effort or endure as much discomfort for the sake of joining the group. Therefore, they had very little need to alter their perceptions of the group.

Revisions to Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive dissonance theory is one of the most studied, debated and influential theories in social psychology. Over the years, several revisions of the theory have been proposed, including Self-Consistency Theory, Self-Affirmation Theory, The "New Look" at Dissonance Theory, and the Self-Standards Model.

Self-Consistency Theory

Elliot Aronson (1960) was the first to propose a revision of Festinger's theory. He argued that dissonance theory was really a theory about the self. In his view, dissonance does not result from a discrepancy between any two important cognitions, but is most likely to occur when these cognitions relate to a person's self-concept. In other words, dissonance is triggered primarily when we behave in ways that are inconsistent with our self-image.

To make the point a bit clearer, let's take another look at Festinger and Carlsmith's study. Telling the waiting "participant" that the tasks were enjoyable is clearly inconsistent with the fact that the tasks were boring. But in Aronson's view, this was not the source of the participants' dissonance. According to his theory, dissonance arose because lying to someone for no good reason ($1 did not seem like adequate justification) goes against the very image that most people have of themselves—that they are good and honest human beings. By convincing themselves that the tasks really were fun, the participants in the $1 condition would no longer have to feel as if they had lied, and their positive self-image would be restored.

Self-Affirmation Theory

This theory was developed by Claude Steele (1988) and his colleagues. Like Aronson, Steele believed that dissonance arises when an important aspect of our self-image is threatened. Unlike Aronson, however, Steele argued that when faced with dissonance we do not simply try to restore the specific belief about our self that has been threatened; rather, we are motivated to affirm the overall integrity of the self. We do this by focusing on other positive aspects of the self, including those that are unrelated to the specific threat. These positive self-attributes are like resources we can tap into to reduce dissonance.

Self-affirmation theory suggests that people with high self-esteem are less prone to dissonance than those with low self-esteem since they have more positive attributes in their self-concept to draw on. Their positive self-regard acts as a buffer against dissonance.

The "New Look" at Dissonance Theory

According to Joel Cooper and Russell Fazio (1984), when a behavior conflicts with an attitude, people will change their attitude to match their behavior if, and only if, four conditions are met. Individuals must (1) perceive that their behavior had negative consequences and (2) accept responsibility for these consequences. If no adverse effects are noted, or if the person fails to take responsibility, Cooper and Fazio argued that no dissonance will arise. If the first two conditions are met, however, the individual will experience (3) an uncomfortable state of arousal or tension (i.e. dissonance). Only if they (4) attribute this discomfort to their own behavior and not to another source (e.g., a drug) will they be motivated to reduce dissonance.

The Self-Standards Model

Jeff Stone and Joel Cooper (2001) integrated aspects of the previous revisions into the model they created. They proposed that when we perform a behavior, dissonance will only arise if we evaluate the consequences of that behavior against a meaningful standard. The standard may be a generally shared understanding of what is desirable versus undesirable (normative standard) or a personal view of what is good and bad (personal standard).

When our behavior deviates from a chosen standard (normative or personal), dissonance is aroused. The model suggests that people will then seek to reduce dissonance, but the method they choose to reduce the tension they feel will depend on the thoughts about the self that are accessible at the time. (This is where things get a bit more complicated).

If no other thoughts about the self are brought to mind, the dissonance will remain and will motivate individuals to justify their behavior, for example, by changing their attitude toward it. If positive thoughts about the self are called to mind, however, the model outlines two possibilities:

  1. If the self-attributes are relevant to the behavior in question, they will increase dissonance by reminding individuals about the standard they failed to meet. Let's say you believe lying is wrong but one day you lie to your professor. If in your despair your friend reminds you that you are usually a good and honest person (relevant attributes), the model suggests that you will not find this comforting at all. Your friend's comment would simply remind you of the high standards you have for yourself. When you are made to think about how good and honest you usually are, lying to your professor seems even more outrageous and your discomfort will increase. In order to reduce it, you will attempt to justify your behavior.

  2. If the self-attributes are not relevant to the behavior in question, they will decrease dissonance by shifting the individual's focus away from the existing conflict. For example, if your friend reminds you about your recent win in the university's chess competition, this bit of information would not be relevant to the conflict. However, it would distract you from the conflict and act as a self-resource that counteracts dissonance. You will therefore have very little need to justify your behavior.

Applications of Cognitive Dissonance Theory

The theory of cognitive dissonance explains many aspects of human behavior and has numerous real-world applications. A few of these are discussed below.

Consumer Behavior

As was mentioned previously, dissonance tends to arise when we are forced to choose between two or more alternatives. Consumers often experience this tension after making a purchase (especially an expensive purchase) due to the negative characteristics of the selected product and the positive features of the rejected ones. They sometimes feel a measure of regret (buyer's remorse), believing they could have gotten a better deal on another item. To reduce their discomfort, they might seek out information, such as ads, which praise the chosen product, while avoiding any information that devalues its worth. They might also seek reassurance from others that they have made the right decision.

Pledging a Sorority or Fraternity

Many sororities and fraternities require new hopefuls to perform embarrassing and sometimes physically harmful rituals before they are admitted to the group. After enduring these "hazing" activities, many new pledges actually end up liking the sorority/fraternity more than they did before. The knowledge that they willingly put themselves in situations where they experienced discomfort and humiliation is inconsistent with their usual desire to avoid such situations. Since they cannot undo their behavior, they attempt to justify it by developing a more favorable attitude toward the group. If in their eyes, the group is seen as very attractive or prestigious, their effort and suffering would seem justified and dissonance would decrease.


It has been suggested that dissonance processes partially account for the effectiveness of psychotherapy. In most cases, individuals freely choose the form of therapy to engage in, and then expend much effort, time and money to achieve therapeutic goals. These factors likely arouse dissonance, which the client can alleviate by increasing the attractiveness of therapy in their minds. This enhanced view of therapy then motivates the individual to be successful. One study which supports this hypothesis was conducted by Mendonca and Brehm (1983) who investigated the effects of free-choice on the treatment of overweight children. Children who believed that they had freely chosen their therapy lost more weight than those who believed their therapy had been assigned.

Public Health and Other Campaigns

Several studies suggest that cognitive dissonance can improve compliance with health-related messages. Most of these studies focus on arousing dissonance through hypocrisy. For example, in one study by Stone and his colleagues (1994), college students were asked to give a speech advocating safe-sex practices and were then asked to think about times when they failed to engage in safe sex. The hypocrisy of advocating practices which they themselves do not always engage in led to dissonance on their part. At the end of the study, these students were more likely to purchase condoms (to reduce their dissonance) than the other participants in whom dissonance had not been induced. In other studies, similar processes have been used to encourage people to donate to charity, to conserve water, to support anti-littering and anti-speeding campaigns, and to reduce prejudiced responses.

Criticisms of Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Despite its profound impact on the field of psychology and its many real-world applications, there are several criticisms of cognitive dissonance theory that should be noted:

  1. Since cognitive dissonance cannot be directly observed, it is not possible to objectively measure or quantify the exact amount of dissonance an individual feels. Other key aspects of the theory, such as adding or modifying cognitive elements, are also difficult to observe and test.

  2. Some researchers argue that the theory is somewhat ambiguous and that the results obtained from studies may be confounded by other cognitive processes, such as impression management and self-perception. In fact, several other explanations have been generated to account for the results obtained in Festinger and Carlsmith's one dollar/twenty dollar study.

  3. Other critics contend that much of the evidence supporting cognitive dissonance theory has been derived from lab experiments involving artificial conditions that do not reflect real-life situations. Many of these studies also involve only college students who do not adequately represent the wider population. We therefore have to be cautious about how we generalize the results of such studies.

  4. Another criticism of the theory is that it does not fully explain how people decide which of the available strategies they will use to reduce dissonance. In most real-life situations, several options are available but the theory is limited in its ability to predict which one individuals will choose. The theory also fails to address the issue of individual differences in the arousal of, and tolerance for, cognitive dissonance. Some people are more prone to experiencing dissonance than others, and some can tolerate more dissonance, for a longer period of time, than others.


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