Cognitive Dissonance

The term cognitive dissonance describes mental tension experienced when holding contradictory beliefs. To relieve this unease, individuals often modify their attitudes or gather supportive information. The theory’s principles have broad applications, from decision-making to public policy.


Cognitive dissonance is a psychological theory developed by Leon Festinger in 1957. It refers to the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, values, or perceptions simultaneously.

Basic Assumptions

  • Humans seek consistency in their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.
  • Inconsistency, or dissonance, is psychologically uncomfortable.
  • People will attempt to reduce this discomfort and achieve a state of consonance.

Types of Dissonance

  • Belief Dissonance: Conflicting beliefs (e.g., thinking smoking is bad but continuing to smoke).
  • Value Dissonance: Conflicting values (e.g., valuing health but eating fast food regularly).
  • Behavioral Dissonance: Actions that conflict with beliefs or values (e.g., lying while believing that honesty is important).

Components of Dissonance

  • Cognitive Elements: The pieces of knowledge, attitudes, or beliefs that are involved.
  • Dissonant Relationship: The conflict between two cognitive elements.
  • Magnitude of Dissonance: The degree of conflict, influenced by importance of the elements and proportion of dissonant to consonant elements.

Reduction Strategies

  • Change a Cognitive Element: Modify one of the conflicting beliefs or attitudes (e.g., quitting smoking).
  • Acquire New Information: Justify the conflict by adding new cognitive elements (e.g., “red wine is good for heart health” to justify drinking).
  • Minimize Importance: Trivialize the dissonance to make it less significant (e.g., “I don’t care about the health effects”).

Empirical Studies

  • Classic Experiments: Festinger and Carlsmith’s 1959 study paying subjects to lie, resulting in changed attitudes toward the lied-about task.
  • Modern Extensions: Research into post-decision dissonance, the “sunk cost” fallacy, and applications in marketing and politics.

Critiques and Limitations

  • Some accuse the theory of being too broad or flexible, allowing for post-hoc explanations.
  • Alternative theories like Self-Perception Theory offer different frameworks for similar observations.

Global Perspective

  • Application in cross-cultural settings indicates that the experience and handling of dissonance may be culturally conditioned.
  • Relevant in multiple fields outside psychology, including economics, political science, and business.