What Is Cognitive Dissonance?
The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe themental 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
- The Truman Show
- Stand By Me
Causes of Cognitive Dissonance
There are a number of different situations that can create conflicts that lead to cognitive dissonance.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 Festingerfirst proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance, centered onhow 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.
Cognitive Psychology and the Science Behind Mental Processes
How is Cognitive Dissonance Resolved? Dissonance can be reduced in one of three ways: a) changing existing beliefs, b) adding new beliefs, or c) reducing the importance of the beliefs.What is one way a person can resolve cognitive dissonance? ›
The most effective way to resolve cognitive dissonance is for a person to ensure that their actions are consistent with their values, or vice versa. A person can achieve this by: Changing their actions: This involves changing behavior so it matches a person's beliefs.What is cognitive dissonance with example? ›
Another common example of cognitive dissonance is the rationalization that takes place when people dieting “cheat.” How many times have you committed to healthy eating when a doughnut, muffin, or another delicious-looking food item threatened to take you off course? Maybe you thought, “Eh, it's only one doughnut.How do you deal with cognitive dissonance in the workplace? ›
To reduce cognitive dissonance in training, the training should focus on changing 3 things: Changing one or more attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors in a way as to make them consonant with the other one. Acquiring new information that resolves the old dissonant belief, behavior, or attitude without a doubt.Can cognitive dissonance be cured? ›
There is no cure, but there are things you can do to treat it. In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the theory that our brains cannot hold two conflicting ideas at the same time. For example: when people smoke even though they know smoking causes cancer, they are experiencing cognitive dissonance.Which of the following is most likely to reduce cognitive dissonance? ›
Of the following, how are individuals most likely to reduce cognitive dissonance? By adding new cognitions that are consistent with their behavior.What are the 3 causes of cognitive dissonance? ›
Dissonant cognitions are usually caused by a mismatch in beliefs and behaviors. Festinger's theory identified three primary triggers, or causes, of cognitive dissonance: forced compliance, decision-making, and effort.What are 7 signs of cognitive dissonance? ›
- General discomfort that has no obvious or clear source.
- Feeling conflicted over a disputed subject matter.
- People saying you're being a hypocrite.
- Being aware of conflicting views and/or desired but not know what to do with them.
The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people are averse to inconsistencies within their own minds. It offers one explanation for why people sometimes make an effort to adjust their thinking when their own thoughts, words, or behaviors seem to clash with each other.How do you overcome cognitive dominance? ›
Cognitive dominance can be overcome only in an atmosphere free of domination, so that the parties involved can enter into a discourse. Such discourses can be facilitated through a domination free discussion approach.
For example, a HR manager who is asked to dismiss an employee for misconduct without appropriate evidence or with the evidence pointing against the actions being taken will experience significant cognitive dissonance.What causes cognitive dissonance in a workplace? ›
Research indicates that the most common causes of Cognitive Dissonance experienced by employees are – unhealthy leadership styles, bullying, discrimination, inappropriate business practices and personal behaviors at the workplace.Which is the best example of cognitive dissonance? ›
That feeling of mental discomfort about using plastic bags is an example of cognitive dissonance. This is because your beliefs are clashing with your actions or behavior. You believe that humans need to protect the environment, but you still use plastic bags. The internal conflict that this causes makes you feel bad.What are the 3 causes of cognitive dissonance? ›
Dissonant cognitions are usually caused by a mismatch in beliefs and behaviors. Festinger's theory identified three primary triggers, or causes, of cognitive dissonance: forced compliance, decision-making, and effort.What is cognitive dissonance and how is it related to attitudes? ›
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.