Cognitive Dissonance Theory: A Crash Course

 Cognitive Dissonance Theory: A Crash Course

Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.

Examples :  smoking, religion, diet, climate change.

For example, when people smoke (behavior) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition), they are in a state of cognitive dissonance.

Chances are good that you've heard of something called "Cognitive Dissonance."
It's a term that's starting to get thrown around a lot these days, but you
might not know that it has a really deep root in classic social psychology. In
1957, Leon Festinger wrote a book on the theory of cognitive dissonance and
outlined a really detailed understanding of what cognitive dissonance is and how
people deal with it.
Let's start out by talking about what cognitive dissonance is. How would
we define it? At the very basics, cognitive dissonance is about
inconsistency. When we hold two thoughts that are inconsistent with one another,
basically that's dissonance. So let's take the example of someone who
smokes cigarettes.
Here's a person who might have two distinct thoughts, one of which is:
"I regularly smoke cigarettes."
The other of which is the knowledge that "smoking cigarettes is unhealthy."
Here are two thoughts that a person can be having at the same time,
acknowledging both of these things as fact,
but they would seem inconsistent with one another. If you know that smoking is
bad, then logically, you probably wouldn't be engaging in that activity yourself.
And so this is a case of dissonance because there is inconsistency in your
own thoughts.
So what people do when they experience cognitive dissonance?
Well, there are a few ways in which Festinger said that you could resolve
the inconsistency as a way of resolving the dissonance.
First, you can change one of those thoughts. In the case of the smoker who
realizes that smoking is bad and also that he is a regular smoker,
he might change one of those beliefs and go, "Smoking's not that bad. It's
actually not unhealthy to smoke." That will be changing one of your cognitions--
--one of your thoughts-- as a way of restoring consistency.
Another thing you could do is change your behavior as a way to restore
So, in this case, the smoker might say, "Well I, you know, if I acknowledge that
smoking is bad,
then the way I can be consistent is to stop smoking." So, changing one of the
that's related to the inconsistency. Another thing people can do is to add
new thoughts into the mix--thoughts that help rationalize the inconsistency.
So, someone might say, you know,
"Yes, smoking is bad. Yes, I smoke regularly. But also, I do a lot of other healthy
behaviors. I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, and I exercise a lot," so I'm
adding new thoughts as a way to reduce the problem of inconsistency. And finally,
people can just trivialize the inconsistency completely. They can just
say, "You know what?"
"Sure, smoking's bad, and I smoke, but I just don't care."
"And that's going to be it. That's not really as big of a deal as people say
that it is." That would be another way of resolving dissonance.
** "Man, that's tobacco." **
But why do people feel like they need to resolve anything at all? What's the big
deal about dissonance?
Well, some people say that dissonance gets in the way of finding some
sense of truth. In general, if we want to understand the world, then we want a
clear, consistent picture of it. And when anything that makes us feel
inconsistency is something that's a problem, and we are motivated to restore
consistency again. But most of the research in dissonance has looked at
something a little bit different, and that idea is that it's physically
uncomfortable to experience cognitive dissonance.
There's actually some negative physical tension that you feel any time you
recognize two inconsistent thoughts or realize that you've done something through
your behavior that contradicts your true attitudes and beliefs. And so lots of
studies have shown that this is the case
by hooking up different sensors to people, or tricking them into
thinking that some pill makes them feel uncomfortable when in fact, just their
inconsistent thoughts is what's doing it. All of this research you can find more
about in my blog post on this topic, but suffice it to say that for the most part,
when you feel
cognitive dissonance, you're feeling actual physical discomfort -- you're
feeling inner discomfort as well.
And anytime we feel bad, we want to feel better! And to feel better, we just find a
way to be consistent again. That's the driving force behind cognitive
It's worth pointing out that there are a couple times when dissonance is
especially likely to motivate this action to resolve the inconsistency.
One of them is the perception that you had some choice over the inconsistency.
So, sometimes in cognitive dissonance studies, what they'll have people do is
agree to write some essay arguing against their own beliefs.
So, if you don't believe that your school should raise tuition, if you agree to
write an article saying that your school should increase tuition, then that would
be a case of dissonance.
However, it would only make you feel that dissonance and that motivation to
resolve inconsistency
if you felt like you had a choice over whether or not you wrote that essay. If
you didn't have any choice... if someone literally says, "You have to write an
essay before we can let you leave,
and it has to say 'tuition increase is good,'"
well then, you didn't have any choice over it, and it's not really that big of a
It's when you realize that you did have a choice and you chose to do the thing
that contradicts your own opinions that you have to then find some comfort
within yourself by resolving an inconsistency. In this case, convincing
yourself that you actually do like tuition increase. The other thing that
has to be there,
according to a bunch of research, is the perception of "aversive consequences."
In other words, you have to think that the inconsistency in your thoughts is
going to play out poorly for some reason in the future.
So, let's say you did write that essay saying tuition increases good.
If you believe that a school administration is going to read that
essay and then say, "Hey, you know, students think this is a good thing to do!",
there is a negative consequence. There is a negative consequence of your
inconsistent actions.
Now you're even more motivated to resolve the inconsistency and figure out
a way to think that tuition increase actually is a good thing to do.
Hopefully this helps clarify what cognitive dissonance is.
Now the next time you're at a party and someone throws around the term
"dissonance" (because you go to some pretty crazy parties),
you'll now be able to nod your head and actually know what they're talking about.