What Is Cognitive Dissonance?
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.
This inconsistency between what people believe and how they behave motivates people 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.
Experience 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 that you’ve made or an 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
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, often for work, school, or a social situation.1 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 either 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, people often are 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. People accomplish this by justifying why their choice was the best option so that they can believe that they made the right decision.
What Influences Cognitive Dissonance?
The degree of dissonance people experience can depend on a few different factors, including how highly they value a particular belief and the degree to which their beliefs are inconsistent.
The overall strength of the dissonance can also be influenced by several factors, including:2
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.
Impact of Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance can make people feel uneasy and uncomfortable, particularly 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. People may feel:
Cognitive dissonance can even influence how people feel about and view themselves, leading to negative feelings of self-esteem and self-worth.
Because people want to avoid this discomfort, cognitive dissonance can have a wide range of effects. Dissonance can play a role in how people act, think, and make decisions. They 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 their beliefs or behaviors from other people. People may feel ashamed of their conflicting beliefs and behaviors, so hiding the disparity from others can help minimize feelings of shame and guilt.
Only seeking out information that confirms their existing beliefs. This phenomenon, known as the 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 people 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, opinions), people will take steps to reduce the dissonance and feelings of discomfort. They can go about doing this a few different ways, such as:
Adding more supportive beliefs that 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. In order 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 man who cares about his health might be disturbed to learn that sitting for long periods of time during the day is linked to a shortened lifespan. Since he has to work all day in an office and spends a great deal of time sitting, it is difficult to change his behavior. To deal with the feelings of discomfort, he might instead find some way of rationalizing the conflicting cognition. He might justify his sedentary behavior by saying that his other healthy behaviors—like eating sensibly and occasionally exercising—make up for his largely sedentary lifestyle.
Changing your belief. 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.
Potential Pitfalls of Cognitive Dissonance
Sometimes, the ways that people resolve cognitive dissonance can contribute to unhealthy behaviors or poor decisions.
In “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance,” Leon Festinger, the psychologist who first described this phenomenon, gave 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 bad for their health.
There are a few ways that a person might resolve this dissonance:
According to Festinger, a person might decide that they value smoking more than they value health, deeming the behavior “worth it” in terms of risks versus rewards.
Another way to deal with this dissonance is to minimize potential drawbacks. The smoker might convince themselves that the negative health effects have been overstated. They might also assuage their health concerns by believing that they cannot avoid every possible risk out there.
Festinger also suggested that people might try to convince themselves that if they do stop smoking, they will then gain weight, which also presents health risks. By using such explanations, the smoker is able to reduce the dissonance and continue the behavior.
History of Cognitive Dissonance
Leon Festinger first proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance centered on how people try to reach internal consistency.3 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.