Cognitive Dissonance: How Does it Influence How We Think?


Have you ever felt one way but did the opposite? Or have you ever had two different opinions about the same thing? You’ve experienced cognitive dissonance! In this article, we will look at what is cognitive dissonance, how it affects behavior, what are its causes and symptoms, what are the different types of cognitive dissonance, how you can treat it, and much more!

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is the psychological concept of the feeling of tension that happens when someone holds two conflicting beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time. It occurs both when someone performs an action that contradicts personal beliefs and also when someone is confronted with new information that contradicts their already existing beliefs and values. When there is an inconsistency between your belief and your behavior, this inconsistency itself is known as dissonance, whereas the concept of conflicting beliefs and actions is known as cognitive dissonance. Something must change in order to eliminate this dissonance because cognitive dissonance involves internal conflict. 

Is cognitive dissonance a mental disorder? Cognitive dissonance is not a mental disorder. It is simply the happening of conflicting beliefs in your mind, which happens to everybody. 

Starting in the late 1950s, people started to look at cognitive dissonance, particularly Leon Festinger and his students at Stanford, who wrote the book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. According to Festinger, the important factor in cognitive dissonance theory is the principle of cognitive consistency. This principle states that we, as humans, seek consistency in our beliefs and attitudes in any situation where two cognitions are inconsistent. This inconsistency causes psychological distress and discomfort internally, and so the motivation to reduce the discomfort comes about. If it persists it can lead to depressionanxiety symptoms and/or severe stress.


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Cognitive dissonance theory and experiments

Festinger developed the theory to explain how members of a cult, The Seekers, were persuaded by their leader, Mrs. Keech, that the Earth was going to be destroyed on December 21 and that only those people who were part of the cult would be rescued by aliens and saved from Earth’s demise. Festinger joined the cult and found that the commitment from the other members actually increased after the world wasn’t destroyed. The dissonance occurs in the reality that the world wasn’t destroyed, so they revised their thoughts to line up with the facts: the aliens had saved the world.

The theory is based on three principle beliefs: (1) humans are sensitive to inconsistencies between actions and beliefs, (2) recognition of this inconsistency will cause dissonance which will motivate an individual to resolve the dissonance, and (3) dissonance can be resolved by changing beliefs, changing actions, or changing your perception of an action. Festinger believed that people who had an internal inconsistency (cognitive dissonance) would make changes to justify their behavior by adding new information to the cognition which caused more cognitive dissonance or by trying to avoid social situations/contradictory information that would increase the level of cognitive dissonance.

In his book about cognitive dissonance theory, Festinger also determined that there are three relationships between our thoughts, or cognition, and our actions. To function in modern society, consciously or unconsciously, humans continually adjust how their attitudes and actions communicate and interact with each other. A consonant relationship is when two cognitions or actions are consistent with each other, such as when you believe you are an honest person, and you tell the truth about a situation. An irrelevant relationship is when the two cognitions or actions don’t really have anything to do with each other, such as liking dogs and reading a book. A dissonant relationship, which is our focus, is when we have two inconsistent cognitions or actions. This could be when you think that you are an honest person, and you end up telling a lie in a situation, even if it’s just a small white lie.

This dissonant relationship is what causes the psychological stress that motivates us to change our thoughts or actions. There are two factors that determine how much the dissonance affects us, and just how motivated for change we are. The first is how important the cognition is to us. The more personal and important the thought is, the more we want to reduce the dissonance in the situation. Beliefs such as religion or political beliefs will cause greater dissonance when conflicting with our other thoughts or actions. The second is the ratio of consonant to dissonant elements of the situation. Both of these things contribute to the psychological distress of cognitive dissonance, and which we then seek to reduce and diminish.

Because of this feeling of discomfort, the person then tries to reduce the tension and psychological stress by trying to change their behavior or justify their conflicting cognition.

Festinger also studied the theory of induced or forced compliance, which he stated was closely related to cognitive dissonance. The forced compliance theory posits that someone in a position of perceived authority can force a “lower-ranked” individual to make statements or perform acts that violate their beliefs and judgment. Festinger conducted an experiment titled Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance in 1959, on students at Stanford. The participants were asked to perform a tedious task: using one hand to turn small spools a quarter turn clockwise. The experimenters meant to find a task that absolutely no one could find enjoyable. The experimental group was given either $1 or $20 to try to convince that the participant right after them that the task was fun, and the control group was not told anything about the task. The group that was paid $1 actually believed that the task was fun at the end of the study. It was found that the subjects who were paid $1 were compelled to internalize the positive mental attitude because they had no other justification. The subjects who were paid $20 complied because of the obvious, external justification for internalizing that the task was interesting, and so they experienced a lesser degree of cognitive dissonance.The study concluded that if a person performs an action that goes against what they first thought, the belief will typically change. Dissonance can increase the importance of the subject to is, our inability to rationalize and “explain away” the issue at hand, and how strongly the dissonant thoughts conflict within us.

One study claims that commitment to a particular course of action will cause people to become insensitive to the potential benefits of another, an alternative course of action.

How does cognitive dissonance affect behavior?

It’s been proven that humans are repetitive creatures: we are likely to repeat the same behaviors. Why? Because often a person’s behavior is the result of factors between motivational and personality that are common in the situations in which the behavior occurs. Some people might think about the consequences of a repeated behavior and their post-behavior cognitions would guide their future actions. Other people might use past behavior on a trial-and-error basis for future actions and decisions.

If an action has been completed and can’t be undone, our after-the-fact thinking compels us to change our beliefs. When our beliefs change, dissonance appears forcing us to take actions that we would not have before.

What causes cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance appears in every aspect of the world and is the device we use to experience new differences in the world. When we see people with whom we already have an image of how they usually behaving, behaving differently, cognitive dissonance appears because we have to decide how we feel about this changed action. Whenever we hold any conflicting thoughts, dissonance happens, too. Cognitive dissonance is most powerful when it has to do with our self-image. For example, feeling foolish or immoral are both symptoms that how the dissonance is in action and happening.

Dissonance can increase and decrease the importance, the long-lasting impact, and the ability to reverse the decision at hand. Choosing which necklace to wear for the day has less of a cause for dissonance than choosing which university to attend.

What does cognitive dissonance feel like?

Everybody will feel cognitive dissonance to their own degree, especially depending on the action and the belief at hand. If you believe you are a good person, but you do something bad, the discomfort you feel from doing something bad is known as cognitive dissonance. Most people are acutely aware that they are experiencing a dissonance of some sort when it occurs.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance

Symptoms of Cognitive Dissonance

Some common signs of cognitive dissonance include:

  • Feeling uncomfortable
  • (Conflict) avoidance
  • Rationalization
  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Ignoring the facts

Types of Cognitive Dissonance

One famous example of cognitive dissonance is the fable of the Fox and the Grapes, by Aesop. In the story, the fox sees high-hanging grapes and wants desperately to be able to eat them. However, once he finds that he cannot reach them, he then convinces himself that the grapes are likely unripe and sour. Aesop claims that the moral of the story is that “a fool despises what he cannot get.” The cognitive dissonance theory claims that the fox diminished his cognitive dissonance by convincing himself that his object of desire is worthless, and adapted his internal thoughts to the situation. Cognitive dissonance can occur in all forms of everyday life. It exists in relationships, both abusive and non- abusive, the workplace, as a consumer, and emotionally. Here are a few examples:

Cognitive Dissonance in Relationships

The most common example of how cognitive dissonance affects relationships has to do with when people are dating. A common sentence is “I shouldn’t have ignored the red flags”. Ignoring those red flags is cognitive dissonance at it’s finest. Instead of admitting that this person does or has something that doesn’t work well for you, you convince yourself that the good outweighs the bad or that this fault is only temporary.

Cognitive dissonance occurs in a relationship when your partner does something to hurt you. For example, not calling when they say they’re going to call. The dissonance occurs because you have two thoughts and feelings at the same time. “I love my partner, but I do not love my partner’s behavior.”

“I am a loving and compassionate person, but I am not loving and compassionate to you at this moment,” is another common example of cognitive dissonance in an intimate relationship.

Cognitive Dissonance in Abusive Relationships

Cognitive dissonance is even more common in abusive relationships. Think about a couple, Jack and Jill, who have been together for two years, but only lived together for a few months. Together they are incredibly happy and they love each other. However, one day, Jack hits Jill across the cheek. Jill, who thought she knew Jack really well, is confused: “Why did Jack hit me?” This is where cognitive dissonance comes into play. Jill realizes that she loves Jack, but she doesn’t love his behavior. One of these components has to change in order for her cognitive dissonance to go away. Jill can accept and rationalize Jack’s behavior by convincing herself that there is a good reason to stay with Jack. For example, “I need his financial support,” “He was too drunk,” “He has redeeming qualities,” or “My parents would be upset.” Often, people end up rationalizing this behavior and stay with the abusive partner.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance and Infidelity

“Why do good people cheat?” According to a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, cheaters feel bad about what they’ve done, but they convince themselves that their infidelity is uncharacteristic or out-of-the-ordinary. Essentially, cheaters minimize the significance of what they did as a coping mechanism. For example, Ted from “How I Met Your Mother” always thought about and flirted with Robin, even though he was engaged to Victoria. Ted could try to explain away his flirtations and thoughts by saying that he never acted on them so it’s not cheating. Consequently, because they diminished how they feel towards their infidelity, they may not learn from their mistakes and be more able to cheat again in the future.

How Cognitive Dissonance Affect Marriage

Within marriage, cognitive dissonance is the betterment between how you would like to be, and how you actually are. This isn’t exactly a bad thing because it can act as motivation to get to your deepest values by making you behave in more compassionate and loving ways. Cognitive dissonance allows a spouse to bend and tweak the conventions of marriage in order to get something they need while still maintaining loyalty to those convictions. Marriage is like a truce with reality. If all you focus on is getting your needs met or receiving the love that you want, your marriage will run into a big wall of cognitive dissonance. There is likely more success when each partner focuses on being the partner you most want to be.

Cognitive Dissonance in the Workplace

Many people experience cognitive dissonance in the workplace. Especially in organizational support functions like human resources and risk management. People are often pushed into tolerating, supporting, and executing the task which completely conflicts with their personal sense of right and wrong, values, and beliefs. For example, a human resources manager is asked to dismiss an employee for misconduct without enough evidence proving, or with evidence pointing in the opposite direction. The correlation between the manager’s values of right and wrong, and the lack of evidence will cause cognitive dissonance. This dissonance will cause high-stress levels because he may lose his job if he doesn’t fire this employee, although it may not be ethically right to fire him.

Think about how often Andy from the movie The Devil Wears Prada felt torn between her job and her personal life. Furthermore, how she had to change her thought process in order to fit her workplace. She was filled with cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance and the Effects on Consumer’s’ Decision Making

Many people want to hold the belief that they make good decisions. When a product that we buy which we thought was good turns out to be bad, we have a conflict within ourselves about our decision-making abilities.

A more specific example would be to take a man who places great value on the environment and being environmentally friendly. He purchases a new car but it turns out that the car doesn’t actually get great gas mileage. This man will struggle with the conflict that it’s important to take care of the environment and that he isn’t driving an environmentally friendly car. The man can either sell the car and replace it with a more environmentally friendly one, use public transportation, or he can reduce his stress on the environment by not placing as much emphasis on it in his beliefs (not caring).

In one study done in 2003, Beyond Reference Pricing: Understanding Consumers’ Encounters with Unexpected Prices, it was discovered that consumers adopt three coping mechanisms (to lower their cognitive dissonance) when they experience an unexpected price. One, they employ a strategy of continual information. This means that they become biased and try to search for information that supports their prior beliefs to justify themselves. Two, they employ a change in attitude. For example, they reevaluate the price. Three, they downplay the significance of what they are consuming. “6 bucks is nothing. It’s just a burrito, anyway!”    

Emotional Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance and anger are both associated with neural activity in the left frontal cortex of the brain, according to a study done in 2003. Furthermore, anger motivates neural activity in the left frontal cortex. The correlation between anger and cognitive dissonance happens when a person takes control of the social situation causing cognitive dissonance.

Another study monitored university students while they wrote essays on a low-choice condition (in support of a 10% tuition raise, not their choice) or a high-choice condition (in support of a 10% tuition raise, their choice and voluntary). The high-choice participants showed a higher level of activity than low-choice participants in the left frontal cortex. The study found that activity within the anterior cingulate cortex increases when errors and behavioral conflicts occur with the self-concept as a form of higher-level thinking. Other results have shown that the initial experience of dissonance (discomfort) felt can be apparent in the anterior cingulate cortex, later activity shows up in the left frontal cortex, which helps activate our motivational system to reduce anger.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance


Cognitive Dissonance in Relation to Narcissistic Abuse

Sometimes when someone is oppressed due to narcissistic abuse, they end up forming a positive relationship with their oppressor. This is known as “trauma bonding” and happens due to cognitive dissonance. For example, when someone is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, they are often looked upon as having supported their abuse in some way when, in reality, they were rationalizing it to help cope with the abuse. The victim of the narcissistic abuse begins to believe that the relationship with the abuser is not only acceptable but also vital for survival. If the relationship were to end, the victim has become so enmeshed that it would feel their world is ending, both mentally and emotionally. This is why some people don’t like being rescued from abusive relationships and become protective of their abuser.

Cognitive Dissonance and Addiction

People who smoke know that smoking is bad for their health. Yet, they do it anyway, creating cognitive dissonance. Sometimes because they find smoking “worth it’ in terms of the pros and cons. Some smokers have convinced themselves that the negative effects of smoking are overstated and overused as a reason not to smoke. “I don’t smoke much, anyway.” Other possibilities could be that a smoker convinces themselves that they can’t avoid every single health risk out there, or that if they stop smoking, they’ll gain weight which also poses health risks. “My grandmother smoked two packs a day until she was 95!” By explaining away and using excuses like these, the smoker is able to reduce the cognitive dissonance and able to continue smoking without as much conflict about it. Some research has shown that using justifications gives peoples the impression that they made the right decision. Addicts will try to modify their reasoning in order to feel better about the discomfort of opinion (dissonance) they are creating.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance

How to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance

This dissonance can be reduced in a number of ways including:

  • Changing one or more of the attitudes, behaviors, or beliefs to make the relationship between thoughts and actions compatible.
    • Likely the hardest solution, but the most effective. For example, you quit drinking coffee while pregnant because you believe that caffeine is bad for a growing fetus. To actually quit is much harder than to make an excuse to be able to keep drinking coffee.
  • Acquire new information that outweighs the dissonant beliefs
    • People who learn that eating lots of red meat is unhealthy might seek out information that disputes that claim. This new information might say that red meat is healthy because of the protein inside and thus, reduce the discomfort and dissonance experienced.
  • Reduce the importance of the beliefs, behaviors, or attitudes.
    • Someone who hears that sitting all day is bad for your health, but they spend all day in the office sitting down, it’s difficult to change the belief that sitting is harmful to your health. Instead, they might just say that they drink enough water or eat salads for lunch, healthy behaviors, to make up for sitting all day, an unhealthy behavior

How do you deal with cognitive dissonance? Let us know in the comments below!

Anna is currently studying a Bachelors in Spanish, International Studies, and Intercultural Communication at the University of Saint Louis-Madrid.