According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. In the case of a discrepancy between attitudes and behavior, it is most likely that the attitude will change to accommodate the behavior.
Two factors affect the strength of the dissonance: the number of dissonant beliefs, and the importance attached to each belief. There are three ways to eliminate dissonance: (1) reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs, (2) add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or (3) change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent.
Dissonance occurs most often in situations where an individual must choose between two incompatible beliefs or actions. The greatest dissonance is created when the two alternatives are equally attractive. Furthermore, attitude change is more likely in the direction of less incentive since this results in lower dissonance. In this respect, dissonance theory is contradictory to most behavioral theories which would predict greater attitude change with increased incentive (i.e., reinforcement).
Dissonance theory applies to all situations involving attitude formation and change. It is especially relevant to decision-making and problem-solving.
Consider someone who buys an expensive car but discovers that it is not comfortable on long drives. Dissonance exists between their beliefs that they have bought a good car and that a good car should be comfortable. Dissonance could be eliminated by deciding that it does not matter since the car is mainly used for short trips (reducing the importance of the dissonant belief) or focusing on the cars strengths such as safety, appearance, handling (thereby adding more consonant beliefs). The dissonance could also be eliminated by getting rid of the car, but this behavior is a lot harder to achieve than changing beliefs.
Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort a person feels when their behavior does not align with their values or beliefs. It can also occur when a person holds two contradictory beliefs at the same time.
Cognitive dissonance is not a disease or illness. It is a psychological phenomenon that can happen to anyone. American psychologist Leon Festinger first developed the concept in the 1950s.
Read on to learn more about cognitive dissonance, including examples, signs a person might be experiencing it, causes, and how to resolve it.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two related but contradictory cognitions, or thoughts. The psychologist Leon Festinger came up with the concept in 1957.
In his book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Festinger proposed that two ideas can be consonant or dissonant. Consonant ideas logically flow from one another, while dissonant ideas oppose one another.
For example, a person who wishes to protect other people and who believes that the COVID-19 pandemic is real might wear a mask in public. This is consonance.
If that same person believed the COVID-19 pandemic was real but refused to wear a mask, their values and behaviors would contradict each other. This is dissonance.
The dissonance between two contradictory ideas, or between an idea and a behavior, creates discomfort. Festinger argued that cognitive dissonance is more intense when a person holds many dissonant views, and those views are important to them.
It is not possible to observe dissonance, as it is something a person feels internally. As such, there is no set of external signs that can reliably indicate a person is experiencing cognitive dissonance.
However, Festinger believed that all people are motivated to avoid or resolve cognitive dissonance due to the discomfort it causes. This can prompt people to adopt certain defense mechanisms when they have to confront it.
These defense mechanisms fall into three categories:
Alternatively, people may take steps to try to resolve the inconsistency. It is possible to resolve cognitive dissonance by either changing one’s behavior or changing one’s beliefs so they are consistent with each other.
Some examples of cognitive dissonance include:
Anyone can experience cognitive dissonance, and sometimes, it is unavoidable. People are not always able to behave in a way that matches their beliefs.
Some factors that can cause cognitive dissonance include:
Another factor that can create cognitive dissonance is addiction. A person might not want to engage in dissonant behavior, but addiction can make it feel physically and mentally difficult to bring their behavior into alignment with their values.
Cognitive dissonance can affect people in a wide range of ways. The effects may relate to the discomfort of the dissonance itself or the defense mechanisms a person adopts to deal with it.
The internal discomfort and tension of cognitive dissonance could contribute to stress or unhappiness. People who experience dissonance but have no way to resolve it may also feel powerless or guilty.
Avoiding, delegitimizing, and limiting the impact of cognitive dissonance may result in a person not acknowledging their behavior and thus not taking steps to resolve the dissonance. In some cases, this could cause harm to themselves or others.
However, cognitive dissonance can also be a tool for personal and social change. Drawing a person’s attention to the dissonance between their behavior and their values may increase their awareness of the inconsistency and empower them to act.
For example, a 2019 study notes that dissonance-based interventions may be helpful for people with eating disorders. This approach works by encouraging patients to say things or role-play behaviors that contradict their beliefs about food and body image. This creates dissonance.
The theory behind this approach is that in order to resolve the dissonance, a person’s implicit beliefs about their body and thinness will change, reducing their desire to limit their food intake.
The study found that this intervention was effective for heterosexual women but less effective for nonheterosexual women for reasons that are unclear.
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:
Cognitive dissonance is not a mental health condition, and a person does not necessarily need treatment for it. However, if a person finds that they have difficulty stopping a behavior or thinking pattern that is causing them distress, they can seek support from a doctor or therapist.
A person may wish to consider this if:
Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person’s behavior and beliefs do not complement each other or when they hold two contradictory beliefs. It causes a feeling of discomfort that motivates people to try to feel better.
People may do this via defense mechanisms, such as avoidance. Alternatively, they may reduce cognitive dissonance by being mindful of their values and pursuing opportunities to live those values.
A person who feels defensive or unhappy might consider the role cognitive dissonance might play in these feelings. If they are part of a wider problem that is causing distress, people may benefit from speaking with a therapist.
Last medically reviewed on September 8, 2022
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