Cognitive Dissonance Theory: Definition and Examples

How we are motivated to achieve consistency between thoughts and actions

Abstract line drawing of a brain with each side drawn in a slightly different way.
Dong Wenjie/Getty Images.

Psychologist Leon Festinger first described the theory of cognitive dissonance in 1957. According to Festinger, cognitive dissonance occurs when people’s thoughts and feelings are inconsistent with their behavior, which results in an uncomfortable, disharmonious feeling.

Examples of such inconsistencies or dissonance could include someone who litters despite caring about the environment, someone who tells a lie despite valuing honesty, or someone who makes an extravagant purchase, but believes in frugality.

Experiencing cognitive dissonance can lead people to try to reduce their feelings of discomfort —sometimes in surprising or unexpected ways.

Because the experience of dissonance is so uncomfortable, people are highly motivated to try to reduce their dissonance. Festinger goes as far as to propose that reducing dissonance is a fundamental need: a person who experiences dissonance will try to reduce this feeling in much in the same way that a person who feels hungry is compelled to eat.

According to psychologists, our actions are likely to produce a higher amount of dissonance if they involve the way that we see ourselves and we subsequently have trouble justifying why our actions didn’t match our beliefs.

For example, since individuals typically want to see themselves as ethical people, acting unethically would produce higher levels of dissonance. Imagine someone paid you $500 to tell a small lie to someone. The average person probably wouldn’t fault you for telling the lie—$500 is a lot of money and for most people would probably be enough to justify a relatively inconsequential lie. However, if you were paid only a couple of dollars, you might have more trouble justifying your your lie, and feel less comfortable about doing so.

How Cognitive Dissonance Affects Behavior

In 1959, Festinger and his colleague James Carlsmith published an influential study showing that cognitive dissonance can affect behavior in unexpected ways. In this study, research participants were asked to spend an hour completing boring tasks (for example, repeatedly loading spools onto a tray). After the tasks were over, some of the participants were told that there were two versions of the study: in one (the version the participant had been in), the participant was not told anything about the study beforehand; in the other, the participant was told that the study was interesting and enjoyable. The researcher told the participant that the next study session was about to start, and that they needed someone to tell the next participant that the study would be enjoyable. They then asked the participant to tell the next participant that the study was interesting (which would have meant lying to the next participant, since the study had been designed to be boring). Some participants were offered $1 to do this, while others were offered $20 (since this study was conducted over 50 years ago, this would have been a lot of money to participants).

In actuality, there was no “other version” of the study in which participants were led to believe the tasks were fun and interesting—when participants told the “other participant” that the study was fun, they were actually (unknown to them) speaking to a member of the research staff. Festinger and Carlsmith wanted to create a feeling of dissonance in participants—in this case, their belief (that lying should be avoided) is at odds with their action (they just lied to someone).

After telling the lie, the crucial part of the study began. Another person (who appeared to not be part of the original study) then asked participants to report on how interesting the study actually was.

Results of Festinger and Carlsmith's Study

For participants who were not asked to lie, and for participants who lied in exchange for $20, they tended to report that the study indeed wasn’t very interesting. After all, participants who had told a lie for $20 felt that they could justify the lie because they were paid relatively well (in other words, receiving the large sum of money reduced their feelings of dissonance).

However, participants who were only paid $1 had more trouble justifying their actions to themselves—they didn’t want to admit to themselves that they told a lie over such a small amount of money. Consequently, participants in this group ended up reducing the dissonance they felt another way—by reporting that the study had indeed been interesting. In other words, it appears that participants reduced the dissonance they felt by deciding that they hadn’t lied when they said the study was enjoyable and that they really had liked the study.

Festinger and Carlsmith’s study has an important legacy: it suggests that, sometimes, when people are asked to act in a certain way, they may change their attitude to match the behavior they just engaged in. While we often think that our actions stem from our beliefs, Festinger and Carlsmith suggest that it can be the other way around: our actions can influence what we believe.

Culture and Cognitive Dissonance

In recent years, psychologists have pointed out that many psychology studies recruit participants from Western countries (North America and Europe) and that doing so neglects the experience of people who live in non-Western cultures. In fact, psychologists who study cultural psychology have found that many phenomena that were once assumed to be universal may actually be unique to Western countries.

What about cognitive dissonance? Do people from non-Western cultures experience cognitive dissonance as well? Research seems to suggest that people from non-Western cultures do experience cognitive dissonance, but that the contexts that lead to feelings of dissonance might differ depending on cultural norms and values. For example, in a study conducted by Etsuko Hoshino-Browne and her colleagues, the researchers found that European Canadian participants experienced greater levels of dissonance when they made a decision for themselves, while Japanese participants were more likely to experience dissonance when they were responsible for making a decision for a friend.

In other words, it seems that everyone does experience dissonance from time to time—but what causes dissonance for one person might not for someone else.

Reducing Cognitive Dissonance

According to Festinger, we can work to reduce the dissonance we feel in several different ways.

Changing Behavior

One of the simplest ways to address dissonance is to change one’s behavior. For example, Festinger explains that a smoker might cope with the discrepancy between their knowledge (that smoking is bad) and their behavior (that they smoke) by quitting.

Changing the Environment

Sometimes people can reduce dissonance by changing things in their environment—in particular, in their social environment. For example, someone who smokes might surround themselves with other people who smoke instead of with people who have disapproving attitudes about cigarettes. In others words, people sometimes cope with feelings of dissonance by surrounding themselves in “echo chambers” where their opinions are supported and validated by others.

Seeking Out New Information

People can also address feelings of dissonance by processing information in a biased way: they may look for new information that supports their current actions, and they might limit their exposure to information that would make them feel greater levels of dissonance. For example, a coffee drinker might look for research on the benefits of coffee drinking, and avoid reading studies that suggest coffee might have negative effects.

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