cognitive dissonance

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.[1][2]


This is the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time.

Dissonance increases with:

  • The importance of the subject to us.
  • How strongly the dissonant thoughts conflict.
  • Our inability to rationalize and explain away the conflict.

Dissonance is often strong when we believe something about ourselves and then do something against that belief. If I believe I am good but do something bad, then the discomfort I feel as a result is cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a very powerful motivator which will often lead us to change one or other of the conflicting belief or action. The discomfort often feels like a tension between the two opposing thoughts. To release the tension we can take one of three actions:

  • Change our behavior.
  • Justify our behavior by changing the conflicting cognition.
  • Justify our behavior by adding new cognitions.

Dissonance is most powerful when it is about our self-image. Feelings of foolishness, immorality and so on (including internal projections during decision-making) are dissonance in action.

If an action has been completed and cannot be undone, then the after-the-fact dissonance compels us to change our beliefs. If beliefs are moved, then the dissonance appears during decision-making, forcing us to take actions we would not have taken before.

Cognitive dissonance appears in virtually all evaluations and decisions and is the central mechanism by which we experience new differences in the world. When we see other people behave differently to our images of them, when we hold any conflicting thoughts, we experience dissonance.

Dissonance increases with the importance and impact of the decision, along with the difficulty of reversing it. Discomfort about making the wrong choice of car is bigger than when choosing a lamp.

Note: Self-Perception Theory gives an alternative view.

Leon Festinger‘s theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency. An individual who experiences inconsistency (dissonance) tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and is motivated to try to reduce this dissonance—as well as actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it.[1]

Self-Perception Theory

Zanna, M. P., & Cooper J., Dissonance and the Pill: An attribution approach to studying the arousal properties of dissonance. JPSP, 1974, 29, 703-709

This study tested the idea of whether dissonance had arousal properties.

Cognitive dissonance is often experienced as psychological discomfort or tension. Yet prior research hasn’t proven evidence of dissonance-produced attitude change.

Previous studies by Schachter showed that subjects unknowingly under the influence of epinephrine could be made to label their arousal as either angry or happy based on external stimuli. Another study with insomniacs showed that if they could get subjects to attribute their nocturnal arousal to a pill, they found it easier to fall asleep (and if they were told it would make them more relaxed and it didn’t work they were even more aroused).

Theoretically, this should also work with attitude change. People who are put into a cognitive dissonance situation but can attribute their arousal to another factor (a pill) should be less likely to change their attitudes than people who don’t attribute their arousal to the pill.

Subjects were told to write an essay counter to their beliefs (about free speech on campus). One third were given a pill and told it would make them tense, one third told it would make them relaxed, and one-third were not given a pill at all. In this 2X3 experiment, the other variable was giving the subjects either high-choice in writing the counteressay (it’s up to you…) or low choice (do this…).

After writing the essay they completed an attitude questionnaire that asked them about campus speech and their present feelings.

People who were told the drug would make them feel more tense did indicated they were more tense, and those in the “relaxed” condition felt more relaxed (vs control). Interestingly, the people in the high-choice control group reported more tension than either the “tense” or “relaxed” groups (which is expected by dissonance theory).

The overall results were as expected. For people in the control group, those in the high choice condition had a bigger attitude change (agree with the ban on speech) than the low-choice people. They had nothing to attribute their action on the essay to.

In the “tension” condiition, subjects were able to attribute their tenseness to the pill and not the essay, so the dissonance effect was realized and their attitudes didn’t change (agreement with the ban was low). On the contrary, in the “relaxed” condition there was increased cognitive dissonance (they felt tense rather than relaxed) and their shift in favor of the ban was more pronounced than with the control group.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s