Cognitive dissonance is a term used in social psychology to understand how we make sense of situations in which our thoughts, values or beliefs do not align with our behaviors or actions.
Cognitive dissonance has been said to be “one of the most influential and widely studied phenomena in the history of social psychology. Read on to find out why.
What is cognitive dissonance?
The American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology defines cognitive dissonance as:
an unpleasant psychological state resulting from inconsistency between two or more elements in a cognitive system. It is presumed to involve a state of heightened arousal and to have characteristics similar to physiological drives (e.g., hunger). Thus, cognitive dissonance creates a motivational drive in an individual to reduce the dissonance.
It’s the discomfort that is key to understanding cognitive dissonance. The theory behind cognitive dissonance highlights the need to resolve the dissonance in order to reach a more comfortable state. However, the ways in which we achieve this resolution can seem illogical or confusing to others.
An example of cognitive dissonance
A good example of cognitive dissonance is smoking cigarettes. The health risks of smoking are well known and have been for many years, yet more than 28 million Americans continue to smoke. Dissonance is caused by the inconsistency between knowing cigarettes are harmful to health (thought or belief) and continuing to smoke (behavior or action).
There are several ways to reduce this dissonance or discomfort. Smokers may change their behavior by quitting smoking. Or they may continue to smoke, and justify their behavior by downplaying the negative effects or finding other positive aspects of smoking. They might convince themselves that the pleasure or stress relief they get from smoking outweighs the health risks, for example.
By reducing the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, individuals can maintain a sense of internal consistency. However, it’s important to note that cognitive dissonance can also motivate behavior change. When the discomfort becomes too great, individuals may choose to quit smoking to align their behavior with their knowledge of its harmful effects.
The history of cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is a term originally coined in the 1950s by a social psychologist named Leon Festinger.
Festinger, along with his colleague James M. Carlsmith, published their now-classic study into cognitive dissonance in 1959. In this experiment, participants were assigned to perform a dull and repetitive task for an hour. Afterward, some of the participants were asked to do a favor for the experimenter by telling the next participant, who was actually part of the study, that the task was highly enjoyable. This created a state of cognitive dissonance for the participants performing the favor because they knew the task was actually boring.
As part of the experiment, the participants were offered a payment for this favor and were divided into two groups based on the amount of money they were paid. One group received $1, while the other received $20. Festinger and Carlsmith predicted that the participants paid $1 would experience greater dissonance and would therefore need to change their actual opinions about the task. They would make themselves believe the task was enjoyable to align with the request that they reported it as enjoyable to other participants.
On the other hand, the researchers predicted that the participants paid $20 would experience less dissonance. This is because the higher payment provided enough justification for their participation. They wouldn’t need to adjust their beliefs to align with their behavior, which allowed them to report the task as being less enjoyable.
As expected, the participants paid $1 reported finding the task more enjoyable compared to those paid $20. This finding supports the idea that when there is a small external incentive (in this case, a low payment), individuals experience a greater need to reduce cognitive dissonance by altering their opinions to align with their behavior. In contrast, the higher payment created consonance (the opposite of dissonance) between behavior and attitude, leading to reduced dissonance and lower enjoyment ratings.
This experiment demonstrates how cognitive dissonance works and highlights the role of external incentives in influencing our beliefs and attitudes to reduce this psychological discomfort.
Some examples of how cognitive dissonance prevents people from improving their lives
- Unhealthy Eating Habits: Someone who follows an unhealthy diet high in processed foods and sugary drinks may be aware of the negative impact on their physical health and weight. However, they may experience cognitive dissonance when trying to reconcile this knowledge with their behavior. This could lead to rationalizations, such as believing they can compensate with occasional exercise or that enjoying food is more important than health. These justifications can prevent them from adopting healthier eating habits.
- Procrastination: Procrastination is a common behavior that often creates cognitive dissonance. A person may acknowledge the importance of completing a task or meeting a deadline, yet they repeatedly delay taking action. This creates a conflict between their intention to be productive and their actual behavior. To reduce the dissonance, they may come up with excuses or convince themselves they work better under pressure. This mindset hinders their ability to make progress and achieve their goals.
- Toxic Relationships: Individuals involved in toxic or abusive relationships may experience cognitive dissonance when faced with the negative aspects of the relationship. They may recognize their mistreatment at the hands of their partner, but also have positive feelings or attachment to them. This creates a conflict between their awareness of the unhealthy dynamics and their emotional investment. As a result, they may rationalize their mistreatment or make excuses for their partner’s behavior, preventing them from taking steps to improve their situation.
By reducing the discomfort associated with conflicting beliefs and behaviors, people can maintain the status quo even when it is not in their best interest to do so. The examples above and many others demonstrate how cognitive dissonance can act as a psychological barrier, hindering individuals from making positive changes in their lives.
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 Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(2), 203–210. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0041593