Examples of cognitive dissonance

Larger Gaps, Larger Dissonance

According to cognitive dissonance theory, the more important the issue and the larger the gap between the beliefs, the greater the dissonance among people. This is critical for leaders to understand because culture is a very important issue within an organization. There are inherently large gaps in beliefs on a personal, team, and organizational level related to this culture. Individual beliefs about power and privilege—as they relate to gender inequity, race inequity, generational differences, ability and disability, sexual orientation, religion, and so on—need to be explored in organizations and among leaders. If dissonance is not discussed, leaders will continue to employ workers who (a) feel uncomfortable talking about culture and diversity, (b) continue to behave in inappropriate ways, (c) are accepting of culture on the outside but do not align diversity with their beliefs, and (d) feel that all they need are the “right tools” or the “right answers” to be culturally competent.

Without careful attention to exploring the stories of dissonance, leaders allow their organizations to bury their inclusion blind spots. Blind spotsThings that an individual or group cannot see because they are hidden or because the individual or group chooses not to see them. in cognitive dissonance describe the things you cannot see because they are hidden or because you choose not to see them. We are unaware of our blind spots because our focus is directed toward other things or we are distracted from what needs to be done. Blind spots can lead to underestimating or overestimating our cultural abilities and to truly understanding what needs to be done regarding culture and diversity. Regardless of the talent that is recruited, the accomplishments or progress that is made, or even how much money is poured into diversity initiatives, these blind spots can cause leaders to miss opportunities that bring about positive, transformative change and innovation.

Given this information, what can leaders do about the cultural dissonance within their organizations? First, leaders must have the courage to be open to the possibilities that their beliefs, or the organization’s beliefs, are not aligned with their actions and behaviors. It takes courageous leadership to not maintain the status quo and to explore the stories that give root to organizational and individual beliefs. Second, leaders can, and should, explore the dissonance by asking themselves the following questions:

  • What are my organization’s beliefs about culture?
  • What dissonance is present in our beliefs and our behaviors?
  • What gaps (in recruitment, within policy, and in intrapersonal interactions) are created because of the dissonance?
  • How is this dissonance stopping us from truly understanding culture?

In cultural intelligence work, it is critical that you recognize your self-concept to understand your blind spots. As a leader, it is your responsibility to help others recognize their self-concept and the role it plays in intercultural interactions. It is essential for you to understand that people will often choose to stick to their beliefs (even if it no longer serves them) to alleviate the emotional stress that reorganizing a self-concept requires. They would rather fend off the perceived threat than create learning opportunities out of these experiences.

Finally, it is important for leaders to work with employees to explore employee dissonance. Learning to work with, and understand, cultures is not the sole responsibility of leaders; it is the responsibility of everyone within an organization. Because leaders are in the positional power to promote and support the work, it is the responsibility of the leaders to help their employees uncover their blind spots. With clear sight of these blinds spots, organizations can turn them into an advantage. By doing so, organizations can find significantly greater possibilities that expand and deepen intercultural work than previously imagined.

10 Cognitive Dissonance Examples In Everyday Life To Watch Out For

Cognitive dissonance is a psychology term you’ve almost certainly heard before, but it’s not new. In fact, it’s been around since the 1950s, when a man named Leon Festinger theorized that people try to achieve a sort of internal consistency.

Numerous studies since then have both proved Festinger’s assumptions and further developed the idea, and today it’s accepted that cognitive dissonance examples everyday life can motivate people to action. What kind of action? Well, that depends.

Motivated to Change

Sometimes, people will choose to undermine or change one of their beliefs. Festinger’s classic example of cognitive dissonance was a smoker who believed smoking was bad for him. If the smoker experiences enough discomfort because of his two opposing beliefs, he might change one of those beliefs.

For example, he might begin to think, “smoking doesn’t do much harm.” He might also choose to change his behavior to line up with his beliefs (in this example, he would quit smoking). Another option would be to add thoughts to act as a bridge. “Smoking isn’t that bad,” for example.

Finally, a smoker experiencing cognitive dissonance might simply choose to ignore the discomfort. “This feels great, and I don’t care if it’s bad.”

Real Life Examples

Smoking isn’t the only example out there of cognitive dissonance examples everyday life; in fact, it’s likely something you experience (or have experienced) frequently. Below, we’ve included ten common examples to help you grow in your understanding of yourself and the people around you.

1. Being Nice

Being “nice” (especially for women) is considered an important value. Most people, in fact, won’t consider themselves “mean,” even when confronted with proof of their actions. Here’s how this might play out, for example, in the office:

Sheila has been with her company for five years. She has performed her work satisfactorily and wants to ask for a raise. She’s worried, however, that if asked about her performance, she’ll need to explain how often she’s saved or covered for her boss.

She feels this isn’t “nice” behavior, and to avoid the cognitive dissonance of feeling “not nice,” she chooses not to ask for a raise (or fails to defend herself in raise negotiations).

2. Being Honest

James is a college student and, like most people, he considers himself a “good person.” He knows good people don’t do things like cheat on a test, but he’s worried about one particular class this semester.

James has to make a decision: either study harder, get tutoring, miss out on social engagements, and still take a chance on failing the class, or cheating. If he cheats, here are some of the things he’ll have to tell himself to appease the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance he’s experience:

  • This professor’s tests are too difficult; everybody has to cheat.
  • Everybody is cheating, and I’ll be the weird one if I don’t.
  • It’s not that big a deal.
  • I’m just a cheater.

3. Bad Restaurant

Your friend has great taste in restaurants, so when she recommends a new place downtown, you don’t waste much time trying it out. Unfortunately, it’s awful. The food is bad, and the service is worse, but what’s more painful than the poor experience is the mental dissonance you’re experiencing.

Does this mean you were wrong, and your friend has bad taste? Does this mean your friend has great taste and you’re the one with the bad taste? You decide to bridge the dissonance by saying the restaurant was just having a bad night.

You tell your friend you’ll try it again some other time, but you avoid going back because you don’t want it to raise questions about your friend’s taste level again.

4. I’ll Skip Lunch

Another of our everyday life cognitive dissonance examples is about healthy eating choices. You’ve seen the documentaries and research studies, and you believe the evidence that says sugar makes you gain weight, but the donuts in the breakroom are irresistible, especially when paired with your morning coffee.

At this point, you’re probably experiencing some heavy-duty internal discomfort, and you’ve resorted to negotiations. For example, you might choose to:

  • Stick to your guns and forgo the donut.
  • Promise yourself you’ll have a salad for lunch or run an extra mile at the gym tonight to cancel out the harm.
  • Resort to feelings of shame or guilt (“I don’t deserve to be healthy”).

5. Good Deeds

One of the ways non-profits raise funds is by appealing to your sense of being a good person. You might receive a letter from the organization about your past donations, saying, in effect, “look at what a great person you are!”

Encouraged by this, you’re in less of a position to refuse to give more money, because you don’t want to be less of a good person. Another minor item on the everyday life cognitive dissonance examples list is encountering a panhandler while you’re stopped at a light.

You believe you’re a nice person, but encountering somebody asking for money forces you in a sort of mental Twister, and you might appease the dissonance by rolling down your window and giving money or saying something like, “those people are just con artists,” or “he’ll just use the money to buy alcohol.”

Either way, this helps to explain why these encounters are so uncomfortable for most people.

6. Politicians

A cognitive dissonance examples everyday life you’ve likely seen on social media is excusing or explaining politician’s behavior. This can look like one of the following:

  • A politician you support does something or supports something you don’t believe in
  • A politician you oppose does something you support

These kinds of situations put us in a state of cognitive dissonance, which we then seem to quiet. Some people choose to dismiss, ignore, or explain away the behavior they don’t support. “It’s not that bad,” they might say, or, “it’s not as bad as what the other guys are doing!”

Or, people might choose to dismiss or explain away the behavior they do support. “He did one thing right, but look at all the bad things he’s done!”

7. Change of Faith

This sort of example happens every day on college campuses. Bright students enter the big world of a college campus, only to encounter different ways of living and believing. These forced encounters cause enough dissonance to set some people on a path of searching that lasts years.

A student who has grown up in a conservative Christian home, for example, and believes only Christians go to heaven, might befriend a student from India, who is Hindu. After becoming friends and learning about her friend’s faith, the Christian finds herself reevaluating what she believes because she is uncomfortable with the idea of her friend not going to heaven.

8. Authority

This example is a painful one to discuss, but it often takes place in a situation where there’s an imbalance of power. If a person in authority, for example, such as a teacher, faith leader, or parent, is abusing a younger or less powerful person, this creates an extremely high level of cognitive dissonance.

The person being abused has to either choose to change his beliefs about authority (all authority figures are bad), rationalize or ignore the abuse, or change his beliefs about himself (I am bad and worthy of being abused).

9. Sour Grapes

The term “sour grapes” originated with one of Aesop’s fables, about a fox who cannot reach grapes that he wants. He experiences cognitive dissonance and to ease his frustration; he decides the grapes must be sour and therefore undesirable.

This justification for the action he can’t take is a great example of how we change our thoughts to reconcile with the world around us!

10. The Environment

Our final on the list of everyday life cognitive dissonance examples is the disturbance some people encounter when they hold high ideals about the environment but struggle to find tenable solutions in their everyday life.

Here are three common predicaments:

  • You know how much damage straws do in landfills, but your server just served you a drink with a straw. Now, you feel uncomfortable using the straw, even though the damage has already been done.
  • You know how much damage vehicle emissions do to the environment, but the only job you can find will require a forty-minute commute.
  • You believe in fresh, local food, but you’re starving, but the only food options available are highly processed and highly packaged.

Better Understanding

As we’re sure you’ve noticed by now, cognitive dissonance isn’t just a term for psychologists; it’s a phenomenon we encounter constantly. Understanding it can help us recognize it at work in our own lives, helping us grow into better, wiser people. Good luck!

Cognitive Dissonance in Everyday Life

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Cognitive dissonance is an important social psychological principle that can explain how attitudes follow behavior in many domains of our everyday life. For instance, people who try but fail to quit smoking cigarettes naturally suffer lowered self-esteem (Gibbons, Eggleston, & Benthin, 1997). But rather than accepting this negative feeling, they frequently attempt to engage in behaviors that reduce dissonance. They may try to convince themselves that smoking is not that bad: “My grandmother smoked but lived to be 93 years old!” “I’m going to quit next year!” Or they may try to add new consonant cognitions: “Smoking is fun; it relaxes me.” You can see that these processes, although making us feel better about ourselves at least in the short run, may nevertheless have some long-term negative outcomes.

Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills (1959) studied whether the cognitive dissonance created by an initiation process could explain how much commitment students felt to a group they were part of. In their experiment, female college students volunteered to join a group that would be meeting regularly to discuss various aspects of the psychology of sex. According to random assignment, some of the women were told that they would be required to perform an embarrassing procedure before they could join the group (they were asked to read some obscene words and some sexually oriented passages from a novel in public), whereas other women did not have to go through this initiation. Then all the women got a chance to listen to the group’s conversation, which turned out to be very boring.

Aronson and Mills found that the women who had gone through the embarrassing experience subsequently reported more liking for the group than those who had not, and Gerard and Matthewson (1966) found that having to take some electrical shocks as part of an initiation process had the same effect. Aronson and Mills argued that the more effort an individual expends to become a member of the group (e.g., a severe initiation), the more he or she will become committed to the group in order to justify the effort put in during the initiation. The idea is that the effort creates dissonant cognitions (e.g., “I did all this work to join the group”), which are then justified by creating more consonant ones (e.g., “Okay, this group is really pretty fun”). The women who spent little effort to get into the group were able to see the group as the dull and boring conversation that it was. The women who went through the more severe initiation, however, succeeded in convincing themselves that the same discussion was a worthwhile experience. When we put in effort for something—an initiation, a big purchase price, or even some of our precious time—we will likely end up liking the activity more than we would have if the effort had been less. Even the effort of having to fill out a purchase agreement for a product, rather than having the salesperson do it for you, creates commitment to the purchase and a greater likelihood of staying in the deal (Cialdini, 2001).

Another time you may have experienced the negative affective state of cognitive dissonance is after you have made an important and irrevocable decision. Imagine that you are about to buy a new car and you have narrowed your search to a small new car and a larger (but much cheaper) used car. The problem is that you can see advantages and disadvantages to each. For instance, the smaller car would get better gas mileage, but the larger car—because it is used—is cheaper. Imagine, however, that you finally decide to buy the larger car because you feel that you really don’t have enough money for the new car.

That night, you’re lying in bed and wondering about your decision. Although you’ve enjoyed driving the big car that you have just purchased, you’re worried about rising gas costs, the negative impact of the big car on the environment, and the possibility that the car might need a lot of repairs. Have you made the right decision? This “buyer’s remorse” can be interpreted in terms of postdecisional dissonance—the feeling of regret that may occur after we make an important decision (Brehm, 1956). However, the principles of dissonance predict that once you make the decision—and regardless of which car you choose—you will convince yourself that you made the right choice. Since you have chosen the larger car, you will likely begin to think more about the positive aspects of the choice that you have made (what you are going to be able to do with the money you saved, rather than how much more it is going to cost to fill up the gas tank), and at the same time you will likely downplay the values of the smaller car.

Jack Brehm (1956) posed as a representative of a consumer testing service and asked women to rate the attractiveness and desirability of several kinds of appliances, such as toasters and electric coffee makers. Each woman was told that as a reward for having participated in the survey, she could have one of the appliances as a gift. She was given a choice between two of the products she had rated as being about equally attractive. After she made her decision, her appliance was wrapped up and given to her. Then, 20 minutes later, each woman was asked to re-rate all the products. As you can see in Figure 4.11 Brehm found that the women rated the appliance that they had chosen and been given as a gift higher than they had the first time. And the women also lowered their rating of the appliance they might have chosen but decided to reject. These results are of course consistent with the principles of cognitive dissonance—postdecisional dissonance is reduced by focusing on the positive aspects of the chosen product and the negative aspects of the rejected product.

Figure 4.11 Postdecisional Dissonance As predicted by the desire to reduce postdecisional dissonance, participants increased the perceived desirability of a product they had chosen and decreased the perceived desirability of a product they did not choose. Data are from Brehm (1956). Brehm, J. W. (1956). Postdecision changes in the desirability of alternatives. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52(3), 384–389.

What research on cognitive dissonance suggests, then, is that people who are experiencing dissonance will generally try to reduce it. If we fail to lose the weight we wanted to lose, we decide that we look good anyway. If we cheat on an exam, we decide that cheating is okay or common. If we hurt other people’s feelings, we may even decide that they are bad people who deserve our negative behavior. To escape from feeling poorly about themselves, people will engage in quite extraordinary rationalizing. No wonder that most of us believe the statement, “If I had it all to do over again, I would not change anything important.”

Of course, the tendency to justify our past behavior has positive outcomes for our affect. If we are able to convince ourselves that we can do no wrong, we will be happier—at least for today. But the desire to create positive self-esteem can lead to a succession of self-justifications that ultimately result in a chain of irrational actions. The irony is that to avoid thinking of ourselves as bad or immoral, we may set ourselves up for more immoral acts. Once Joachim has convinced himself that his schoolwork is not important, it may be hard to pick it up again. Once a smoker has decided it is okay to smoke, she may just keep smoking. If we spend too much time thinking positively about ourselves we will not learn from our mistakes; nor will we grow or change. In order to learn from our behavior, it would be helpful to learn to tolerate dissonance long enough to examine the situation critically and dispassionately. We then stand a chance of breaking out of the cycle of action followed by justification, followed by more action.

There is still another potential negative outcome of dissonance: when we have to make choices we may feel that we have made poor ones. Barry Schwartz (2004) has argued that having too many choices can create dissonance and thus the opportunity for regret. When we go to the store and have to pick only one out of 30 different types of chocolates, we have more opportunities for postdecisional dissonance. Although it seems like being allowed to choose would be a good thing, people report being happier when they are given a free gift than when they are given a choice between two similar gifts and have to reject one of them (Hsee & Hastie, 2006).

Cognitive dissonance theory examples

Before i can give examples of the Cognitive dissonance theory i first have to explain what Cognitive dissonance means.

A cognition can be considered a belief. If you like to smoke then this can be considered a cognition. If you like ice cream then this is another cognition. Those two beliefs are not related to each other but if one of them became dissonant with the other then according to the Cognitive dissonance theory Cognitive dissonance will happen.

For example if you like to smoke but you know that smoking is harmful then that would result in Cognitive dissonance. The Cognitive dissonance theory states that when two cognitions become dissonant Cognitive dissonance happens.

In this article i will tell you some examples of the Cognitive dissonance theory.

Examples of the Cognitive dissonance theory

Here are some examples of the Cognitive dissonance theory:

  • Example 1: Knowing that smoking is harmful (First cognition) while liking to smoke (second cognition). The Cognitive dissonance theory’s conditions were met because those cognitions are dissonant
  • Example 2: Believing that lying is bad (First cognition) and being forced to lie (second cognition)
  • Example 3: Liking a friend (first cognition) while knowing that he hates your brother (second cognition)

As you can see all of these cognitions conflict with each other thus cause discomfort or Cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance theory and adaption

People adapt to Cognitive dissonance in different ways. For example a person might adapt by creating a new cognition, a second may adapt by changing his attitude and a third may adapt by changing his behavior. In the next few lines i will give some examples for adaptation according to the Cognitive dissonance theory based on the previous three examples.

  • Example 1: In such a case a person could create a new cognition by claiming that lots of old people smoke since they were young and they are still healthy
  • Example 2: In this case the person might change his behavior by not lying or even change his attitude by claiming that he believes in the lie
  • Example 3: In such a case the person can claim that his friend doesn’t like his brother because he didn’t have time to know him well.

As you just saw in the previous examples the Cognitive dissonance theory explains many of our irrational beliefs and unwanted behavior.

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Living in the Age of Cognitive Dissonance — Or Worse, the Age of DoubleThink

Mar 9, 2019 · 4 min read

I always tell the truth, even when I lie

— Tony Montana, Scarface (1983)

Photo by Sophie Potyka on Unsplash

The Concept of Cognitive Dissonance is not new. The term was first coined in 1957 by Psychologist Leon Festinger, who put forth the theory that people feel uncomfortable when their beliefs don’t line up with their actions, and will therefore take steps to alleviate the dissonance between the two.

An article written by Mike Fishbein describes the topic in detail, noting that the principal strategies people use to reduce cognitive dissonance including changing the behavior, justifying the behavior, changing values, or ignoring or denying new information.

You can see cognitive dissonance at work everywhere — humans appear to be uniquely able to both hold values, do things in contrast to them, and then figure out a way to resolve the dissonance. For example, I may consider myself to be a financially responsible person, but still go into a store and blow way too much money on something I clearly don’t need. To deal with the inconsistency between my internal value (being frugal) and my action (wasting money on something frivolous), I’ll probably justify it to myself (I deserve a little treat, I work hard, I’ll be extra frugal next week, etc.).

On a broader social level, there has been much written on the cognitive dissonance we see around us. The Huffington Post has an entire section devoted to Cognitive Dissonance covering everything from how voters can vote for candidates that have been shown to repeatedly lie to parents misjudging their child’s happiness.

This makes sense, and I have no doubt that there is a fair amount of cognitive dissonance going on as people deal with inconsistencies by ignoring or denouncing as untrue information that does not fit within their preferred narrative (fake news!) or justifying/rationalizing it away (it wasn’t that big of a deal/the other guy is worse).

But I wonder if, at least to some extent, we have actually crossed over from cognitive dissonance to doublethink, a term first popularized by George Orwell in his 1949 masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four. Doublethink is the ability to hold contradictory beliefs at the same time, but unlike in the case of cognitive dissonance, where such contradictions cause a person to take steps to alleviate the dissonance, doublethink causes no such dissonance because the person is completely unaware of any conflict or contradiction.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell describes double-think as:

The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.

This seems impossible, but I believe it is happening in our society today.

For example, President Trump has the ability to tell deliberate lies but people believe they are not lies because he genuinely believes them. Thus, there is no cognitive dissonance to explain away.

Lies not lies.

To be fair, Trump is hardly the first politician to lie deliberately. President Clinton famously looked straight into the camera and lied.

The difference between then and now is that even Clinton’s supporters recognized that he lied and, in accordance with the cognitive dissonance theory, tried to justify it or otherwise minimize its importance.

Now, it seems that no effort must be expended on minimizing the dissonance between reality and lies, because we have been introduced to the concept that there is no objective truth. Lies aren’t lies, they are just alternative facts. The abandonment of truth and objective reality is the basis for allowing doublethink to occur.

And if our society is now comfortable with doublethink, then maybe we are already living in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Understanding Cognitive Dissonance (and Why it Occurs in Most People)

There is a popular kids’ story about a fox and some grapes. According to the story, the famished fox prowls the forests looking for something to fill his stomach. Luckily, the fox chances upon a vine with some ripe and juicy grapes. His hunger pushing him, the fox rushes to the vine.

Unfortunately, the grapes are dangling from a branch that is a bit lofty. The fox takes a few steps back and leaps into the air, his jaws snapping as he tries to reach the grapes.

Too bad.

The grapes are just beyond his reach. Not one to give up easily, the fox tries to reach the grapes again, but for all his efforts, he can’t reach the grapes. After several unsuccessful attempts, the fox finally gives up. As he wanders off into the forest to search for something else to fill his stomach, the fox tells himself that the grapes were probably sour anyway. Why does he say this, when he knows for a fact that the grapes were looking ripe and juicy?

Closer to home, away from the forests, all of us have had similar experiences. Almost everyone knows someone who has refused to give up smoking, even if the person knows smoking is not good for him or her. Despite all the scientific evidence showing the effects of smoking, the person convinces himself that smoking is not that bad for him.

Other times, we do things that leave us feeling bad or guilty. For instance, you might decide to skip on your gym session so that you can catch an extra episode of the TV show you are watching on Netflix. Since you had made a commitment to yourself to go to the gym every day, you are left with a feeling of guilt even as you watch the TV show.

Why does this happen? Why does the fox say the grapes are probably sour? Why does your friend justify his or her smoking even why they know it is harmful to their health? Why do you feel guilty after missing your gym session to catch a TV show? The answer to all these questions is something known as cognitive dissonance.


Cognitive dissonance refers to the feelings of discomfort that arise when a person’s behavior or attitude is in conflict with the person’s values and beliefs, or when new information that is contrary to their beliefs is presented to them. People like consistency. They want the assurance that their values and beliefs have always been right. They always want to act in ways that are in line with their beliefs. When their beliefs are challenged, or when their behavior is not aligned with their beliefs, this creates a disagreement (dissonance).

Since the dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling, the person must either change their behavior, their attitude or their belief in order to reduce the dissonance and restore balance. The uncomfortable feeling caused by cognitive dissonance might manifest itself as stress, anxiety, regret, shame, embarrassment, or feelings of negative self-worth.

This explains why you feel bad when you miss your gym session. Since you believe going to the gym is good for your health and fitness, missing the gym for a TV show goes against your beliefs, causing an uncomfortable feeling. Since the smoker friend knows that smoking is bad and yet loves smoking, he tries to change his beliefs by convincing himself that smoking is not that bad. And unable to reach the grapes, the fox changes his attitude and convinces himself that the grapes were sour anyway.

The first person to investigate cognitive dissonance was a psychologist known as Leon Festinger. Festinger infiltrated a cult where the members were convinced that the earth would be destroyed by a flood before the dawn of 21 December 1954.

According to the cult leader, true believers would be rescued by a flying saucer and taken to a planet known as Clarion. In anticipation for the flood, some of the more committed members of the cult left their jobs, schools and spouses and gave away their money and possessions.

Too bad for them, since the flood never came.

However, this is where things get interesting. While the non-committed members who had not given up their lives realized that the cult leader had made fools out of them, the more committed members were convinced that their faithfulness saved the world. Rather than accept their belief was wrong, they found a way to explain the events in a way that preserved their belief system.

After conducting a number of experiments, Leon Festinger came up with the theory of cognitive dissonance. According to the theory, every person has an innate drive to maintain an internal consistency of cognitions and to avoid a state of tension.

Every person has an inner need to keep their beliefs and behaviors consistent. Any inconsistency caused by conflicting beliefs and behaviors causes a tension or disharmony. Just like hunger leads to an activity meant to reduce this hunger, the tension caused by cognitive dissonance will lead to an activity meant to reduce this tension.

Since the avoidance of cognitive dissonance is an innate desire, cognitive dissonance has a very powerful influence on our actions and behaviors. It affects our evaluations, judgments and decisions. It also explains many common but irrational human tendencies, such as justification, rationalization and our constantly shifting beliefs and attitudes.

For instance, someone who buys an expensively priced shoe from a luxury store when he could have bought the same shoe at a lower price from a different store convinces himself that the cheaper shoe is a fake to justify his purchase, even when there is no difference between the shoes.

Similarly, a person who believes that good diet is good for health but loves eating junk food will experience cognitive dissonance. To reduce the tension, the person might reduce the amount of junk she consumes each week. In this case, the cognitive dissonance has provided motivation for her to change her Lifestyle.


Cognitive dissonance occurs when you find yourself in situations where there is an inconsistency between your values, beliefs, attitudes and actions. Such situations might be brought about by:

Forced compliance behavior refers to situations where a person is forced to perform actions that are not consistent with his or her beliefs. Consider an accountant who is told to cover up an instance of financial misappropriation by her boss. The accountant believes this is wrong, yet she might be forced to do it in order to retain her job.

This leads to cognitive dissonance.

Decisions are part of life. You have to make hundreds of decisions to get through each day. What you may not know is that decision making arouses dissonance as a general rule. This is because all decisions involve choosing between two or more alternatives. Each alternative has its pros and cons. Choosing one alternative means you will forego all the advantages of the unchosen alternative, while at the same time guaranteeing you the disadvantages of your chosen decision, something known as decision opportunity cost.

This is what causes the dissonance. The more attractive or similar the two alternatives are, the more the cognitive dissonance you experience. To reduce this dissonance, people end up justifying their decisions, even in situations where they clearly made the worse decision.

Let’s assume you have to choose between two jobs. One job is located in a third world country, but the pay is quite good. The other job is in your hometown, but the pay is not really what you would have wished for. If you take the job in the third world country, you will earn enough money in a few years to allow you buy to your dream home, but you will be away from your family and friends. If you take the job closer to home, you will be around your family and friends, but you won’t be able to afford your dream home.

This can create a great deal of dissonance, since you want to be close to friends and family, while you also want to be able to buy your dream home. Once you make your decision – regardless of what you choose – you will find yourself justifying the decision. Your mind will find ways of supporting the decision to make you feel satisfied that you made the right decision.

Humans have a tendency to value achievements based on the amount of effort it took to achieve them. A person who had to save for 10 years to buy a Ferrari will value it more than that young man who made millions from cryptocurrencies within four months and bought himself a similar Ferrari.

Things that take considerable effort are valued higher because we would experience dissonance if we spent a great deal of effort only to make a minor achievement.

Unfortunately, the world does not always work this way. Sometimes, we put in a lot of effort only to get a dismal outcome. Expectedly, this leads to dissonance. In order to reduce this dissonance, we either convince ourselves that the outcome was okay, that we didn’t really expend a lot of effort, or that the effort was enjoyable. This is referred to as effort justification.

Gaining New Information

Another major cause of cognitive dissonance is coming across information that goes against our beliefs. Let’s consider the example of Festinger’s cultists from the 1950s. These group of people believed that there would be a flood and that a flying saucer would come to their rescue. Come the morning of 21st December, there was neither a flood nor a UFO. This new information was against their beliefs, resulting in cognitive dissonance.

To reduce their discomfort, the cultists then convinced themselves that the world was saved because of their faith, and they embarked on a new mission to spread the word to the world.


The degree of cognitive dissonance experienced by a person varies depending on the particular situation that caused the dissonance and the circumstances surrounding the situation. The intensity of the cognitive dissonance experienced is generally affected by the following factors:

  • Personal cognitions, such as beliefs about self and personal values result in a higher degree of cognitive dissonance. People don’t like looking dumb, dishonest or unethical, therefore they will be very uncomfortable about any dissonance that threatens their self-image.
  • The importance of the cognition. Generally, if the belief or value is highly valued, then the resulting dissonance will be stronger.
  • The disparity between the consonant (harmonious) belief and the dissonant (conflicting) thoughts, action or information. The greater the disparity, the greater the dissonance.
  • The possibility of explaining the dissonance in other ways. If there are multiple ways for explaining away the dissonance, then the intensity of the dissonance will be minimized.
  • The ramifications of the decision, as well as the ease with which the consequences of the decision can be undone. Permanent decisions with significant ramifications tend to cause stronger dissonance.

These factors determine the influence the dissonance and the lengths to which we will go to reduce or eliminate the discomfort. The stronger the dissonance, the more pressure there is to reduce the tension.


Cognitive dissonance is natural, and everyone goes through varying degrees of dissonance on a daily basis, depending on the different situations we find ourselves in and the beliefs being challenged. Often, the degree of dissonance is so insignificant that our minds resolve it without us being remotely aware that we were experiencing cognitive dissonance.

Sometimes, however, the feeling of discomfort becomes strong enough that you become aware that something is not right, even if you might not recognize that you are experiencing cognitive dissonance.

So, how can you tell with certainty when you are experiencing cognitive dissonance? Below are some common signs that signify dissonance:

  • Feeling squeamish or uncomfortable: Have you ever felt an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach right before or right after doing something or making a decision? More often than not, this is a sign that you are experiencing cognitive dissonance.
  • Conflict avoidance: Some people don’t like conflicts or confrontations at all. When faced with a potential confrontational situation, they choose the path of least resistance, which is to avoid the conflict. Conflict avoidance can also be a sign of cognitive dissonance. Instead of facing the situation, they decide to avoid the mental anguish associated with the conflict.
  • Ignoring the facts: Another sure sign of cognitive dissonance is ignoring the facts and making decisions that are wrong from a rational point of view. For instance, an obese person may continue consuming junk food even when they have been warned by the doctor that it will have adverse effects on their health.
  • Rationalization: If you make a decision and then find yourself convincing yourself that you made the right decision, that right there is an indicator of cognitive dissonance.
  • FOMO: This is known as the fear of missing out. How many times have you ended up going up to the club with your friends when you know that you should be saving that money? The fear of missing out causes you to do something that is against your belief in order to look cool or to impress your friends. That is cognitive dissonance right there.
  • Shame: When we do something that goes against our beliefs, especially our personal beliefs, we end up with a feeling of shame. Even after trying to rationalize what you did, you still feel remorse for it and may even want to hide your choices or actions from other people.
  • Guilt: Doing something that is against your beliefs is also often accompanied by feelings of guilt. You feel that you messed up, that you should have done something else instead. The cognitive dissonance before such an action is usually signified by anxiety right before the action, followed by guilt after the action is done. This is usually followed by justification as you try to alleviate the guilt.


When there is a conflict between a person’s beliefs, thoughts, opinions and actions, the theory of cognitive dissonance claims that the person will take some steps in order to reduce the dissonance and the associated feelings of discomfort. There are three common reactions to cognitive dissonance. These are:

Change The Dissonant Beliefs

This is the simplest and most effective way of resolving cognitive dissonance. Let’s consider your smoker friend. The friend is addicted to cigarettes, yet the cigarette pack contains a warning that smoking is harmful for health. This creates dissonance. He may look for new information that might override the belief that smoking is harmful.

If he, for instance, comes across an article that claims that research has not shown a definite link between smoking and lung cancer, such information might result in him changing the belief that smoking is harmful to his health, thereby reducing the dissonance.

While changing the dissonant belief is the simplest way of reducing dissonance, it is not the most common. This is because, in most cases, people are not so willing to change their beliefs, especially the fundamental beliefs that they have formed since their childhood. This leads to the second reaction.

Change The Conflicting Action Or Behavior

If the person cannot find any new information to help them change his or her beliefs, the person can still solve the dissonance by getting rid of the action or behavior that causes the dissonance. Let’s take a look at our smoker friend again.

Assuming that he couldn’t find any concrete information to make him change the belief that smoking is harmful to his health, our friend has the option of quitting smoking. Unfortunately, our friend is addicted to smoking, therefore quitting smoking will be a difficult thing for him. Just like our friend, many people do not successfully eliminate dissonance by changing their actions or behavior. This is because changing well-learned behaviors is not easy.

Sometimes, the conflicting behavior or action might even have some benefit for the person (for example, a person who cheats in an exam). In such instances, the person needs a way to eliminate the dissonance without changing their beliefs or behavior, which leads us to the third method.

Reduce The Significance Of The Conflicting Belief

This is the most common method of reducing cognitive dissonance. With this method, the person changes how they perceive the conflicting belief or behavior. In other words, they find a way of rationalizing the conflicting cognition.

Once again, let’s consider our smoker friend. Without any information to help him change his belief and unable to quit smoking, he might justify his smoking by saying that the world is full of health risks and he cannot realistically avoid all of them.

Alternatively, he might tell himself that it is better to live a short life full of pleasure (smoking) than to live a long life without the pleasures. In so doing, he is reducing the significance of the belief that smoking is bad for his health.


Below are some examples of cognitive dissonance in everyday life:

  • Imagine a situation where a person gets hurt by their partner. You will hear most of them say that they should not have ignored the red flags. This is cognitive dissonance at play. The person actually sees signs that the partner has some negative traits, but since the person is in love, he or she convinces himself that they are temporary, or that the good traits of the partner overweigh these signs. This is the same reason why people stay in abusive relationships. For instance, a lady who gets hit by her lover after being in a relationship for a year experiences cognitive dissonance because she loves her partner but doesn’t love his behavior. To reduce the dissonance, she might overlook getting hurt and look at the positive traits of the partner. In so doing, the lady opts to stay with an abusive partner.
  • Asked to compare their current partner and their ex, most people will rate their current partner highly, regardless of the actual differences between the two partners. Having made the decision to leave the ex and hook up with the current partner, people romanticize the current partner in order to be satisfied that they made the right decision.
  • Imagine a HR manager who is ordered to dismiss an employee due to misconduct, even if there is no evidence showing any misconduct by the employee. The lack of evidence and the HR manager’s moral views of right and wrong may lead to cognitive dissonance. If he doesn’t follow the wishes of the board, the HR manager might be placing his own job on the line as well. This intensifies the dissonance and might even result in the HR manager experiencing stress.
  • Most people with addictions know that the addictions are bad for them, yet they still want to indulge in their addictions, leading to cognitive dissonance. Many of them find ways of rationalizing or justifying their addictions, which makes it even harder for them to stop the addiction.


Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of discomfort we feel when our actions and behavior are not aligned with our beliefs and values. This feeling of discomfort is so great that cognitive dissonance can have a very significant influence on our decisions and the actions we take.

Cognitive dissonance can also be used to manipulate us into doing things we do not want to.

Becoming aware of the effect of cognitive dissonance on our decisions and understanding how we can overcome it can help us make better decisions and help us make positive behavior changes rather than continue lying to ourselves.


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