What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is a phenomenon coined by psychologist L. Festinger that explains why we feel tension when faced with opposing beliefs.
What is Cognitive Dissonance?
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Written and verified by la psicóloga Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 25 March, 2023

Surely the experience of having two opposing or conflicting beliefs has happened to you, and you feel tremendous discomfort or tension on a mental level. It’s the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957), a concept explained through the theory that bears the same name, coined by American psychologist Leon Festinger.

A typical example of this phenomenon is feeling that we want to smoke, but knowing that smoking is bad for our health. This generates a state of incoherence and discomfort that we try to reduce or eliminate. In addition, all this impacts our attitudes and behaviors.

How can we eliminate dissonance? Do we deceive ourselves in order to combat this state of mental tension? We’ll tell you all about it in the following article. We’ll also talk about the three classic research paradigms to study this phenomenon, as cognitive dissonance has generated a lot of research.

What is cognitive dissonance?

Few theories in psychology have generated as much research as the cognitive dissonance theory formulated by social psychologist Leon Festinger. Cognitive dissonance is defined as the tension or internal disharmony of the system of ideas, beliefs, emotions, and cognitions perceived by a person who has two conflicting thoughts at the same time.

It also appears when a behavior conflicts with our beliefs. In a few words, cognitive dissonance is the state of tension that appears due to the perception of incompatibility between two simultaneous cognitions. This, in turn, impacts our attitudes and behaviors, as we will see below.

The characteristics of cognitive dissonance theory

What central points does this theory have? We’re going to shed some light on Festinger’s contributions to better understand this concept.

Relationships between cognitive elements

According to Festinger, cognitive elements are what a person knows about themself, their behavior, and their environment. These elements can maintain three types of relationships among themselves, which are the following:

  • Irrelevant: When an element has nothing to do with another.
  • Consonants: When the affirmation of one gives rise to the other.
  • Dissonant: When considered in isolation, one of them follows the negation of the other.

The motivational nature of dissonance

Therefore, Festinger’s fundamental hypothesis maintains that the existence of two dissonant elements causes a psychologically uncomfortable state of tension in the person, which will lead them to try to eliminate it, as well as to avoid situations and information that may increase it.

In this regard, for Festinger, his construct of cognitive dissonance has a motivational character, in a way.

A person breaking a cigarette in half.
Tobacco is a classic example of cognitive dissonance, as for many smokers, conflicts are created between what they know is harmful and their desire to consume.

An example of cognitive dissonance

We could think of thousands of examples to exemplify this phenomenon. One of them would be wanting specific shoes very much, but being aware that they’ve been manufactured by children who are exploited at work. In other words, “I want the sneakers, but I don’t like how they’ve been manufactured, as it seems immoral to me”. We’re facing cognitive dissonance. What do we do in these cases?

There are different possibilities: Buy the sneakers and reduce the dissonance by thinking “well, if I didn’t buy them, it wouldn’t change the situation for these children either”. We can also remove the dissonance by not buying them.

In both cases, our beliefs interfere with our attitude and behavior. This is what cognitive dissonance is all about. The objective, when this state of tension appears, will always be to reduce or eliminate the dissonance. For this reason, we use different methods, as we’ll see later.

How to reduce cognitive dissonance?

No one likes to experience this dissonant state generated by conflicting thoughts. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable. For this reason, we try to reduce or eliminate it. How? Festinger talks about three possible ways to reduce it, which are the following:

  • Change behavior
  • Alter the environment
  • Add new information and insights that reduce dissonance

Dissonance and interpersonal relationships

Cognitive dissonance can also affect us on an interpersonal level. Therefore, Festinger makes an extension of his theory and affirms that the simple fact that another person has an opinion or thinks differently from us is the origin of dissonance. In addition, the following cases may occur:

  • If the disagreement refers to a verifiable physical reality, the magnitude of the dissonance will be little or none.
  • The greater the number of people who think the same as us, the less the dissonance will be from disagreeing with another person.
  • The magnitude of the dissonance, if there’s disagreement, increases with the importance of the person or group with whom the disagreement is maintained.
  • The dissonance also increases the greater the degree of dissonance between the cognitive elements.

Therefore, the dissonance generated by disagreement with other people also exists and can be reduced. How? Changing our opinion, influencing others to change it, or developing a strategy so that the other person isn’t comparable to us.

Cognitive dissonance and research

The theory of cognitive dissonance has generated a lot of laboratory research, which has allowed us to demonstrate how important the rationalization of knowledge and the justification of behavior is, as well as the change of attitude to seek coherence.

In this regard, there are three classic research paradigms that have been used systematically to study this cognitive phenomenon. Through them, a series of situations are produced in the laboratory. These paradigms are the following:

  • Induced complacency paradigm: When a behavior opposite to the attitude is performed. This type of paradigm includes two versions of experiments: The Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) experiment and the Aronson and Carlsmith (1963) experiment.
  • Paradigm of free choice: This is made after choosing between several alternatives. We find the experiment of Brehm (1956) and the experiment of Ehrlich, Guttman, Schönbach, and Mills (1957).
  • Reinforcement justification paradigm: When you have to justify having made a great effort, like the experiment of Aronson and Mills (1959).
A person standing in the street on an arrow that divides in two directions.
Some social experiments for dissonance consisted of offering two helpful alternatives to people.

Types of experiments

In the case of the paradigm of induced complacency, we find studies on forced obedience, which try to analyze the dissonance that arises between two opposite elements: A person’s intimate convictions and their conduct, contrary to those convictions.

In the free choice paradigm, we find choice experiments between attractive alternatives, in which the choosing of one of them determines the constitution of the other as dissonant with respect to the action taken.

Finally, according to the reinforcement justification paradigm, we feel dissonance after performing actions at great sacrifice. This implies that we add beliefs that justify this action to reduce the level of discomfort we feel.

Festinger’s theory in daily life

We’ve taken a brief tour of Festinger’s theory, although this isn’t his only great contribution to social psychology. Cognitive dissonance is a phenomenon that affects us all.

People always tend to always seek a balance between what they think, what they do, and what we feel, although this isn’t always possible.

And for this, we resort to a large number of methods that make us feel coherent with who we are. To reach that balance, it’s important to get to know ourselves a lot, reflect on what we do, and, above all, be aware that, in life, there will always be inconsistencies and contradictions.

“Life is like riding a bicycle, to keep your balance, you have to keep moving.”

-Albert Einstein-

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