Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance: Definition, Examples, Causes & Effects

cognitive dissonance definition

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that has captured the interest of psychologists, researchers, and the general public alike. First introduced by psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s, cognitive dissonance refers to the mental discomfort experienced by an individual when they hold two or more conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or values. This discomfort arises from the inconsistency between the individual’s thoughts, leading them to seek ways to reconcile these conflicting ideas and restore cognitive harmony.

Understanding this concept is crucial, as it influences various aspects of human behavior and decision-making, often leading individuals to make irrational choices or engage in self-justification in order to alleviate the discomfort. Furthermore, cognitive dissonance is a common experience in everyday life, manifesting in consumer behavior, political beliefs, personal relationships, and social issues. By studying the topic, we can gain valuable insights into the human mind, learn how to recognize inconsistencies in our own beliefs, and develop strategies to overcome this psychological discomfort, ultimately leading to personal growth and improved decision-making.

Key Points
  1. Cognitive dissonance refers to the psychological discomfort that arises from holding conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors.
  2. It occurs when there is an inconsistency between two cognitions or when one’s behavior conflicts with their beliefs or values.
  3. Cognitive dissonance can lead to a feeling of unease, tension, or stress, as individuals strive to reduce the inconsistency and restore cognitive harmony.

Causes of Cognitive Dissonance

  1. Conflicting beliefs or values: When an individual holds two or more beliefs or values that are contradictory, it creates cognitive dissonance. For example, a person may believe in the importance of healthy eating but also indulge in junk food, leading to feelings of discomfort and inconsistency.
  2. Decision-making: When making a decision, especially in situations involving difficult choices, an individual may experience cognitive dissonance due to the potential drawbacks or negative aspects associated with each option. This is known as post-decision dissonance, as individuals may feel regret or doubt about the choice they made.
  3. New information: When people are presented with new information that challenges their pre-existing beliefs or attitudes, they may experience cognitive dissonance. For example, someone who has always believed that their favorite politician is honest may encounter evidence of corruption, creating dissonance between their prior belief and the new information.
  4. Social pressures: It can also occur due to social influence, as individuals often feel the need to conform to societal norms and expectations. If someone’s personal beliefs or behaviors are at odds with what is considered acceptable by their social group, they may experience dissonance and feel pressured to change their views or actions.
  5. Inconsistency between actions and beliefs: When people behave in ways that are inconsistent with their beliefs, they may experience cognitive dissonance. For example, someone who is against animal cruelty may feel discomfort if they buy products tested on animals, as their actions do not align with their values.

Understanding the various causes can help individuals identify the source of their discomfort and work towards resolving the inconsistency, thereby reducing the psychological tension and promoting more consistent, rational decision-making.

Effects of Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance arises from various sources, which can be categorized into several key factors:

  1. Emotional discomfort: One of the primary effects of cognitive dissonance is the feeling of emotional discomfort or mental tension. This psychological unease can range from mild annoyance to severe anxiety, depending on the degree of inconsistency and the importance of the beliefs or values in question.
  2. Rationalization: In an effort to reduce the discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance, individuals may engage in rationalization, where they attempt to justify or explain away the inconsistency between their beliefs and actions. This can lead to the development of biased reasoning or distorted perceptions of reality.
  3. Attitude or behavior change: It can sometimes prompt individuals to modify their attitudes or behaviors in order to resolve the inconsistency. For example, a person who experiences dissonance between their belief in environmental conservation and their use of single-use plastics may decide to start using reusable alternatives.
  4. Confirmation bias: When confronted with conflicting beliefs, individuals may demonstrate confirmation bias, actively seeking information that aligns with their current convictions while dismissing or disregarding contradictory information, reinforcing existing attitudes and rendering mindset change more challenging.
  5. Reduced self-esteem: Continued psychological inconsistency can contribute to reduced self-esteem, as individuals may view themselves as hypocritical, irrational, or morally incongruous, leading to experiences of guilt, shame, or self-doubt.
  6. Social consequences: It can also have social effects, as individuals may be more likely to distance themselves from others who hold opposing views or engage in behaviors that cause them dissonance. This can lead to the formation of echo chambers, where individuals surround themselves with like-minded people and become less receptive to alternative perspectives.

Recognizing the potential effects of cognitive dissonance can help individuals identify areas where they may need to address inconsistencies in their beliefs and actions, ultimately promoting greater self-awareness, personal growth, and more harmonious relationships with others.

Examples of Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance can manifest in various contexts and situations. Here are some common examples that illustrate the concept:

1. Smoking

A smoker who is aware of the health risks associated with smoking may experience cognitive dissonance. To reduce the dissonance, they might rationalize their behavior by focusing on the perceived benefits of smoking (e.g., stress relief, social aspects) or by downplaying the risks.

2. Dietary choices

A person who values animal welfare but still consumes meat may face internal conflict, attempting to reconcile their actions by emphasizing ethical sourcing or downplaying the significance of their individual impact on the larger issue.

3. Environmental concerns

An individual who values the environment but frequently engages in environmentally harmful behaviors, such as excessive driving or using single-use plastics, may experience inner conflict as they rationalize their actions by downplaying their personal impact and highlighting the greater responsibility of large corporations.

4. Procrastination

A student who values academic success but habitually procrastinates on assignments may face internal conflict, attempting to rationalize their behavior by convincing themselves that they perform better under pressure or that the assignments are of lesser importance to their overall success.

5. Political beliefs

A person who strongly embraces certain political beliefs but backs a candidate or party that acts in opposition to those beliefs may face inner conflict, seeking to justify their support by emphasizing the positive attributes of the candidate or party while disregarding or minimizing the conflicting actions.

6. Social relationships

An individual who maintains a close friendship with someone whose values or actions contradict their own may encounter internal conflict, seeking to rationalize the relationship by emphasizing their friend’s positive qualities or convincing themselves that their friend’s actions are not as detrimental as they may appear.

How to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance

When faced with cognitive dissonance, people often employ different strategies to reduce the psychological discomfort it causes. Here are some common approaches to address cognitive dissonance:

  1. hanging beliefs or attitudes: One way to resolve cognitive dissonance is to modify one’s beliefs or attitudes to align with the conflicting behavior or information. For example, a person who experiences dissonance between their environmental values and their use of single-use plastics might decide to change their opinion on the importance of reducing plastic consumption.
  2. Changing behavior: Another way to resolve cognitive dissonance is to change the behavior causing the conflict. For instance, a smoker who recognizes the health risks of smoking might decide to quit smoking or switch to a less harmful alternative like vaping.
  3. Seeking new information: Gathering new information to support one’s existing beliefs or actions can help reduce cognitive dissonance. For example, a person who feels guilty about eating meat may seek out information that supports the benefits of a plant-based diet and then make a change to their eating habits.
  4. Avoiding conflicting information: Some people choose to avoid information that contradicts their beliefs or actions to minimize cognitive dissonance. While this strategy may provide short-term relief, it can also lead to biased decision-making and limit personal growth.
  5. Rationalizing or justifying: Individuals often rationalize or justify their conflicting beliefs or behaviors to reduce cognitive dissonance. For example, a person who values animal welfare but continues to eat meat may argue that their dietary choices have a minimal impact on the overall problem.
  6. Re-framing the situation: Another approach to dealing with cognitive dissonance is re-framing the situation to minimize the importance of the conflicting belief or behavior. For example, a person who procrastinates on important tasks might re-frame the situation by convincing themselves that they work better under pressure.

While these strategies can help reduce cognitive dissonance, it’s essential to recognize that not all methods are equally effective or beneficial in the long term. Developing self-awareness, embracing new information, and being open to change can lead to more informed decision-making, personal growth, and a better understanding of oneself and the world.


Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that arises when individuals experience inconsistencies between their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. This mental discomfort can drive people to employ various strategies to reduce or resolve the dissonance, such as changing beliefs, adjusting behavior, seeking new information, or rationalizing the inconsistency. It is essential to recognize and address cognitive dissonance, as it can affect decision-making, personal growth, and one’s overall well-being.

Gaining an understanding of conflicting beliefs and behaviors can empower individuals to make informed choices, cultivate self-awareness, and enhance adaptability. By remaining receptive to new information and being open to challenging our own beliefs and actions, we can navigate life’s complexities with greater efficacy, fostering a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world.


Can cognitive dissonance be avoided or eliminated?

Cognitive dissonance is a natural and common psychological phenomenon, and it is not entirely avoidable. However, individuals can strive to reduce it by seeking consistency in their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

Are all inconsistencies experienced as cognitive dissonance?

Not all inconsistencies or conflicts between beliefs or attitudes result in cognitive dissonance. The level of discomfort experienced depends on the importance, relevance, and impact of the inconsistency.

Does cognitive dissonance always lead to attitude change?

While cognitive dissonance can often lead to attitude change, it does not guarantee it. People may employ various cognitive strategies or defenses to reduce dissonance without necessarily changing their attitudes.

Can cognitive dissonance be consciously manipulated or used for persuasion?

Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that inconsistent beliefs or behaviors can be leveraged to promote attitude change. However, manipulating it for persuasive purposes raises ethical concerns and is subject to ethical guidelines.

About Paul

Paul Boyce is an economics editor with over 10 years experience in the industry. Currently working as a consultant within the financial services sector, Paul is the CEO and chief editor of BoyceWire. He has written publications for FEE, the Mises Institute, and many others.

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