Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, MD, FFARCSI

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is defined as a state of mind where our belief does not match with our behaviour. In terms of psychology, it’s a mental discomfort associated with psychological stress experienced by a person, where the person holds on to more than one contradictory ideas, attitudes, or beliefs. Cognitive dissonance theory is applicable in all situations which involves formation and change in attitude. It also plays a major role in problem solving and decision making. Dissonance (i.e. the lack of disagreement) arises when the individual has to choose between behaviour and attitude which contradicts each other. This dissonance is then eliminated by removing or changing the significance attached with the conflicting beliefs/perception or by acquiring a new belief to attain a balance.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive dissonance theory was put forward by psychologist Leon Festinger. He suggested that people have an inner necessity to make sure that their beliefs as well as behaviours are consistent. In his book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, he stated, "Cognitive dissonance can be seen as an antecedent condition which leads to activity oriented toward dissonance reduction just as hunger leads toward activity oriented toward hunger reduction. It is a very different motivation from what psychologists are used to dealing with but, as we shall see, nonetheless powerful." He carried out an observation study on a cult who believed that the world would come to an end after a flood. The followers of the cult gave up their homes and jobs to show their loyalty to the cult. The flood did not happen, and the cult followers believed that this was not because of incorrect prediction of flood, but because showing their loyalty to the cult.

The cognitive dissonance theory states that, people tend to seek for consistency among cognition, which may be a belief or an opinion. Whenever there is an inconsistency between attitude and behaviour, the dissonance is eliminated. In most of the cases, where there is a discrepancy between the behaviour and the attitude, the attitude is changed in order to accommodate the behaviour. Dissonance arises when the mind is made to choose between two mismatched actions of beliefs; especially when both alternatives are equally attractive. The strength and intensity of the dissonance is influenced by few factors mentioned:

  • Total number of dissonant beliefs
  • The level of importance associated with each of these beliefs
  • Ratio of importance between the dissonant and constant beliefs
  • Thought and beliefs that are more personal, tend to hold higher importance.

The higher the strength associated with a dissonant belief, the greater is the pressure to relieve the feeling of discomfort. It has been noted that dissonance is eliminated by 3 ways as listed below:

  • Remove or lower the importance associated with the dissonant belief
  • Out-weigh the dissonant belief by adding more consonant beliefs
  • Alter the inconsistency associated with the belief by changing the belief.

Examples of Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance occurs in everyday life situations and it is more evident when the behaviour conflicts with beliefs that are vital to self-identity. Cognitive dissonance can be understood better with the help of following examples:

Cognitive Dissonance Example #1: Let us consider someone who wants to buy a car. He chooses an expensive car, but understands that the car is not good enough for long distance. Dissonance arises as he believes that an expensive car should be good for long distant drive. The dissonance can be eliminated by reducing the importance associated with the belief, and deciding that the car will be used for short distance trip. Higher importance (adding constant beliefs) is given to the other features of the car such as appearance, safety and handling features. Dissonance could be abolished by choosing a different car, but in most of the cases, it is a lot harder. It is easier to change the belief instead.

Cognitive Dissonance Example #2: Another example would be considering an individual who smoke on a regular basis. He is probably aware of the health risks associated with smoking, but still continues smoking. He has higher value associated with smoking as compared with the harmful effects of smoking on his health, thus deeming his behaviour to continue smoking as ‘worth it’. The dissonant thought may be also eliminated by convincing that the negative impact of smoking is overstated and continue smoking.


Cognitive dissonance is a state of mind where there is conflict between 2 or more beliefs. It plays an important role in making decisions, valuing judgements and evaluations of situation. Self-awareness of conflicting beliefs can help in improving the ability to make logical decisions. A mismatch between behaviour and beliefs leads to a psychological discomfort (otherwise known as cognitive dissonance), and can drastically affect rational thinking and growth. Cognitive dissonance is dealt by altering the importance associated with a belief, such that the dissonant belief is eliminated and consonant belief is strengthened.

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Pramod Kerkar

Written, Edited or Reviewed By:


Pain Assist Inc.

Last Modified On: May 23, 2018

This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer

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