by Saul McLeod published 2008, updated 2014
Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors.
This produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance etc.
For example, when people smoke (behavior) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition).
Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance).
Attitudes may change because of factors within the person. An important factor here is the principle of cognitive consistency, the focus of Festinger’s (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance. This theory starts from the idea that we seek consistency in our beliefs and attitudes in any situation where two cognitions are inconsistent.
Leon Festinger (1957) proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior.
According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, a discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it, and achieve consonance (i.e. agreement).
Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger, arising out of a participant observation study of a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen.
While fringe members were more inclined to recognize that they had made fools of themselves and to “put it down to experience”, committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members).
How Attitude Change Takes Place
According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance.
Dissonance can be reduced in one of three ways:
First, individuals can change one or more of the attitudes, behavior, beliefs etc. so as to make the relationship between the two elements a consonant one. When one of the dissonant elements is a behavior, the individual can change or eliminate the behavior. However, this mode of dissonance reduction frequently presents problems for people, as it is often difficult for people to change well-learned behavioral responses (e.g. giving up smoking).
A second (cognitive) method of reducing dissonance is to acquire new information that outweighs the dissonant beliefs. For example, thinking smoking causes lung cancer will cause dissonance if a person smokes. However, new information such as “research has not proved definitely that smoking causes lung cancer” may reduce the dissonance.
A third way to reduce dissonance is to reduce the importance of the cognitions (i.e. beliefs, attitudes). A person could convince themself that it is better to “live for today” than to “save for tomorrow.” In other words, he could tell himself that a short life filled with smoking and sensual pleasures is better than a long life devoid of such joys. In this way, he would be decreasing the importance of the dissonant cognition (smoking is bad of ones health).
Notice that dissonance theory does not state that these modes of dissonance reduction will actually work, only that individuals who are in a state of cognitive dissonance will take steps to reduce the extent of their dissonance. One of the points that dissonance theorists are fond of making is that people will go to all sorts of lengths to reduce dissonance.
The theory of cognitive dissonance has been widely researched in a number of situations to develop the basic idea in more detail, and various factors that been identified which may be important in attitude change.