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Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a term for the state of discomfort felt when two or more modes of thought contradict each other. The clashing cognitions may include ideas, beliefs, or the knowledge that one has behaved in a certain way.

The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

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The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people are averse to inconsistencies within their own minds. It offers one explanation for why people sometimes make an effort to adjust their thinking when their own thoughts, words, or behaviors seem to clash with each other.

When one learns new information that challenges a deeply held belief, for example, or acts in a way that seems to undercut a favorable self-image, that person may feel motivated to somehow resolve the negative feeling that results—to restore cognitive consonance. Though a person may not always resolve cognitive dissonance, the response to it may range from ignoring the source of it to changing one’s beliefs or behavior to eliminate the conflict.

What is cognitive dissonance?

When someone tells a lie and feels uncomfortable about it because he fundamentally sees himself as an honest person, he may be experiencing cognitive dissonance. That is, there is mental discord related to a contradiction between one thought (in this case, knowing he did something wrong) and another (thinking that he is honest).

Who created the concept of cognitive dissonance?

Psychologist Leon Festinger published the book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance in 1957. Among the examples he used to illustrate the theory were doomsday cult members and their explanations for why the world had not ended as they had anticipated. Many experiments have since been conducted to illustrate cognitive dissonance in more ordinary contexts.

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How We Deal With Cognitive Dissonance

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Cognitive dissonance poses a challenge: How can we resolve the uncomfortable feeling that arises when our own thoughts or actions clash with each other? Some responses may be more constructive than others.

A man who learns that his eating habits raise his risk of illness feels the tension between his preferred behavior and the idea that he could be in danger. He might ease this feeling by telling himself that the health warning is exaggerated or, more productively, by deciding to take action to change his behavior. If a woman reads that her favorite politician has done something immoral, she could conclude that the charges have been invented by his enemies—or, instead, rethink her support.

What are some effects of cognitive dissonance?

It may lead us to alter our attitudes to be more consistent. Study participants who complete an uninteresting task have been found to rate the task as more enjoyable if they were first asked to tell someone else it was enjoyable—an effect attributed to cognitive dissonance. Theoretically, dissonance may contribute to a variety of changes in behavior or beliefs.

How do you avoid cognitive dissonance?

There are a variety of ways people are thought to resolve the sense of dissonance when cognitions don’t seem to fit together. They may include denying or compartmentalizing unwelcome thoughts, seeking to explain away a thought that doesn’t comport with others, or changing what one believes or one’s behavior.

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