Be sure to listen to my full podcast episode on the psychology, science, and history of cognitive dissonance theory!

Chances are good that you’re heard of cognitive dissonance theory, but how well do you know the ins and outs of it? It’s an element of psychology that’s made its way into popular vocabulary, although many people use the term without understanding the psychological nuances. Since Leon Festinger’s landmark book in 1957, there have been a ton of studies examining and clarifying the power of dissonance.

So let’s get into it! My job today is to demystify cognitive dissonance and bring clarity to what might be an otherwise murky psychological phenomenon. By the end of this, you’ll have a better sense of what dissonance is and what effects it produces. Even more, you’ll know more about why and when it works the way it does.

What is Cognitive Dissonance Theory?

The key behind dissonance is inconsistency. When you hold two thoughts that are inconsistent with one another, you’ve got yourself a case of cognitive dissonance.

See below for an example. If at the same time, you realize that you believe that smoking is unhealthy and that you regularly smoke, that would be inconsistent. As a rational person, you wouldn’t smoke if you knew it was unhealthy. So you’re faced with a dilemma: dissonance.

cognitive dissonance theory

There are all sorts of dissonance, and they often (though not always) involve an inconsistency between a belief or opinion and a behavior. If you’re an environmentalist and you litter, that’s a case of dissonance. If you tell other people to be vegetarian but you eat meat, that’s dissonance. If you prefer one presidential candidate but vote for the other, that’s dissonance.

So hopefully you see the key: inconsistency.

How do People Deal with Dissonance?

Of course, inconsistency is only the beginning of the story. Things get interesting when you start to consider how people deal with the inconsistency. What happens to the health-conscious smoker in the above example?

There are a few common ways in which people try to resolve their dissonance:

  1. Change the belief or opinion so it’s more consistent with the other cognition or behavior (e.g., “Smoking isn’t actually that bad for you.”).
  2. Change a behavior to help restore consistency (e.g., quitting smoking).
  3. Add another belief or opinion that helps restore consistency (e.g., “But I do eat lots of healthy food.”).
  4. Reduce the importance of the inconsistency (e.g., “I enjoy smoking, so who cares about the health consequences?”).

In general, these are cases of rationalizing: doing some mental work to bring back some consistency to yourself. You may have heard friends come up with all sorts of justifications for their behavior. Many of these might be attempts to alleviate cognitive dissonance.

If you’re on a diet, for example, and I catch you eating thirteen cookies, you’d be faced with a good deal of dissonance. In that moment, you could convince yourself that you were never that committed to your diet anyway (strategy 1), stop eating desserts for the next week (strategy 2), convince yourself that these cookies are actually healthy and that you’ve been sticking to your diet otherwise (strategy 3), or say “screw it–I’m eating these cookies and that’s fine by me!” (strategy 4).

Why Deal with it At All?

Why is dissonance such a big problem that we feel like we need to solve it? After all, what’s wrong with some mental inconsistency? Some of that is a philosophical problem and has to do with issues of epistemology–basically, mental inconsistency gets in the way of getting at some sense of truth.

The real issue is that mental inconsistency can be physically uncomfortable, and generally, when we feel uncomfortable, we look for ways to make that feeling go away.

Psychologists have gotten clever in order to test whether dissonance actually produces discomfort. Some studies have directly measured physiological arousal by taking recordings of “skin conductance”[1]When we experience dissonance, our bodies show subtle signs of nervousness and tension.

Other studies have used more indirect measures, relying on methods that can trick us into thinking our discomfort is coming from some other source (even though it’s really happening because of mental inconsistencies).

Finally, sometimes you can even just ask people how uncomfortable and tense they feel at the moment. People who have just done something that would make them experience cognitive dissonance are able to report feeling for uneasy and bothered, compared to people in a control group.

When is Dissonance Especially Problematic?

Although in the early days, people generally thought that any case of cognitive inconsistency was a case of cognitive dissonance and the inevitable motivation to resolve the inconsistency. Since then, new evidence has pointed to additional considerations. It’s not that any inconsistency will make a person uncomfortable and motivate them to restore consistency in their minds; it’s only under certain conditions that this is especially likely to happen.[2]

One big development in understanding dissonance was the so-called “New Look” model, developed by Joel Cooper and Russell Fazio in 1984. In a recent review of cognitive dissonance, Cooper explains the new development like this (boldface not in original):

As Festinger had surmised, dissonance is an arousing, uncomfortable tension state that motivates change. However, it is not brought about by cognitive inconsistency per se, but rather by the perception that one is responsible for bringing about an unwanted event.

This is to say that it’s not always enough to just have mental inconsistency. Instead, two other conditions need to be in place: choice and negative consequences. In other words, cognitive dissonance leads to rationalization especially when you feel responsible for the inconsistency and when that inconsistency can have forseeable consequences that you don’t want.

An example might help make this more clear. Let’s say you just sat through the movie Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip. It’s not a stretch to say that you didn’t like the movie. Now, what if a friend of yours runs a movie website, and the Alvin and the Chipmunks producer paid him to write a positive review of the movie. He’s too busy, but he asks you for a favor: will you write a positive review of a movie you think is garbage? This is a friend of yours, so you decide that you’ll help him out and write this review.

This is a clear case of cognitive dissonance, right? Check out the figure below to see how this is a case of mental inconsistency. The easiest way to restore consistency would be to alter cognition 1 and convince yourself that Alvin and the Chipmunks wasn’t actually that bad. By coming to believe the movie was better, it makes your action less of an inconsistency.

cognitive dissonance theory

But let’s backtrack a second. Would this scenario really create dissonance, discomfort, and the motivation to rationalize? It depends on the two key conditions…

1) Choice. Did you feel like you had responsibility? Could you have declined the offer? If it was clear that you had the freedom to choose to write the review, then you’ll probably feel more dissonance, which will cause you rationalize your actions by truly thinking the movie wasn’t that bad. If, on the other hand, your friend says, “You have to do this for me. You owe me, and our friendship depends on it!” Well that doesn’t feel like you had much chance to say “no,” which means that your actions won’t necessarily change your opinion of the movie; you don’t need to rationalize because you weren’t responsible for the inconsistency. This is exactly what happens in experimental studies that simulate basically these conditions.

2) Negative Consequences. Will your action produce aversive consequences? If your friend’s movie website receives thousands of visits a day, and you will have convinced them to waste 86 minutes[3] in a movie theatre, you might feel bad about it. Even worse, what if friends of yours see the review and spend $50 (i.e., what feels like modern ticket prices) on a movie based on your recommendation? This would likely produce dissonance and rationalization. If, however, you know that your friend’s website is really small and caters just to kids, then the consequences are less negative, and you’ll hang onto your real opinion of the movie. Once again, many studies have shown this power of aversive consequences.

Got it?

So there you go–you’re an expert on cognitive dissonance theory! Well, at least you get the basics. Keep an eye out, and you’ll see examples of dissonance all over the place. Rationalizing decisions, justifying your behavior, talking yourself out of feeling guilty…these are likely cases of attempting to resolve cognitive dissonance.

In truth, however, this is the tip of the iceberg, and I hope to cover more in the future. For example, there are some specific ways in which cognitive dissonance can come about, including making difficult decisionsjustifying one’s effort, and being hypocritical. In addition, other theories over the years have emphasized the role that self-esteem plays in dissonance. There’s also new evidence coming from social neuroscience that has started to point to the ways in which dissonance involves various parts of the brain that are related to all kinds of inner conflict.

If you’re especially motivated, I recommend checking out Joel Cooper’s book, Cognitive Dissonance: 50 Years of a Classic Theory.