The Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Almost half a century ago social psychologist Leon Festinger developed the cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957). The theory has obviously stood the test of time in that it is mentioned in most general and social psychology textbooks today. The theory is somewhat counterintuitive and, in fact, fits into a category of counterintuitive social psychology theories sometimes referred to as action-opinion theories. The fundamental characteristic of action opinion theories is that they propose that actions can influence subsequent beliefs and attitudes. This is counterintuitive in that it would seem logical that our actions are the result of our beliefs/attitudes, not the cause of them. However, on further examination these types of theories have great intuitive appeal in that the theories,particularly cognitive dissonance, address the pervasive human tendency to rationalize. Cognitive dissonance theory is based on three fundamental assumptions

1. Humans are sensitive to inconsistencies between actions and beliefs.

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According to the theory, we all recognize, at some level, when we are acting in way that is inconsistent with our beliefs/attitudes/opinions. In effect, there is a built in alarm that goes off when we notice such an inconsistency, whether we like it or not. For example, if you have a belief that it is wrong to cheat, yet you find yourself cheating on a test, you will notice and be affected by this inconsistency.

2. Recognition of this inconsistency will cause dissonance, and will motivate an individual to resolve the dissonance.

Once you recognize that you have violated one of your principles, according to this theory, you won’t just say “oh well”. You will feel some sort of mental anguish about this. The degree of dissonance, of course, will vary with the importance of your belief/attitude/principle and with the degree of inconsistency between your behavior and this belief. In any case, according to the theory, the greater the dissonance the more you will be motivated to resolve it.

3. Dissonance will be resolved in one of three basic ways:
a) Change beliefs

Perhaps the simplest way to resolve dissonance between actions and beliefs is simply to change your beliefs. You could, of course, just decide that cheating is o.k. This would take care of any dissonance. However, if the belief is fundamental and important to you such a course of action is unlikely.

Moreover, our basic beliefs and attitudes are pretty stable, and people don’t just go around changing basic beliefs/attitudes/opinions all the time, since we rely a lot on our world view in predicting events and organizing our thoughts .Therefore, though this is the simplest option for resolving dissonance it’s probably not the most common.

b) Change actions

A second option would be to make sure that you never do this action again.Lord knows that guilt and anxiety can be motivators for changing behavior.

So, you may say to yourself that you will never cheat on a test again, and this may aid in resolving the dissonance. However, aversive conditioning (i.e., guilt/anxiety) can often be a pretty poor way of learning, especially if you can train yourself not to feel these things. Plus, you may really benefit in some way from the action that’s inconsistent with your beliefs. So, the trick would be to get rid of this feeling without changing your beliefs or your actions, and this leads us to the third, and probably most common, method of resolution.

c) Change perception of action

A third and more complex method of resolution is to change the way you view/remember/perceive your action. In more colloquial terms, you would “rationalize” your actions. For example, you might decide that the test you cheated on was for a dumb class that you didn’t need anyway. Or you may say to yourself that everyone cheats so why not you? In other words, you think about your action in a different manner or context so that it no longer

appears to be inconsistent with your actions. If you reflect on this series of mental gymnastics for a moment you will probably recognize why cognitive dissonance has come to be so popular. If you’re like me, you notice such post-hoc reconceptualiztions (rationalizations) of behavior on the part of others all the time, though it’s not so common to see it in one’s self. Cognitive Dissonance Theory

The Experiment

There have been 100s, if not 1000s, of experiments that have examined cognitive dissonance theory since the theorie’s inception, but the seminal experiment was published in 1959 (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959). This experiment is very interesting viewed within a psychological/historical context because it involved a direct test of a “mentalistic” theory versus a behaviorist theory. Cognitive dissonance theory was based on abstract/internal/mental concepts, which were, of course, anathema to the behaviorists.

Festinger and Carlsmith set up an ingenious experiment which would allow for a direct test of cognitive dissonance theory versus a behavioral/reinforcement theory. In this experiment all participants were required to do what all would agree was a boring task and then to tell another subject (who was actually a confederate of the experimenter) that the task was exciting. Half of the subjects were paid $1 to do this and half were paid $20 (quite a bit of money in the 1950s). Following this, all subjects were asked to rate how much they liked the boring task. This latter measure served as the experimental criterion/the dependent measure. According to behaviorist/reinforcement theory, those who were paid $20 should like the task more because they would associate the payment with the task. Cognitive dissonance theory, on the other hand, would predict that those who were paid $1 would feel the most dissonance since they had to carry out a boring task and lie to an experimenter, all for only 1$. This would create dissonance between the belief that they were not stupid or evil, and the action which is that they carried out a boring tasked and lied for only a dollar (see Figure 2). Therefore, dissonance theory would predict that those in the $1 group would be more motivated to resolve their dissonance by reconceptualizing/rationalizing their actions. They would form the belief that the boring task was, in fact, pretty fun. As you might suspect, Festinger’s prediction, that those in the $1 would like the task more, proved to be correct.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory and the Festinger & Carlsmith (1959) experiment

Review of literature
Cognitive Dissonance

In 1956 the US psychologist Leon Festinger introduced a new concept in social psychology: the theory of cognitive dissonance. When two simultaneously held cognitions are inconsistent, this will produce a state of cognitive dissonance. Because the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, the person will strive to reduce it by changing their beliefs.

Sewell (2006)

Festinger started with a very simple proposition. If a person holds two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent, he experiences Dissonance: a negative drive state (not unlike hunger or thirst). Because the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, the person will strive to reduce it-usually by struggling to find a way to change one or both cognitions to make them more consonant with one another. What Festinger achieved was the forging a dynamic marriage between the cognitive and the motivational.”

Aronson (1997)

“Cognitive dissonance is the mental conflict that people experience when they are presented with evidence that their beliefs or assumptions are wrong.”

Montier (2002)

“Cognitive dissonance is a theory of human motivation that asserts that it is psychologically uncomfortable to hold contradictory cognitions. The theory is that dissonance, being unpleasant, motivates a person to change his cognition, attitude, or behavior.”

The Skeptic’s Dictionary (2005)

“Cognitive dissonance is the perception of incompatibility between two cognitions, which can be defined as any element of knowledge, including attitude, emotion, belief, or behavior. The theory of cognitive dissonance holds that contradicting cognitions serve as a driving force that compels the mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, so as to reduce the amount of dissonance (conflict) between cognitions. Experiments have attempted to quantify this hypothetical drive.”

Wikipedia (2006)

“A deceptively simple cognitive consistency theory, first proposed in 1957 by the US psychologist Leon Festinger (1919-89), concerned with the effects of inconsistent cognitions-interpreted as items of knowledge or belief. If one of a pair of cognitions follows from the other, then the two are consonant; if one follows from the converse of the other, then they are dissonant; and if neither follows from the other or from its converse, then they are irrelevant to each other.

Colman (2001), Oxford Dictionary of Psychology

cognitive dissonance

Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.) — Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

“Before we try to explain something, we should be sure it actually happened.”–Ray Hyman

If you want to prove anything, just assume p and not p. From any contradiction you can validly infer q, any other proposition.

I’m confused. Is light a wave or a particle?

Cognitive dissonance is a theory of human motivation that asserts that it is psychologically uncomfortable to hold contradictory cognitions. The theory is that dissonance, being unpleasant, motivates a person to change his cognition, attitude, or behavior. This theory was first explored in detail by social psychologist Leon Festinger, who described it this way:

Dissonance and consonance are relations among cognitions that is, among opinions, beliefs, knowledge of the environment, and knowledge of one’s own actions and feelings. Two opinions, or beliefs, or items of knowledge are dissonant with each other if they do not fit together; that is, if they are inconsistent, or if, considering only the particular two items, one does not follow from the other (Festinger 1956: 25).

He argued that there are three ways to deal with cognitive dissonance. He did not consider these mutually exclusive.

One may try to change one or more of the beliefs, opinions, or behaviors involved in the dissonance;

One may try to acquire new information or beliefs that will increase the existing consonance and thus cause the total dissonance to be reduced; or,

One may try to forget or reduce the importance of those cognitions that are in a dissonant relationship (Festinger 1956: 25-26).

For example, people who smoke know smoking is a bad habit. Some rationalize their behavior by looking on the bright side: They tell themselves that smoking helps keep the weight down and that there is a greater threat to health from being overweight than from smoking. Others quit smoking. Most of us are clever enough to come up with ad hoc hypotheses or rationalizations to save cherished notions. Why we can’t apply this cleverness more competently is not explained by noting that we are led to rationalize because we are trying to reduce or eliminate cognitive dissonance. Different people deal with psychological discomfort in different ways. Some ways are clearly more reasonable than others. So, why do some people react to dissonance with cognitive competence, while others respond with cognitive incompetence?

For example, Marian Keech was the leader of a UFO cult in the 1950s. She claimed to get messages from extraterrestrials, known as The Guardians, through automatic writing. Like the Heaven’s Gate folks forty years later, Keech and her followers, known as The Seekers or The Brotherhood of the Seven Rays, were waiting to be picked up by flying saucers. In Keech’s prophecy, her group of eleven was to be saved just before the earth was to be destroyed by a massive flood on December 21, 1954. When it became evident that there would be no flood and the Guardians weren’t stopping by to pick them up, Keech became elated. She said she’d just received a telepathic message from the Guardians saying that her group of believers had spread so much light with their unflagging faith that God had spared the world from the cataclysm (Levine 2003: 206).

Current polls show that a majority of Americans are against Congress’ current proposals for health insurance reform. With Democrats losing their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, it appears less likely that comprehensive legislaon will be passed.

Obama recently promised to move forward with reform of the health insurance industry, which is very risky for his party’s re-election prospects. However, he may be giving the nation what it wants–even if it doesn’t know it yet. While that sounds like a condescending statement from liberal elites, other poll numbers bear it out. The rise of conservative “Tea Party” activists and their protests make this hard to believe, but an recent analysis from the respected New England Journal of Medicine shows that over 80% of the American population approves of some form of individual health insurance reform. This support, unfortunately for the Obama administration, evaporates when the public learns the specifics about any particular plan.

According to experts, the psychological phemomenon of cognitive dissonance is to blame. When a person holds two contradictory ideas at once, anger and anxiety result. Cognitive dissonance is not uniquely American, but journalist Abigail Trafford claims that healthcare reform is a perfect example of the American mindset. After all, this nation was born of pioneers seeking freedom from the tyranny of the British government. The image of the rugged individualist is enduringly popular for a reason: Americans still hold those values dear. Many of them also desire their lives and businesses to be free of their own government’s intervention–hence the libertarian movement. Increased regulation of health insurance companies is against what they stand for, and threatens further encroachment of Big Brother.

3): pankaj p

Have you ever stopped to wonder why psychologists, doctors, and others with a Phd use big words? Are they trying to confuse the rest of us?

I don’t really think they use it all the time to confuse the rest of us mere mortals, okay not all the time anyway. You and I both know that some use this little bit of skill as a soap box to show the rest of us just how much they reallyknow.

Have you ever wondered why there are people who are taken by ‘rip off artists’? Well there are a couple of reasons, one is that these individuals are highly trained and or have a certain adaptability towards learning these tips and tricks. Another would be that we don’t always know what they are looking for.

So to get what you want let’s look closely at some of these and see exactly what they are using or what they know that we don’t.

Cognitive Dissonance, okay let’s break this down, when you are encountering someone that you want to know you start off with simple questions to get to know someone. Well the first part of understanding how to get what you want is to build a rapport.

1. Getting your foot in the door so to speak. You get to know them by starting off with simple things, questions that are easy to talk about, their day the weather, if there has been a big event in the news lately talk about that.

2. Key: Ask questions that get the person to agree and begin saying yes. Once they are saying yes it’s much easier to get them to continue saying yes even if it’s not exactly what they want to do. In fact after a bit the person typically tells them self that giving you what you want can’t be so bad. They have helped you and felt pretty good about it.

It’s a psychological trick that is pretty easy to do once you understand it.

Warning, now you do have to be careful with this tool as if you are asking them too many things, or something quite unusual this can backfire and they will have built up a very negative image in their mind about you and now if you ever encounter them again instead of it being a pleasant exchange it’ll be a uncomfortable and stiff conversation at best.

So a word to the wise now that you know what this is and how to use it to help you get what you want use it carefully. Now you understand some psychology and why it can be very easy to get what you want.

3. Give them something, what is it that you’re looking for, an answer, money back, to return a product. Now what do you have that they could possibly want?

The Perils of Being Right

By: Renita T. Kalhorn

Watching the US presidential debates last week, I marveled at the intense conviction of the candidates — each shaking his head in utter disbelief at the other’s wrong-headedness in trying to prove that his world view, his opinions were right, and the other’s wrong. Of course, that is the nature of politics. But out here in the complex, complicated world of nuance we actually live in, what’s right is not so clearly obvious.

Why We Think It Matters Sometimes the need to be right ties into issues of self-esteem, self-confidence or narcissism i.e egos are at the wheel. Other times, it stems from cognitive dissonance that state of mental tension that according to Elliot Aronson, co-author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.”

Considering two contradictory ideas at the same time is uncomfortable and people spend a lot of energy trying to make sense out of contradictions and lead lives that are, at least in their own minds, consistent and meaningful. When you confront them with the folly of their ways, you’re screwing up theirstrategy.Why It Doesn’t Matter (As Much As We Think)

Strictly speaking, a determination of right and wrong applies only to facts; with opinions which are a subjective view or judgment there can only be shades of gray. So, while we don’t have to agree wholeheartedly with someone, when we doggedly insist we are right (and they are wrong), we lose out in several ways:

We lose the opportunity to acquire information that would enrich our understanding. Playing the know-it-all discourages others from sharing ideas and information that could be valuable. Even the brightest minds are open to other opinions. In fact, that’s how they grew so bright, by integrating new ideas and admitting their mistakes. Albert Einstein, for example, admitted parts of his theory of relativity were wrong when Edwin Hubble showed proof that the universe was expanding. (Please don’t ask me to explain further.)

2)We lose the opportunity to connect. If you are right but alienate everyone around you, is it worth it? Gail Blanke, resident life coach at Real Simple magazine, recounts the story of her friend who, peeved with her husband, was going to make sure he finally took out the window air conditioners over the New Year’s holiday because they were all freezing from the drafts.

You’re right, Gail told her friend, but you can be committed to being right about how wrong he is not to have taken out those air conditioners sooner, or you can be committed to having a really delightful weekend together. But you can’t have both. A ticked-off guy usually isn’t all that romantic. Ultimately, her friend opted for the romantic weekend and her husband took out the air conditioners without being asked.

3)We lose the opportunity to be heard. Wouldn’t you rather have someone make the effort to understand your point of view even if, ultimately, they don’t agree? At the end of the day, people would rather be understood than right. Bonus: When you don’t make it about them being wrong they’re more likely to come around to your way of seeing things.


Cognitive Dissonance BeliefBy Merle Hertzler

Have you ever been in a room filled with discord? People are arguing loudly. Nobody is listening. The resulting dissonance can be most uncomfortable.

Dissonance can occur in the mind also. When an important decision must be made some ideas and beliefs in the mind will argue with other ideas and beliefs in the same mind. Ideas and beliefs, which are also known as cognitions, can be in discord. This leads us to experience cognitive dissonance . Cognitive dissonance is no fun. It is like a shouting match within one’s own mind.

The mind does not like these squabbles, and so it automatically works to eliminate the dissonance. There are several strategies that the mind will use to minimize the discord. Sometimes it will convince itself that the difference is not important, and push the issue aside. Other times, the mind will refuse to listen to the newest beliefs. Sometimes the mind will seek additional support for the favored view, thus outshouting the unfavored beliefs, and lowering the cognitive competition. Such dissonance-reducing mechanisms free the mind from the discord that cripples it, and the mind finds relief. But there is a sense in which these mechanisms are very bad. The new ideas that are suppressed by these mechanisms may have actually been right. But the mind is not listening to them. The new thoughts are bounced out of the conscious mind. The mind fails to gain new knowledge that it could have gained. The dissonance has been reduced, and that is what the mind craves.

This may be why many people listen to certain talk-radio shows. Many of the listeners have a strong opinion on religion or politics. The listeners know of people that disagree with their views. The knowledge that there are different political views causes cognitive dissonance. Some cognitions in the mind say that the traditional beliefs are true. Other cognitions say intelligent people disagree with these ideas. The cognitions are in discord. Such folks come to the radio for relief from the dissonance. The talk-show host rattles off a string of opinions favoring the target audience’s views. To appear open-minded, dissenters are allowed to call in to the show and present opposing arguments. But before the dissenter has had a chance to fully develop his argument, he is cut off. We are then informed that this person was an idiot, and that this is why he disagrees. The faithful have now “learned” additional reasons from the host for cherishing their favored belief, and they “learn” why they so often hear from folks who disagree. They “learn” that people disagree because they are idiots. With the views of dissenters explained, they now feel safe in ignoring them. (But I am not sure that all of the dissenters are idiots. Even if they are all idiots, I am not sure that this would be a good reason for ignoring their arguments, for stupid people are sometimes right.) The person who is suffering form cognitive dissonance, and is seeking relief, is often quite satisfied to swallow any argument that tells him he can safely ignore opposing views.

You and I each have a worldview, which is the sum of our ideas and beliefs. If our worldview is far from reality, we will experience much cognitive dissonance, for we will often hear and see things that do not fit well with our worldview. Our minds will become overloaded with cognitive dissonance, and will block out the new information. On the other hand, if our worldview is close to reality, most new information will fit into our existing understanding of the world with little modification. We will only need to make minor adjustments to accommodate the new information. We will experience little cognitive dissonance. We can then learn many new things. If you and I want to have a healthy, happy, productive mind, we will need a worldview that is close to reality. Our incoming observations will need to cause little cognitive dissonance. This makes it important that we learn to make our worldview as close to reality as possible. We need to sort through the conflicting information we receive, and determine what is most likely true. We need to be able to analyze the data, and critique each idea we hear. This is known as critical thinking, and it is very important.

But before we discuss critical thinking, let us first look at some ineffective methods that people use to establish truth.


One of the methods we learn early is to trust an authority. What is right? We ask our mom and dad, and they tell us what to believe. Mom and Dad are in charge, so we assume they must be right. It does not take long to learn that, although Mom and Dad are in charge, they are not always right–usually we learn it when we are two. Many parents do not accept it when children challenge their authority, and so they let it be known that they are indeed in charge, and that their way is right because they–the authority–declare that they are right. Many children will eventually learn to suppress their desire to question, think, and explore, and will learn to accept that the authority must be right. They may often rebel against authority, but they do not have good critical thinking skills, and do not have a better source of information than what they get from authority. So, sadly, they stop asking questions. This often becomes a model for thinking as the child grows. Do these children have questions about religion? They learn that certain religious authorities–those of the parent’s religious persuasion–have the authoritative religious answers. Do these children have questions about science? Consult a science authority. Do they have questions about history? Consult a history authority. Do they have questions about psychology? Consult a psychology authority. For every question, these children learn that they must simply consult with the proper authority to get their canned answer. And so, sadly, they put aside their desire to question and explore for themselves, and they memorize what authority tells them.

Now authorities are very often right. If we select good authorities, we will find good answers. But authorities are sometimes wrong. Authorities are especially unreliable when they speak outside of their field of expertise. Even when they speak as an expert, they are sometimes wrong. That is why science, as a discipline, does not accept an answer just because a leading scientist says it is so. Instead, the scientific community submits the proposed ideas–even those of leading scientists–to a process known as peer review, in which others who can understand the argument review it carefully to see if there are any fatal flaws in it. If many capable reviewers have reviewed the idea carefully, and find no serious flaw in the argument, and if they have tried to challenge it, and find that it still stands, we can be confident that the idea is probably true. We believe it, not because authority confirms it, but because rational thought confirms it.

Christianity is, for many, a religion of authority. How do Christians know that Jesus rose from the dead? They have authorities that tell them so. How do they know the Bible is true? They have authorities that tell them so. And since the authorities tell them the Bible is true, than the Bible becomes an authority in everything it says. What should they think about abortion, euthanasia, or homosexuality? They will look at what their authority says. And so many Christians find themselves bound to their authority, and this establishes their worldview.

Authority is not always correct. As I have shown elsewhere, the scripture is not always correctIn fact, we have seen that many of the Bible’s recommendations are not good at all. Sadly, the worldview of the scriptures is often far from reality; it is often what Arterburn and Felton refer to as Toxic Faith. Hence, Bible believers experience cognitive dissonance and it’s associated problems when they try to believe that the things in the Bible are true, regardless of the evidence.

Examples of this can be found every day in debates on the web. Bible believers are shown errors in the Bible. It is difficult for many to admit that the Bible actually says what it does, and they struggle vainly to make it all fit together.


What do you do when you are faced with a very important decision? If you are a Christian, you will most likely pray about it. And you will pray that God will show you the answer. How does God answer? Many Christians will look at the thoughts that come to their mind when they pray, and assume this must be God speaking to them.

Decision-making by way of prayer does not seem like a good idea to me. How do you know that the thought that comes to you during prayer–or immediately after praying–comes from God? Yet many people assume that God is leading through this time of prayer. But is there any real evidence that this leads to better decisions than would be obtained by careful review of the pertinent facts? If prayer causes people to make better decisions, why do we not find that Christians are way ahead of others in making the proper decisions? Both Christians and non-Christians alike appear to have their share of good decisions and bad decisions. If prayer is so effective at leading us to the correct decision, why has that effect not been demonstrated in controlled studies?

Unfortunately facts often take second place to the perceived leading of God.

Could it be that guidance through prayer is nothing more than intuition? Is it no better than just pulling an idea out of the air and going with it? I prefer reason. For unless someone can show me clear evidence–a few stories are not real evidence–I will remain skeptical about decisions that are made on a whim and a prayer. There is another way in which intuition is favored over reason in some circles. Some teachers teach that men naturally use reason and logic, whereas women naturally use intuition and feelings to determine truth. This seems to be a most crippling view of women. Our society has arrived where it is because people have learned to use critical thinking skills involving observation, reason, and logic. I find no reason to believe that men are superior to women in these skills. And so people of both sexes should be taught to use their reasoning skills. It is an insult to tell women they are not as good at reasoning skills, and that they should rely instead on feelings and intuition as a means of finding truth. Sadly, many have listened to the concept that women are inferior at reasoning, and think that they can best develop their worldview by using their intuition instead of logical reasoning.

Critical Thinking

There is a way of thinking that is better than relying on authority, intuition, or prayer-induced thoughts. It is the process of critical thinking. This involves careful observation, and the use of reason to determine the truth. To think critically, one must ask questions and be open to all views. One must seek to understand different sides of an argument. One must be fair-minded in his appraisal of the facts. One must suspend judgement until he has time to look at the available facts. One can than make a conclusion based on the facts.

Critical thinking works. It is the method that has been used by scientists for centuries, and it has brought us out of the Dark Ages. It has led to the scientific revolution. (For more information, see the side bar.) Many Christians support the use of critical thinking. They use it in their jobs and in their personal lives, but when it comes

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