Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a condition first proposed by the psychologist Leon Festinger in 1956, relating to his hypothesis of cognitive consistency.

Cognitive dissonance is a state of opposition between cognitions. For the purpose of cognitive consistency theory, cognitions are defined as being an attitude, emotion, belief or value, or even a mixture of these. In brief, the theory of cognitive dissonance holds that contradicting cognitions serve as a driving force that compel the human mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, so as to minimize the amount of dissonance (conflict) between cognitions.

The main criticism of the cognitive consistency hypothesis is that it is impossible to verify or falsify by experiment. Even so, experiments have been attempted to quantify this hypothetical drive. Opponents of this hypothesis contend that relations between cognitions can be irrelevant or not present, and cite the apparent ability of many human beings to reconcile mutually exclusive or contradictory beliefs with no apparent stress.


Origins and the experiment

In Festinger and Carlsmith's classic 1957 experiment, students were made to perform tedious and meaningless tasks, consisting of turning pegs quarter-turns, then removing them from a board, then putting them back in, and so forth. Subjects rated these tasks very negatively. After a long period of doing this, students were told the experiment was over and they could leave.

However, the experimenter then asked the subject for a small favor. They were told that a needed research assistant was not able to make it to the experiment, and the subject was asked to fill in and try to persuade another subject (who was actually a confederate) that the dull, boring tasks the subject had just completed were actually interesting and engaging. Some subjects were paid $20 for the favor, another group was paid $1, and a control group was not requested to perform the favor.

When asked to rate the peg-turning tasks, those in the $1 group showed a much greater propensity to embellish in favor of the experiment when asked to lie about the tasks. Experimenters theorized that when paid only $1, students were forced to internalize the attitude they were induced to express, because they had no other justification. Those in the $20 condition, it is argued, had an obvious external justification for their behavior, which the experimenters claim explains their lesser willingness to lie favoring the tasks in the experiment.

The researchers further speculated that with only $1, subjects faced insufficient justification and therefore "cognitive dissonance", so when they were asked to lie about the tasks, they sought to relieve this hypothetical stress by literally changing their attitude in a process akin to autobrainwashing in order really to believe that they found the tasks enjoyable.

Put simply, the experimenters concluded that human beings, when asked to lie without being given sufficient justification, will convince themselves that the lie they are asked to tell is the truth. Only when sufficient justification is given, researchers speculated, are human beings able to resist having their mind instantly reprogrammed by any request that they lie.

Conflicting cognitions: cognitive dissonance

Once two cognitions are held and there is a conflict between them, one falls into a state of cognitive dissonance. This may be demonstrated by someone purchasing a brand of washing machine, initially believing that it was the best product to buy. One's cognition is that a good washing machine has been bought. However, after the purchase, one may be exposed to another cognition informing one that there is a better washing machine out on the market (for example, through an advertisement). This then leads to an imbalance between cognitions and a psychological state which needs to seek consonance between the two cognitions.

Two kinds of dissonance

Theorists have identified two different kinds of cognitive dissonance that are relevant to decision making: pre-decisional dissonance and post-decisional dissonance.

Pre-decisional dissonance might be analogous to what Freud called "compensation." When a test showed that subjects had latent sexist attitudes, they later awarded a female a larger reward than a male in what they were told was a different study. Researchers hypothesized that the larger reward reduced dissonance by attempting to show that they were not sexist in the later decision, not considering the possibility that the subjects were trying to influence the attitudes of the testers instead of performing mysterious internal mental gymnastics to relieve hypothetical stress.

The more well-known form of dissonance, however, is post-decisional dissonance. Many studies have shown that people with compulsive disorders like gambling will subjectively reinforce decisions or commitments they have already made. In one simple experiment, experimenters found that bettors at a horse track believed bets were more likely to succeed immediately after being placed. According to the hypothesis, the possibility of being wrong is dissonance-arousing, so people will change their perceptions to make their decisions seem better.

This ignores the fundamental principle in decision making, that a decision is to be made if it will produce a better outcome than the alternatives. It also ignores the known potential of afterthought to produce novel thinking that dispels impulse behaviour. This is the basis of the foot-in-the-door technique in sales, and possibly confirmation bias.

Post-decisional dissonance may be increased by the importance of the issue, the length of time the subject takes to make or avoid the decision, and the extent to which the decision could be reversed.

Further Propositions by Festinger

Festinger proposed that cognitive dissonance is a "negative drive state", a similar psychological tension to hunger and thirst and that people will seek to resolve this tension.

Reduction of cognitive dissonance, Festinger believed, is good because one feels better, and because one can come closer to consonance by eliminating contradictions. On the other hand some of the ways of reduction of cognitive dissonance involve a distortion of the truth, which may cause wrong decisions. The harder way of changing favourable cognitions may in the longer run be better.

When confronted with two belief cognitions that contradict each other, Festinger suggests the dissonance can be resolved by finding and adding a third piece of information relevant to the two beliefs. For example, if Sam believes that elected officials are trustworthy, but also believes that elected officials have broken his trust, then the cognitive dissonance can be resolved by discovering that all elected officials lie. This enables Sam to (it is to be hoped) still hold that elected officials are still largely trustworthy, but that they also all lie.


  • Festinger, Leon; co-authors Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter When Prophecy fails a Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World (1956)
  • Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Festinger, L. and Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-211. Full text (
  • Sherman, S. J., & Gorkin, R. B. (1980). Attitude bolstering when behavior is inconsistent with central attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16, 388-403.
  • Knox, R. E., & Inkster, J. A. (1968). Postdecision dissonance at post time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 319-323.

See also

External links

es:Disonancia cognitiva fr:Dissonance cognitive he:דיסוננס קוגניטיבי nl:Cognitieve dissonantie pl:Dysonans poznawczy


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