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Cognitive Dissonance Theory

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Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Imagine this. You’re a psychologist pretending to be part of a group that believes the world is ending. According to the group, however, human beings will be rescued by aliens. The day comes for the alien rescue, and you prepare to launch with the other members of your group. You wait all day, but...no aliens. Gasp!

You feign surprise to keep up the charade and observe what the actual believers do. Rather than admitting that they were wrong, calling it a day, and discontinuing the group, they actually do the opposite. The members of this group intensified their desire to recruit more members to their group whose entire belief system was just proved false. Wait, what?

  • What is cognitive dissonance?
  • What is an example of cognitive dissonance?
  • What are limitations of cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive Dissonance Theory Definition

This situation was an actual experiment conducted by Leon Festinger. His prediction actually lined up with the results, that the members of the group would not admit defeat, but rather bolster their attempts to gain new members. Why did Festinger predict this? Why did the group act like this? Welcome to cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance relies on the fact that we as people like our cognitions (thoughts) to always fit together and when they don’t, we try as hard as we can to reduce that discomfort through justification.

So in the alien rescue example, when the members of the group realized the aliens weren’t actually coming down to save them from Earth’s doom, they entered a state of discomfort. In order to reduce that discomfort, they started to recruit more members. These actions made the members of that group feel better about themselves and that their prior actions were actually justified and not a silly waste of time.

Researchers have found that there is the greatest amount of attitude change when there is freedom of choice. In other words, if you are forced by your work to be at a useless convention, then you’re going to be completely upfront about it being boring and impractical, but if you’re there by your own choice, it’s more likely that you would say later that you enjoyed it or learned some new information. Since you were there because you chose to attend and stay the whole time and your brain doesn’t like the fact that it was your choice and it was boring, cognitive dissonance kicks in. In the case of the alien enthusiasts, they were there of their own free will leading to a large attitude shift from the truth.

So what happens when you’re in a state of dissonance and your thoughts (or beliefs) and behaviors don’t align? There are a handful of possibilities for what happens in a state of dissonance.

You go to a work convention on a weekend that ends up being boring. You're in a state of dissonance because you spent your time and energy driving to attend this convention, only for it to feel like a waste of time. You feel uncomfortable with the dissonance and want to get out of it. You could end up denying that the convention is boring and try to convince yourself that you actually learned a lot. You might also tell yourself that it's not a big deal that you went to this convention – you weren't going to do anything this weekend anyway.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory, A cartoon of a man at a desk. On the desk is his laptop, which he is resting his head on, Study SmarterBoring work. pixabay.com.

Signs of Cognitive Dissonance

Signs of cognitive dissonance can look different depending on the person and how they express themselves, but there are some universal signs to look for.

The first sign of cognitive dissonance is discomfort.

Since your attitudes and behaviors aren't lining up, you are going to feel uncomfortable and conflicted and are going to act in ways to try to relieve that discomfort. In order to stop the discomfort, you could act in a handful of ways.

You might deny the discomfort. You could try to convince yourself that you're actually not uncomfortable and that whatever action you're feeling dissonance about is actually totally acceptable. You don't actually feel that way, but by denying your emotions, you're trying to reduce the dissonance.

You could also reduce the salience of choice. This means that if you end up in a situation that causes you cognitive dissonance, you could try to convince yourself that you didn't have a choice to end up in that situation. If it feels like you did not choose to act in a way that led to dissonance, you will relieve some of the dissonance.

Another sign of cognitive dissonance is justification of your actions.

You'll convince yourself that however you acted was completely necessary and justified, and that you have no reason to feel uncomfortable about your actions.

You might change your attitude. Your initial attitude led to you acting in a way that then caused cognitive dissonance. When you're in a state of dissonance, you feel conflicted, since your behaviors and beliefs don't match. Because it's impossible to go back in time and change your behavior, the only thing you can change is your attitude.

Other signs of dissonance are:

  • Lying to others as self-defense.
  • Questioning own actions as behavior did not match initial attitude.
  • Flat-out avoiding the problem at hand.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory Example

In 1959, Festinger and Carlsmith conducted an experiment that serves as a good example of cognitive dissonance. They had participants come in and complete a boring task. In the control group, the participants evaluated the completed task and then left. However, in the experimental groups, they had the participants inform the next participants (actually confederates) about the experiment.

Some of the participants in the experimental groups were paid $20, while others were paid $1. The experimenters found that the participants who were paid $20 were upfront about the task being boring and that they would not do it again, while those who received $1 told the confederates that the task was fun and they would do it again. Any thoughts on why this is?

It turns out that the $20 was sufficient justification for the participants to complete the boring task and be honest about how mundane it was. However the $1 reward was not sufficient justification, so the participants in that condition had cognitive dissonance. To resolve this dissonance, they changed their attitudes to match their behavior and told the next “participant” that the experiment was actually worthwhile.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory, Cartoon image of two stacks of money, StudySmarterHow much money would stop your dissonance? pixabay.com.

Criticism of Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Although cognitive dissonance provides explanations for actions, there have been criticisms about the true nature of this theory. There is a stark lack of acknowledgment of cultural differences when it comes to cognitive dissonance. As with most theories in social psychology, location and culture are crucial factors in the results of an experiment.

Leon Festinger's Theory

Leon Festinger was an American psychologist whose experiments were conducted in the United States. Other prominent cognitive dissonance experiments were also conducted in the United States, thereby posing the question: what would happen if these experiments took place in another country with another culture? Festinger was able to show that cognitive dissonance exists in Western culture, but what about a culture that doesn’t align with American values?

Concerns with the Experiments

Additionally, researchers have posed concerns about the actual experiments themselves, questioning whether the experiments were truly measuring this dissonance. How do you standardize this feeling? Is it really possible to elicit this type of response in such a controlled environment, or is it only felt in a controlled environment and not in the real world?

Other critics suggest that researchers need to more thoroughly define critical elements of this theory to bolster its credibility. Elements mentioned include the dissonant state that one enters, the inconsistency between thought and behavior, and the regulation strategies once someone enters the dissonance state.

History of Cognitive Dissonance Theory

As you might be able to tell from the multiple experiments by Leon Festinger conducted on cognitive dissonance, he was the leader in the development of this theory. In the early 1950s, he began to postulate theories about this concept and started conducting experiments to explore these. Throughout the next couple of decades, he continued his experiments, giving us the basis for cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory in Communication

As the theory has developed, it has also been extrapolated to all aspects of life outside of experiments in social psychology. In the realm of communication, cognitive dissonance explains why some people may lie. These people are not lying to harm the person with whom they are speaking, but rather lying to justify their actions to themselves. Although there is no intention of harm, people still need to be cognizant of their own cognitive dissonance in relation to when they are communicating with others.

Additionally, it is also applicable for salespeople communicating their pitches. When they are trying to sell a new product to an audience, those people might experience cognitive dissonance if the product is one that they do not normally purchase. These professionals need to be able to work through their audience's cognitive dissonance to make an effective pitch.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory - Key takeaways

  • Cognitive dissonance is when our thoughts and behaviors don’t align (which we don’t like) so we act in ways to alleviate this discomfort. We then act in ways so that they do align.
  • Ways to reduce cognitive dissonance include denial, reducing the appearance of choice, trivializing the behavior, or change of attitude.
    • The greatest amount of attitude change is when there is complete freedom of choice.
  • Leon Festinger is credited with first theorizing about cognitive dissonance and has conducted numerous experiments on the topic.
  • There are criticisms of the cognitive dissonance theory. People state that this concept as conducted in the lab differs drastically from it in real life, that it needs to be studied in a variety of cultures with different values, and that the definitions of key terms are too general to provide sufficient explanations.

Frequently Asked Questions about Cognitive Dissonance Theory

A1: Cognitive dissonance is when our thoughts and behaviors don’t align (which we don’t like) so we act in ways to alleviate this discomfort. 

A2: A cognitive dissonance example is when someone is a smoker and knows it’s bad but does it anyway. They might tell themselves that they smoke to calm themselves down or they smoke because their partner does in order to not experience cognitive dissonance. 

A3: Signs of cognitive dissonance include discomfort, questioning your actions, avoiding the problem, justifying your actions, lying to others for rationalization, and feeling conflicted. 

A4: Leon Festinger was the first person to propose and then study cognitive dissonance. 

A5: Cognitive dissonance theory in communication is when people need to understand that others might be facing cognitive dissonance when purchasing a new product or hearing a new sales pitch. It also refers to the knowledge that sometimes people lie because they face cognitive dissonance and are trying to rationalize their own actions. 

Final Cognitive Dissonance Theory Quiz

Question

What is cognitive dissonance?

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Answer

When you feel discomfort from your thoughts and behaviors not lining up

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Question

What are ways to reduce dissonance?

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Answer

Denial, pretend you had less of a choice, trivialize behavior, change attitude

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Which is the correct order?

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Answer

Behavior changes attitude

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Who first theorized about cognitive dissonance?

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Answer

Leon Festinger

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Question

Can cognitive dissonance be a bad thing?

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Yes. People who are in a state of cognitive dissonance could be untruthful about an experience because they are trying to justify it to themselves

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Question

Can you think of an example of cognitive dissonance?

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Answer

One could be when someone is a smoker and knows it’s bad but does it anyway. They might tell themselves that they smoke to calm themselves down or they smoke because their partner does in order to not experience cognitive dissonance. 

Show question

Question

Which is not a sign of cognitive dissonance?

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Answer

Discomfort

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Question

Which is not a sign of cognitive dissonance?

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Answer

Feeling conflicted

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Question

You want to go to a friend's party and drive an hour but when you get there you realize it's different than what she told you and want to leave?


Is this cognitive dissonance?

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Answer

No, because you were told incorrect information. 

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Question

You do extensive research on a car but once you buy it, it keeps breaking down. 


Would you have cognitive dissonance in this situation?

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Answer

Yes, because you invested your time and money into this car that now doesn't work. 

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Question

If you cheated while on a diet would you experience cognitive dissonance?

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Yes because your thought (I'm on this diet) and behavior (I ate this cake) don't align and you would begin to rationalize your behavior. 

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Question

If you exercised daily and then stopped for a week would you experience cognitive dissonance?

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Answer

Probably not. Since exercising is an integral part of your routine then only taking a week off would not lead to dissonance. A month off has a higher chance to. 

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Question

True or false. People justify things to reduce discomfort brought about by cognitive dissonance.

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Answer

True

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Question

Cognitive dissonance is when:

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Answer

Our thoughts and behaviors don't align

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True or false. Signs of cognitive dissonance are the same for everybody.

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Answer

False

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The first sign of cognitive dissonance:

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Answer

Discomfort

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Cognitive dissonance theory states that the motivation for our attitude change is:

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Answer

The discomfort we feel when we have inconsistent or contradicting beliefs

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Question

Sheila is against using marijuana for medical purposes. When her dad was told he had Alzheimer's, his doctor told him that medical marijuana could help. She's still not sure, but she wants her dad to feel better. According to the cognitive dissonance theory:

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Answer

Sheila would have to change her attitude towards medical marijuana to lessen discomfort from inconsistencies

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Question

The greatest amount of ______ _______ is when there is complete freedom of choice.

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Answer

attitude change

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True or false. In communication, cognitive dissonance explains why some people may lie.

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Answer

True

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Question

True or false. Cognitive dissonance does not apply to salespeople.

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Answer

False

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Question

The following are limitations of the cognitive dissonance theory except:

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Answer

The experiment wasn't done in a controlled environment

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Question

In Festinger and Carlsmith's experiment on cognitive dissonance, which group experiences cognitive dissonance?

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Answer

$1 group

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Question

What did the group who experienced cognitive dissonance do to reduce the tension?

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Answer

The participants changed their attitudes to make their thoughts consistent with their behavior

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Another sign of dissonance is lying to others as _______.

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Answer

self-defense

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Question

_________ own actions as behavior did not match initial attitude is another sign of cognitive dissonance.

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Answer

Questioning

Show question

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