Cognitive Dissonance Theory

           "Let your pretense become your reality" (Myers, 1999, p. 293).  Leon Festinger understood this.  A social psychologist from Stanford University, he developed cognitive dissonance theory in 1957.  This was spurred when he saw the need to avoid dissonance as basic as the need for safety and food (Griffin, 2003).  "Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance has been one of the most influential theories in social psychology" (Franzoi, 2000, p. 170).  It was developed in the concept of homeostasis, which is maintaining equilibrium within an organism (or within a person, in this case) (Neel, 1977).  Cognitive dissonance theory can be boiled down to the following concept:  We feel motivated to justify our actions (Myers, 1999).  It predicts that we spend most of our time rationalizing our behavior instead of pursuing rational action (Franzoi, 2000).

            Cognitive dissonance is defined as a feeling of discomfort caused by performing an action that is inconsistent with one's attitudes (Franzoi, 2000).  Basically, people have a need to try to bring their attitudes in line with their actions (Myers, 1999).  Because people seek consistency among their cognitions, when there is an inconsistency between behaviors and attitudes, one must change so the dissonance will be eliminated (Kearsley, 2003).  Griffin (2003) defines cognitive dissonance as "...the distressing mental state that people feel when they find themselves doing things that don't fit with what they know, or having opinions that do not fit with other opinions they hold" (p. 209).  Festinger proposed a "Process Model of Cognitive Dissonance" to describe the process through which a person advances when experiencing dissonance.  It includes the following:  attitude/behavior inconsistency, dissonance created, attitude change, and dissonance restored (Griffin, 2003). 

            Festinger conducted an experiment to test his theory of dissonance.  He asked college students to do a boring and tedious task for one hour.  Some were paid $1, and others were paid $20.  Afterward, the students were asked to tell a confederate that it was an enjoyable exercise.  To determine their feelings on the exercise, the students completed a questionnaire about their experience.  As Festinger predicted, the students who were paid $1 rated the exercise as more enjoyable than the students who were paid $20.  They did this because they had the internal need to conjure a better reason for doing a menial task for virtually no reward.  The students who received $1 had a greater attitude change than the students who received $20 because they had a greater amount of cognitive dissonance.  The latter group did not need a change of attitude because the amount of money they received was sufficient justification for their actions (Franzoi, 2000).  According to Franzoi (2000), "...when people engage in a counterattitudinal behavior without receiving a large reward, they should experience cognitive dissonance" (p. 172). 

            Festinger also boldly proposed that a nonreward may be attractive.  In this case, if a person suffered dissonance because an expectation was not met, they would alleviate the dissonance by developing a preference for the nonreward (Neel, 1977).  For example, an experiment was conducted with a group of four-year-old children.  One group was told that they would receive a severe punishment if they played with a certain toy, and the other group was told they would receive only a mild punishment.  Neither group played with the toy.  In the end, the latter group experienced greater cognitive dissonance because they did not have sufficient justification for not choosing to play with the toy.  Mild punishment was insufficient justification for not taking a desired action.  Instead, to alleviate the dissonance, they convinced themselves that the toy was not appealing.  To justify their actions, they devalued the toy.  As a result, it took nine weeks for them to not shun the previously attractive toy (Franzoi, 2000).  "...Cognitive dissonance theory demonstrates that the weaker the reasons for acting inconsistently with one's attitudes, the greater the pressures to change the attitudes in question" (Franzoi, 2000, p. 173). 

            Cognitive dissonance is based on the more general concept of cognitive consistency.  Introduced by Fritz Heider, cognitive consistency says that people want to keep their own cognitions (beliefs, attitudes, self-perceptions) organized in a consistent manner.  Cognitive consistency is rooted in the belief by Gestalt that "human beings not only expect and prefer their perceptions to be coherent and harmonious, but they are motivated to make them so" (Franzoi, 2000, p. 170). 

            Research shows that cognitive consistency may only be relevant to individualist cultures.  Collectivist cultures don't have a need for attitudes and actions to line up and, therefore, do not suffer as greatly from cognitive consistency.  This concept can be seen in the Japanese notion of self.  "In the Japanese culture, there are two important aspects to the self:  ‘omote' (front) is presented to the public as a socially acceptable aspect of the self, whereas ‘ura' (back) is that aspect of the self that is hidden from the public" (Franzoi, 2000, p. 177).  This means that, when the Japanese are using their omote self, it is perfectly acceptable to act inconsistently with their attitudes because their goal is to behave in a socially acceptable way.  Therefore, they do not suffer from dissonance (Franzoi, 2000). 

            Research indicates that, beyond cultural considerations, some people tolerate cognitive inconsistencies better than others.  "In the final analysis, when we consider the universality of the cognitive consistency motive, it appears that at least two factors can derail expected cognitive dissonance effects when otherwise they should be aroused:  a person's cultural upbringing may make attitude-discrepant behavior an appropriate and valued option, and a person's underlying psychological needs may reduce the aversiveness of attitude-discrepant acts" (Franzoi, 2000, p. 178).  Simply stated, cognitive dissonance theory is the most influential of the cognitive consistency theories (Franzoi, 2000). 

            For cognitive dissonance to truly take effect, a person must feel that they freely chose to participate in the counterattitudinal behavior (Franzoi, 2000).  In other words, there must be a minimum of perceived coercion.  If a person recognizes any forces being set up against them, they will be able to use that to justify their actions and, therefore, experience minimal dissonance (Dember & Jenkins, 1970).  In this same way, making a decision often arouses dissonance.  According to Franzoi (2000), "...As soon as we commit ourselves to a particular course of action, the attractive aspects of the unchosen alternatives and the unattractive aspects of our choice are inconsistent with our decision" (p. 176).  We try to reduce dissonance by altering our perceptions of the choices that we had considered before making our decision.  This happens by improving our thoughts of our chosen one and lowering our thoughts on the one we did not choose.  Here, "the only way for people to reduce their dissonance is to convince themselves that they made the right choice" (Franzoi, 2000, p. 176).

            Logically speaking, in order to keep decreased dissonance in our lives, we avoid information that may increase dissonance.  We prefer things that are our own beliefs, such as opinions, literature, and people.  "By taking care to ‘stick with our own kind,' we can maintain the relative comfort of the status quo" (Griffin, 2003, p. 211).  Hanging around people who have the same ideas helps lessen the potential dissonant effects of those ideas.  This means that other people are our sources of information.  We choose to immerse ourselves in those people (Dember & Jenkins, 1970). 

            Initiation ceremonies fall into this category.  They are a large contributor to cognitive dissonance.  When people willingly choose to participate in circumcision or hazing, why, instead of hating the group members, do they join them and love the group?  "...The typical result of initiation ceremonies is to generate a great deal of loyalty toward the group, if not toward the tormentors themselves" (Dember & Jenkins, 1970, p. 652).  Because one convinces themselves that they are choosing to undergo the actions of initiation by their own free will, they determine that membership in the group must have large value.  Therefore, they believe that the more severe the initiation, the more valuable the group.  This means that a major goal of initiation is to create in the subjects a strong attachment to the group.  Therefore, the development of dissonance in the victims of hazing may be the only reason such traditions continue (Dember & Jenkins, 1970). 

            "The theory of cognitive dissonance asserts that the presence of incompatible cognitions is tension-inducing; as with any tension, a person will seek ways of reducing it" (Dember & Jenkins, 1970, p. 651).  How does one reduce it?  "Festinger believes that we are usually highly motivated to reduce cognitive dissonance when it occurs, and that we do so chiefly by changing our beliefs or attitudes to make them accord with our actual behaviors" (McConnell, 1977, p. 6).  There are several different views regarding the reduction of dissonance in one's life.  According to Fitch (1970), cognitive dissonance is usually reduced through rationalization.  Similarly, Myers (1999) says that making oneself agree with what he/she is doing will help reduce dissonance.  Franzoi (2000) suggests varying methods people use to overcome dissonance.  These include changing one's attitudes to match their prior behavior, adding cognitions to affirm one of the conflicting thoughts, altering the importance of discrepancy between the two thoughts, reducing the perception that one had a choice in the matter, or changing one's behavior so as not to conflict with their attitudes.  Yet another view, held by Kearsley (2003), says that one can minimize dissonance by reducing the importance of the opposing beliefs, acquiring new beliefs that change the balance of the two ideas, or removing conflicting attitudes or behaviors. 

            Since its development, cognitive dissonance theory has been exponentially developed and extended by Festinger and by others (Dember & Jenkins, 1970).  Several researchers have offered critiques that have branched this theory into several directions.  Many have doubted cognitive dissonance theory, but it is still holding its ground in most circles (Neel, 1977).  The first challenge to cognitive dissonance theory is from a psychologist known as Bem.  Bem applies his self-perception theory, saying that "this search for a cause of behavior is not fueled by a need to reduce an unpleasant psychological state--as is assumed in cognitive dissonance theory--but rather, it is based on calm rationality" (Franzoi, 2000, p. 178).  This view suggests that cognitive dissonance may not be necessary to explain how inconsistent behavior can cause attitude change; instead, people simply use logic to explain away their actions.  Which theory is correct?  Studies show that both are correct, depending on the situation.  Franzoi (2000) states that "...people are most likely to experience dissonance, and respond in line with cognitive dissonance theory, when their behavior is sharply discrepant with their attitudes and there is no external justification for it" (p. 179).  When inconsistency in behavior is mild, self-perception theory applies (Franzoi, 2000). 

            Another opposing theory, held by psychologist Joel Cooper, argues that it is the knowledge that one knowingly has hurt another person that causes dissonance.  According to Cooper, dissonance is "a state of arousal caused by behaving in such a way as to feel personally responsible for bringing about an aversive event" (Griffin, 2003, p. 216).  This means that the person must know ahead of time that their actions will have a negative consequence (Griffin, 2003).  Social psychologist Elliot Aronson said that the existence of dissonance is a result of a behavior that is inconsistent with a person's self-concept.  He argues that it's a psychological inconsistency--not a logical inconsistency, as Festinger suggested.  According to Aronson, the higher one's self-esteem and self-concept, the more dissonance they will experience if they do something against their morals.  But, if they already see themselves as no-good, they will not feel as dissonant about doing something wrong (Griffin, 2003). 

            Another interpretation of dissonance theory with a focus on the self is psychologist Claude Steele's self-affirmation theory.  He says that our self-concepts are threatened when we act in a manner that is inconsistent with our sense of honesty and integrity (Franzoi, 2000).  According to Steele, people don't necessarily justify their actions by changing their attitudes; instead, people can conjure positive thoughts about themselves, bringing back consistency.  If this is true, high self-esteem is necessary to reduce dissonance (Griffin, 2003).  Research shows that one's level of self-esteem is a large factor in his/her ability to engage in self-affirmation.  In other words, people with high self-esteem have more positive qualities about themselves to use in self-affirmation.  Therefore, it is easier for them to do this and alleviate dissonance.  By using this means of dissonance reduction, we can reduce dissonance without resolving the inconsistency that caused it (Franzoi, 2000).  In a study, participants were asked to write an essay opposing something in which they believed.  Half were given the opportunity afterward to help someone in need.  The ones who were not given the chance to help someone experienced a greater change in their attitudes in order to appease their sense of cognitive dissonance.  This study leads researchers to believe that inconsistency between attitudes and behavior may not be the motivating element of cognitive dissonance.  "Instead, threats to the integrity of the self may be the key motivator, and any response useful in restoring integrity reduces dissonance" (Franzoi, 2000, p. 180). 

            The several theories mentioned above are not meant to be mutually exclusive explanations of cognitive dissonance theory.  "They each describe a distinct and important piece of the overall dissonance process and, in doing so, make a unique contribution to our understanding of how cognitions about the self mediate cognitive dissonance and arousal and reduction" (Griffin, 2003, p. 218).  According to Griffin (2003), there is a flaw in our theory under evaluation.  Festinger did not provide a way of testing the degree of dissonance that a person experiences.  Today, psychologists use a dissonance thermometer to measure arousal components through physiological outlets and psychological discomfort through self-reports (Griffin, 2003). 

            Though under much evaluation and scrutiny, the backbone of cognitive dissonance theory still stands.  "Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory proposed that although we may generally appear logical in our thinking and behavior, we often engage in irrational and maladaptive behavior in order to maintain cognitive consistency" (Franzoi, 2000, p. 170).  The impact that Festinger's research made upon the world of social psychology can never truly be measured.  Upon his death in 1989, Festinger's obituary read, "...Leon is to social psychology what Freud is to clinical psychology and Piaget to developmental psychology" (Griffin, 2003, p. 219).


            Dember, W. N., & Jenkins, J. J. (1970). General psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

            Fitch, S. K. (1970). Insights into human behavior. Boston: Holbrook Press.

            Franzoi, S. L. (2000). Social psychology (2nd ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

            Griffin, E. (2003). A first look at communication theory (5th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

            Kearsley, G. (2003, February 1). Cognitive dissonance. Available

            McConnell, J. V. (1977). Understanding human behavior (2nd ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

            Myers, D. G. (1999). Exploring psychology (4th ed.). Holland, MI: Worth.

            Neel, A. F. (1977). Theories of psychology: A handbook (2nd ed.). New York: Schenkman Publishing.