I love cognitive dissonance written on the wall

What is Cognitive Dissonance? | Social Psychology

Cognitive Dissonance is one of the most important discussion topics in Social Psychology. Many experiments have been conducted on the topic too.

So what is cognitive dissonance, anyway?

Technically, it is a type of discomfort (or dissonance) that we feel when our action does not match our sets of beliefs. And, our human tendency is to always quell such mismatches when it occurs.

Let me explain it with an example-

Example of Cognitive Dissonance

Suppose you are an environmental activist at heart. And, you like to keep your city clean. In fact, your passion shows in your participation among numerous ‘Keep the city clean’ campaigns. But one day, while driving you threw plastic garbage on the street mindlessly and drove away. A few minutes later, you recollected what you just did.

At that exact moment, your beliefs clashed with your actions. Your strong belief to keep the environment clean was the exact opposite of your action of throwing garbage on roads. And, cognitive dissonance took place inside your head.

An animated person is experiencing cognitive dissonance
Image from Flickr

When confronted with such inconsistency between our beliefs and actions, the mind tries to reduce the discomfort. And maybe in a flash of a second, you would have come up with- “Oh, the garbage I threw was non-toxic.” or “That place is a garbage collecting area”.

In short, we explain our conflicting actions based on our strong beliefs- giving rise to the dissonance.

When dissonance occurs, either the belief or the action needs to be justified. We cannot change our beliefs easily because those beliefs define us and our existence. So, we try to justify our actions by giving appropriate excuses to reach a level of cognitive stability. And persuade ourselves to believe why we did what we did. 

The whole cognitive dissonance process happens so quickly that we don’t even remember experiencing it. And, surprisingly we have been doing it for our whole life.

People want consistency between what they do and what they believe in.

Festinger Experiment

One of the most famous experiments on Cognitive Dissonance was conducted by Leon Festinger, an American psychologist and his colleague James M. Carlsmith. And rightfully, it opened doors for more research on the interesting topic.


In this study, the researchers gave the participants a series of boring monotonous tasks. After the task was over, Festinger called each of them separately. He asked them to lie to the next participant (waiting outside) that the tasks were fun and interesting. Then, they were paid either $1 or $20.

Later on, researchers conducted another survey on the participants about their viewpoints on the task.


The experiment showed that most of the participants who were paid $1 claimed that the tasks were fun in comparison to those who were paid $20. It was a shocking revelation. You may think that $20 guys should assert the task to be more fun than $1 guys. But, it was the opposite.

Here is a video on Festinger Experiment-

You see those who were paid $1, felt bad about lying to the waiting participant for only $1 pay. And to reduce the dissonance it caused, they changed their narrative. And, described the task as enjoyable. Even, people who were paid $20 felt guilty about lying. But they had a strong justification. Which was, they did the boring task because they were paid $20 (huge amount of money during the1950s).

Cognitive dissonance can be seen as an antecedent condition which leads to activity oriented toward dissonance reduction just as hunger leads toward activity oriented toward hunger reduction. It is a very different motivation from what psychologists are used to dealing with but, as we shall see, nonetheless powerful.

A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Leon Festinger

How does Cognitive Dissonance affect our Daily Life?

It is vital to understand that all our daily actions do not cause cognitive dissonance. We experience it depending on the types and values of our beliefs.

Type of beliefs: The more the beliefs are close to our heart, the more it can increase the dissonance. In our example, the belief in protecting the environment is very strong, and it caused dissonance easily.

Value of the beliefs: Beliefs that have a higher priority in our life creates more cognitive dissonance.

The presence of dissonance gives rise to pressures to reduce or eliminate the dissonance. The strength of the pressures to reduce dissonance is a function of the magnitude of the dissonance.

– A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Leon Festinger

Cognitive dissonance affects our day to day life in terms of-

  1. Decision-making: Two contradictory thoughts or beliefs can result in making unreasonable decisions.
  2. Forced Compliance Behaviour: Doing an activity that does not fall on our spectrum of belief can cause cognitive dissonance. Festinger Experiment portrays it beautifully.
  3. Efforts: More efforts we put on our actions, more the chance of creating cognitive dissonance if our efforts are not acknowledged.

And, most of the time, we are unaware of this psychological imbalance happening in our life.

How Do One Manage Cognitive Dissonance?

Though cognitive dissonance can go unnoticed, it causes a lot of uneasiness in our minds. People who experience CD-

  1. Show signs of shame, guilt or anxiety
  2. Justify their contradicting actions
  3. Ignore confrontations with others
  4. Amplify the supporting beliefs
  5. Curb the importance of the dissonant belief
  6. Change the dissonant belief altogether (if possible)

Concluding Thoughts On Cognitive Dissonance

In a nutshell, cognitive dissonance affects decision-making on our everyday life.

But, I want to leave it on a positive note. Yes, it can persuade us to take wrong decisions or resort to lying. But, it can also motivate us to grow as a person. It is a great tool for improving our personality considering that we are aware of it.

For example, we know smoking is bad for our health. But, when we feel like smoking, how do we dialogue with our minds?

How do we explain to ourselves?

Option a:  “Many people smoke. Nothing happens. I haven’t died till now. So, I won’t die in the future. These are all advertisement gimmicks. ”

Or option b: “This can cause cancer or lung problems. I commit to stop smoking.”

Choices like these occur in our life every day. But which option you choose is what defines you. Always choose an option that keeps you growing. And, reduce the discomfort that cognitive dissonance brings to your mind.


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