Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance refers to the situation in which an individual has conflicting or widely disparate thoughts, beliefs, opinions or attitudes that are discordant and require individual attitude or behavioral change in order to restore cognitive and emotional homeostasis.

First proposed in 1957 by Leon Festinger (1919– 89), the theory of cognitive dissonance is based on the principle that people prefer their cognitions, or beliefs, to be consistent with each other and with their own behavior in order to minimize anxiety or intrapsychic discomfort.

Inconsistency, or dissonance, among their personally held beliefs and attitudes makes people anxious and uncomfortable enough to shift these ideas so that they will achieve consistency. For example, social smokers forced to deal with the opposing thoughts, “I enjoy smoking cigarettes” and “smoking is a health hazard and may hasten my death” or “smoking is socially unacceptable and prohibited in public venues,” may alter one of them by choosing to quit smoking. Alternatively, one can diffuse dissonance by reducing its importance; for example, discounting the evidence against smoking and adopting the view that smoking will not do personal health damage, or adding new information that gives more weight to one of the dissonant beliefs or appears to reconcile them, such as deciding that smoking is less dangerous than the stresses it helps alleviate.


Cognitive dissonance is a term coined by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957, which refers to the occurrence of an individual experiencing conflicting attitudes, behaviors or beliefs and their subsequent behavior in reaction to this.

Festinger theorized that people seek order and consistency in their lives, and that one of the ways to ensure this is to maintain harmony between their beliefs and behaviors. If there is an inconsistency, it results in an uncomfortable feeling which he calls cognitive dissonance. The only way to reduce this discomfort is to invent a way to rationalize the inconsistency to themselves.

In 1954 Festinger read a newspaper report entitled Prophecy from planet Clarion call to city: flee that flood, about the leader of a cult who claimed to have received messages from aliens saying that the world would end on December 21. The small Chicago-area cult was led by Dorothy Martin (referred to by the pseudonym Marian Keech in Festinger's writings) and was based on the belief that its followers would be rescued by a UFO following an apocalyptic flood. Festinger and colleagues Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter contacted the members and conducted interviews with them before the predicted date of the flood and afterwards, when the flood failed to occur. They published the results of this study in their 1956 book When Prophecy Fails.

When thisflood failed to occur as predicted, cognitive dissonance was observed in the cult members, particularly among those who had sacrificed their jobs and homes for the cult. Some of the cult members were becoming anxious, awaiting the flood together in Dorothy Martin's house on the night of December 21. Then, at 4:45 A.M., Martin announced to her followers that she was receiving another message. This time the message told her that the flood had been stopped and the world spared due to the dedication of the cult members.

One might expect the failure of the flood prediction would lead many cult followers to abandon their beliefs, however, the opposite proved to be true. Some of the “fringe members” who were not as committed did quietly abandon their faith in the cult, but those who were more invested had the opposite reaction. Following the failure of the doomsday prediction, they became even more convicted, believing Martin's rationalization, proselytizing more fervently and contacting the press to report the news. This behavior supported Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance. The most devoted members found explanations for the failure of the prophecy rather than acknowledging the inconsistency of their beliefs and the evidence with which they were presented.

Festinger concluded that a person with a very strong convictions is unlikely to change and is often immune to evidence or rationale. The theory goes beyond the study of cult members, and may be used to explain why most people find it so difficult to admit being wrong, or will go to seemingly great lengths to justify their irrational behavior–for example someone who smokes despite knowing the health risks it poses.

Individuals hold many ideas or cognitions about the world and themselves, and when these clash—often due to evidence disproving a person's beliefs—it causes an uncomfortable feeling of dissonance that may lead to maladaptive or irrational behaviors. Rather than adapting their beliefs, Festinger theorized that cognitive dissonance may lead people to find ways to make the new information consistent with their beliefs. His studies of cult members confirmed this and may be expanded to apply to people in other situations that lead them to experience feelings of cognitive dissonance.

Children have shown similar responses to experimental situations involving cognitive dissonance. In one case, children were asked not to play with an appealing toy. One experimenter made this request mildly and politely while another one made it in a threatening fashion. Those children who had accommodated the polite request also became less attracted to the toy, since liking the toy and giving it up were conflicting and dissonance-producing experiences. In contrast, the children who were threatened felt no pressure to change their opinions about the toy since they had a logical reason for opting not to play with it.

Festinger proposed that some individuals have a higher tolerance for cognitive dissonance than others. Some research scientists have found correlations between various personality traits, such as extroversion, and the ability to tolerate dissonance.

See also Cognition ; Coping behavior ; Festinger, Leon.



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