Cognitive dissonance (A full guide)

Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a term used in psychology to described the stress experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.

Usually, a person’s behavior is inconsistent with his or her beliefs, and thus changes must be made to thoughts or actions to relieve this distress. 

What is cognitive dissonance? 

Cognitive dissonance is a term that was first described by Leon Festinger, a psychologist in the 1950’s.

He explained cognitive dissonance as a feeling of psychological distress or discomfort produced by the presence of two thoughts that are not consistent with each other.

Another way of explaining this phenomenon is that if people act in a way that contradicts their strongly held beliefs, then they will usually change their behaviors to align with their beliefs or vice-a-versa. 

Cognitive dissonance (A full guide)

What are some examples of cognitive dissonance? 

Imagine you are watching your neighbor’s dog Scrappy, and you take him out to go to the bathroom, and then feed him exactly as his owner told you to do.

While you are watching TV and snacking on some watermelon, Scrappy looks at you with puppy dog eyes and barks for you to give him a piece of watermelon.

Reluctantly, you give him three pieces because you can’t resist those puppy dog eyes. A few hours later, Scrappy starts groaning and has severe diarrhea on the floor of the kitchen.

When the owners get home, you tell them that Scrappy must have eaten grass or something dangerous outside that caused him to get sick. 

You always have thought of yourself as a good and honest person, however the lie you just told makes you doubt that original thought.

This is a prime example of cognitive dissonance: you view yourself as one thing, but your actions show a completely different thing.

In order to relieve this tension, or dissonance, you can come clean about your lie to Scrappy’s owners, or you can change your view of yourself as an honest person and accept that sometimes you tell lies. 

Cognitive dissonance happens more often than we realize, and most people feel that they need to relieve it by changing their thoughts or actions so that they are consistent with one another.

The extent to which people need relief from cognitive dissonance is discussed in further detail below. 

Cognitive dissonance (A full guide)

Does everyone experience cognitive dissonance? 

Not everyone experiences cognitive dissonance to the same extent.

People that have a greater need for certainty and consistency are more likely to feel discomfort when their beliefs are not consistent with their actions.

Those who have a lesser need for consistency and certainty in their lives feel less discomfort from the misalignment of their thoughts and actions, or are just less bothered by it in general.  

Cognitive dissonance is a bias that we use in our everyday lives. We as humans have a hard time believing we are wrong, so we might avoid seeking out information that doesn’t fit into our preexisting beliefs about the world.

This phenomenon is known as confirmation bias. We also are uncomfortable with second-guessing our own choices because it suggests we may not be as wise that we’ve led ourselves to believe.

This may lead us to keep a course of action we know is wrong just to avoid admitting that we are wrong. 

So should we actually try to minimize cognitive dissonance, and does it really matter? 

It is seemingly paradoxical that our brains are wired to help us protect our own views and beliefs as well as our opinions about ourselves, so why should we try to undo this? 

Cognitive dissonance is sort of like lying to ourselves.

Sometimes we make up harmless white lies to smooth over awkward social situations, however, sometimes these lies can be of greater magnitude and harm ourselves or others in the long-run. 

Psychologists have found that people with different personality types react differently to feelings of cognitive dissonance.

People who are more extraverted were less likely to be bothered by the negative impact of cognitive dissonance and were less likely to change their beliefs or actions to achieve consistency.

People who are introverts, on the other hand, experienced greater discomfort from cognitive dissonance and were more likely to change their thoughts or behaviors to alleviate this tension. 

Cognitive dissonance (A full guide)

How is cognitive dissonance used as a therapy technique? 

Cognitive dissonance has been a successful tool in helping people change their unhealthy beliefs or behaviors such as gaming addictions, road rage, and other forms of aggression. 

Cognitive dissonance (A full guide)

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about cognitive dissonance: 

1. What is an example of cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation where a person’s beliefs are different from his or her actions.

For example, Bob is an avid smoker but knows that smoking is bad for his health and can cause cancer and emphysema.

This is an example where Bob’s actions are not consistent with his understanding and awareness that smoking is bad. 

2. What is the theory of cognitive dissonance?

The cognitive dissonance theory refers to a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions, which include beliefs and opinions.

When there is an inconsistency between attitudes and behaviors, this dissonance must be relieved by changing something. 

3. What is cognitive dissonance a symptom of?

The cognitive dissonance theory suggests that when a person’s beliefs and actions conflict, they will experience a type of discomfort, or dissonance, when they are aware of this inconsistency.

When they become aware of the dissonance, there is a state of tension that must be relieved by changing their attitude or behaviors. 

How do you fix cognitive dissonance?

There are a few surefire ways to alleviate the feelings of distress from cognitive dissonance.

These including changing dissonant behaviors, changing your beliefs, or justifying your beliefs and behaviors. 

5. What causes cognitive dissonance? 

There are several factors that can lead to cognitive dissonance.

These include personal cognitions, the importance of the cognition, and the disparity between the consonant, or harmonious belief and conflicting (dissonant) thoughts, action, or information.

Personal cognitions usually involve beliefs about the self and personal values that result in enhanced cognitive dissonance.

In addition, cognitive beliefs are very important so there is an increased likelihood of developing cognitive dissonance.

6. What does cognitive dissonance feel like? 

Cognitive dissonance usually feels uncomfortable for the person experiencing it.

For example, if a person believes he or she is good but then does something bad, a feeling of discomfort and tension will result, and this is known as cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is a very powerful motivator for people to change a conflicting belief or action. 

How do you overcome cognitive dissonance?

There are several ways to resolve cognitive dissonance.

Examples include changing your actions, challenging your conflicting beliefs, and learning how to accept hard decisions. 

8. Is cognitive dissonance the same as hypocrisy? 

Hypocrisy is a case of cognitive dissonance, which occurs when a person voluntarily chooses to promote a behavior or belief that they themselves do not actually practice. 

9. Is cognitive dissonance a mental disorder? 

Cognitive dissonance is not considered a mental disorder, but is a mental discomfort.

It is described as the psychological stress experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. 

10. What are the effects of cognitive dissonance? 

Cognitive dissonance, a theory originally proposed by Leon Festinger, is when there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions, which includes beliefs and opinions.

When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors, which is known as dissonance, something must change to eliminate this dissonance. 

11. What is cognitive dissonance and when does it happen?

The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the feelings of discomfort that result when your beliefs do not line up with your behaviors and/or new information that has been presented to you.

People send to seek consistency in their attitudes and perceptions. 

12. What is cognitive dissonance in communication?

Cognitive dissonance is a communication theory that is part of the field of social psychology.

The cognitive dissonance theory suggests that dissonance is psychologically uncomfortable enough to motivate people to achieve consonance, or consistency.

In addition, when people are in a state of dissonance, they usually avoid information and situations that might increase the dissonance. 

13. What is cognitive dissonance in simple terms? 

Cognitive dissonance is a concept in social psychology that describes the discomfort felt by a person who holds conflicting ideas, beliefs, or values simultaneously.

The cognitive dissonance theory states that people have a bias to seek consonance, or consistency, between their expectations and reality. 

In this blog piece, we discussed what cognitive dissonance is, how it works, and how 

Want to learn more about cognitive dissonance? Try these books!

Cognitive Dissonance: Reexamining a Pivotal Theory in psychology

Dr. Leon Festinger first termed the theory of cognitive dissonance to describe the psychological phenomenon that occurs in situations when a person does something he or she knows is unhealthy.

Cognitive dissonance theory was documented in the first edition of this book, but this new and fully-updated version brings it into the 21stcentury. 

Cognitive Dissonance Theory and Our Hidden Biases: Uncover Common Thinking Errors, Discover the Connection Between Motivational and Dissonance Processes and Logically Assess Foolish Beliefs

Are you one of those people who feels that your life would be significantly better if you could improve your ability to deal with cognitive dissonance and understand your emotions?

This book can help you navigate difficult situations so that you can go from success to success even while dealing with adversity.

It can also help you with making better decisions to enhance your successes in life. Phillip T. Erickson teaches you tested and scientifically proven techniques of dealing with cognitive dissonance and understanding your hidden biases.

This book will teach you the link between motivational and dissonance processes, and the link between cognitive dissonance and doing well in life.

You will also learn how to enhance your emotional intelligence and ability to manage people and situations, as well as understanding why a good grasp on cognitive dissonance leads to success in life. 

A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

This book by Camille Morvan goes into detail on Dr. Leon Festinger’s role in pioneering the cognitive revolution in social psychology.

Festinger carried out his research during the time in which behaviorism was the most popular school of thought, which focused on outward behaviors and their effects.

Festinger, however, turned his attention to cognition, which is the mental process that goes on behind behaviors.

He hypothesized that cognitive dissonance involves illogical or incomprehensible behaviors that might be caused by a cognitive drive away from dissonance, or internal contradiction.

This book describes the psychological experiments that Festinger designed to solve this problem, and the results helped prove the cognitive dissonance theory that is still a fundamental component of social psychology today. 

Have more questions or comments about cognitive dissonance? Post below!


Fighting Cognitive Dissonance & The Lies We Tell Ourselves.PsychCentral. July 8th, 2019. 

Cognitive Dissonance: When Beliefs and Behaviors Disagree.Very Well Mind. July 18th, 2019. 


Daniela Paez is a Clinical Psychologist with an MSc. In Clinical Neuropsychology from Bangor University. She has vast experience in working with children with disabilities, adolescents and their families, in extreme conditions of poverty and vulnerability. Additionally, she owns a private practice where she provides neuropsychological evaluation for children and adults, and treatment for mood disorders, anxiety, couple therapy, among other conditions.