Cognitive Dissonance. Theory of Leon Festinger

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Cognitive Dissonance. Theory of Leon Festinger

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

According to Leon Festinger, cognitive dissonance is the distressing state of the mind that an individual feels or experiences when finds oneself doing things that do not fit with what one knows or the state of having opinions, which are not fitting with other opinions they have (Festinger, 1957). To elaborate this, Leon gives a story of a person who tried to get grapes high from a tree but could not succeed because his height was too short. After trying for a couple of times, he gave up and walked away saying that the grapes were sour and even if he managed to get some he would not dare eat them. The theory of cognitive dissonance was first published by Leon in 1957, and he selected the topic of smoking to illustrate the concept better. Authoritative reports that linked smoking to lung cancer were not spread but there already was a rumor that smoking cigarette could cause cancer. About 10 years before this, a singer, Tex Williams, sang a contradictory song that expressed doubts that smoking would really affect his health, especially in the chorus that mentioned “puff, puff, puff until you smoke yourself to death”. Evidently, one can take steps that are harmful to him even if he is very well aware of the effects. A cigarette-smoker might continue to smoke even if he knows well that smoking is not healthy to his health (Brehm & Cohen, 1962).

According to Festinger, a smoker may value smoking more than valuing one’s health. On the other hand, the smoker can make a self-justification with a belief that the negative health effects of smoking are overstated. The same smoker might also convince himself that stopping smoking will lead to another health concern that one will gain weight. Another example of cognitive dissonance situation is when an individual attaches much value on keeping the environment clean and free of pollution but instead buys a new car that he later notices does not really get great gas mileage. All these examples represent in one way or the other a situation, where beliefs and behaviors are contradicting each other and hence perfectly describes cognitive dissonance.

In relevant elaboration, cognitive dissonance is a mental disorder underwent by a person holding two or more dogmas, ideas or values that contradict each other. This happens when the individual is undertaking a step contradicting the dogmas, ideas or values and when one is exposed to information that contradicts the same in one way or another. Festinger explains the theory of cognitive dissonance by proposing that human beings struggle to have an internal consistency. One, who is inconsistent internally, becomes psychologically uncomfortable leading to the situation of cognitive dissonance (1957).

Factors Affecting the Degree of Dissonance

These include: the degree of how highly one values a specific belief; the degree of inconsistency of one’s beliefs; more personal cognitions like self-beliefs; the importance of the cognitions; the ratio between dissonant and consonant thoughts.

Cause and Effects of Cognitive Dissonance

The primary cause of cognitive dissonance is exposure to new information (Brehm & Cohen, 1962). When one gains new information that contradicts previously known information, a lack of congruence occurs causing the dissonance. Another cause of cognitive dissonance is the inconsistency between one’s attitudes and behaviors. Cognitive dissonance causes psychological discomfort to individual. Those experiencing cognitive dissonance may take actions to reduce the situation. When one is exposed to cognitive dissonance for a long time, the initial emotional reaction, which is mediated by rationalization process, is ignited. If the individual cannot control the emotions well, mood regulation disorders like depression, anxiety and stress may develop.

Why Cognitive Dissonance Occurs?

Cognitive dissonance arises if there is inconsistency in-between one’s attitudes and actions. It is the tendency of all humans to maintain a state of consistency among all their cognitions that are the beliefs and opinions. Failure to do the same brings the condition for the occurrence of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs due to change of attitude (Brehm & Cohen, 1962).

Reducing Cognitive Dissonance

There are such essential methods for lowering cognitive dissonance:

  1. Selective exposure is defined as the tendency of people to favor only the information that they believe are consistent to their pre-existing information and avoiding all the contradictory information. After making a decision, all the views that suggested that the decision was wrong are avoided at all costs. For instance after purchasing an item from a shop, one might find the same item elsewhere with a little bargained and cheaper price (Festinger, 1957). The individual should avoid the information about the lower price and be contented with the purchase.
  2. Post-decision dissonance is regret after taking an action. One may feel dissonance the possibility of the decision being wrong. This theory provides that one has to change the perception about the decision to reduce the dissonance (Brehm & Cohen, 1962). For example, one buys an item, then starts wondering whether he got a discount or not. In such case, the buyer reduces dissonance by changing the perception and believing that he bought the item at the best price.
  3. Minimal justification hypothesis is using internal motivation to justify one’s actions. It arises when one cannot bring up some external reason to explain why he did not take the action, which he desired to take. For instance, when an individual is asked to sign a petition in the street, he makes a self-justification that he really supports the idea (Festinger, 1957). When faced with a dissonance, one can reduce the effects by making an internal justification relevant to the beliefs.


Cognitive dissonance has great effects to the health and behavior of human beings. This situation can also affect the degree of one’s ability to make decisions, the quality of decisions, and the speed of making decisions. It is, therefore, recommended for one to avoid all the conditions that may lead to cognitive dissonance. In case of occurrence, one can use methods like minimal justification, post-decision dissonance and selective exposure to reduce the effects.



Brehm, J. W., & Cohen, A. R. (1962). Explorations in Cognitive Dissonance. New York: Wiley.

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.



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