The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance


Cognitive dissonance theory is centred on situational conflicting attitudes, behaviours and beliefs. It, therefore, involves a situation of mental discomfort causing variations in attitudes, behaviours or beliefs with the primary objective of reducing the discomfort level and restoring the balance. Notably, Festinger was the first psychologist to be identified with cognitive dissonance, and he further defines the theory as the consequences of inconsistency cognitions. (Festinger, 1962). This proves that, if an individual had two conflicting cognitions, then the cognitions will no doubt be dissonant rendering the person psychologically inconsistent. Therefore, through Festinger work on cognitive dissonance and incorporation of Daryl Bem’s articles on dissonance phenomena, the paper aims to explore situational cognitive aspects and how they affect individuals concerning behaviours and attitudes

Dissonance and Sensitivity of Humans to Inconsistencies

Daryl and Festinger define psychological inconsistencies as a situation when an individual is confronted with two beliefs and attitudes that contradict each other. For instance, they both acknowledge the example given by Colman (2009) a psychologist, that individuals who smoke are aware of the negative health consequences of smoking, but they still smoke. This is evidence that such individual’s behaviours are inconsistent with their attitudes which cause cognitive dissonance. However, Festinger shed some light on how humans can counter dissonance, and he highlights the most appropriate method is through the change of one attitude.

Daryl asserts that, in the process of cognitive dissonance, the victim who is vulnerable to contradictions will no doubt feel discomfort. Moreover, Festinger describes Daryl’s statement as a different situation that warrants decision afterward, and he reveals that the most effective way of reducing this discomfort is by incorporating attitude in the line of behaviour.  To emphasize on this stamen, Festinger experimented with the primary objective of ascertaining how individuals could counter discomfort. The experiment entailed the analysis of participants who were acting on the contrary to the request of others, and Daryl terms this situation as induced compliance. The participants had to show compliance with the authority figure that requested them both positively and negatively. The participants were to show compliance about eating grasshoppers.

Before the experiment, an inquiry was directed to the participants to rate how they would like to consume the grasshoppers. In response, they revealed that this showed an example of post-decisional conflict should be higher with the communicator being negative; hence; it would be hard for the participants to justify their behaviours. However, the authors both agree that with a confident communicator, the participant viewed eating grasshoppers as a favour.  Therefore, the participant in a negative situation would experience a higher level of dissonance and approximately 50% of the participant in the adverse condition revealed to have changed their attitude towards the consumption of grasshopper. The change in attitude represented a cause of action to reduce the dissonance of the circumstance. However, it is worth noting that, the feeling of dissonance and the resulting change in behaviour does not take place when the behaviour is induced upon an individual.

Moreover, Festinger also mentions that, change in behaviour does not originate from dissonance if an individual is threatened or forced to perform the behaviour, if the individual has the commitment to the behaviour and if they have roles to play in the behaviour. However, Daryl has a different perception, and he contradicts by asserting that, when individuals discomfort arising from dissonance, they change their attitudes even in the absence of external pressures. He reasons that, a change in attitude has a direct relationship with dissonance with the main focus being on inconsistencies regarding behaviour and attitude which is the cause.

Daryl tries to demonstrate the main reason for incorporating the change in respect to attitude to reduce the feeling of discomfort. He asserts that, the main reason why change takes place is because of the dissonance of cognition which therefore brings discomfort. Therefore, discomfort can be eliminated by an individual change in opinion concerning a particular behaviour. This results in the perception that, pain arising from dissonance can be eliminated appropriately through changing an opinion instead of behaviour alteration. Therefore, in reference to the aforesaid illustration of a smoker, it would be easier for the smoker to change their opinion about the health effects of smoking than to actually stop smoking.

However, both Daryl and Festinger did not conduct an in-depth analysis of the concrete process that leads to a change in attitude. Moreover, Daryl notes that, Festinger did not explain his original concept as to why cognitive dissonance leads to psychological attitude change and discomfort. The action-based approach that Daryl took highlights of how various cognitions can serve as tendencies to multiple actions. The approach further recommends that dissonance makes individuals experience an uncomfortable feeling since it is capable of hindering unconflicted individual actions. This means that cognition serves as a point of human actions; however, in case the two action tendencies conflicts with each other, comfort will no doubt arise.

Therefore to reduce the feeling of discomfort, Daryl notes that humans should change either one of the action tendencies which will aid one in conducting a particular action uninterrupted? Moreover, Festinger also concurs with Daryl’s approaching by saying that, there exist higher chances of attitude change when the significance of attitude is not salient. Moreover, Daryl further notes that a change in attitude is not a “one size fits all” solution to reduce cognitive dissonance and offers other solutions like cognition which justify a particular behaviour and trivialization. As the name suggests, trivialization reduces how important cognitions are perceived to be; however, it is not clearly understood why. Therefore, further research needs to be conducted in this area.

A further experiment was also conducted by Festinger concerning what types of attitude alteration occurs. In his examination and analysis, he poses some question like do people change their beliefs entirely? Or is the change in a superficial form? Festinger conducted an in-depth analysis of explicit and implicit attitude alteration arising from dissonance. In his experiment, the results showed that the participants altered their specific behaviours to favourable attitudes when environmental pressure was low, but not in the case when the pressure was enormous.  Despite his work, Daryl found that implicit attitudes in Festinger experiment, implicit attitudes were not affected with at all. Moreover, Daryl found that implicit attitudes were primarily related to explicit attitudes under circumstances of high pressure and control situations.

This shows that, when individuals experience cognitive dissonance, the only thing that will change is their explicit attitude, meaning that, their implicit attitudes remain constant.  Moreover, Daryl went further to ascertain what psychological condition was associated with cognitive dissonance. He placed much weight on whether discomfort associated with dissonance was due to implicit and explicit attitudes and also examined the role of future information processing. Both Daryl and Festinger found that, in a situation where implicit and explicit attitudes conflicts, low dissonance and low information processing operate together to reduce this conflict.

In what was viewed as common reasoning, both Daryl and Festinger conducted a joint experiment to find more about attitude alteration. They incorporated various neural approaches of long term change in attitude resulting from the desire to eliminate cognitive dissonance. Moreover, they incorporated contractive learning to locate changes in the line of cognition during elimination of dissonance. Therefore, altitude changes take place due to conflicting cognitions which leads to psychological discomfort in a person. The dissonance is perceived to be originating from attitude changes due to such reasons as a chemical corollary in the human brain and the fact that it is much easier for an individual to alter their cognition than behaviours. Moreover, the authors have also made it clear that the change in attitude only impact on explicit attitudes since implicit attitudes remain unaffected

Conclusion and Recommendation

In conclusion, the paper has illustrated and conceptualizes the concept of attitude and the role it plays in cognitive dissonance. The theory of cognitive dissonance lies in the concept that, situations take place contrary to how they should happen. Therefore Festinger, analyzes an ascertains , that, though inconsistencies are still a standard part of human life, they make people undergo situational discomforts. Therefore, more research needs to be conducted on why and how changes take place rather than the methods of reducing dissonance. This is because I still see many people smoke tobacco and dye from cancer and something need to be done of effective ways of using cognitive dissonance to reduce these cases.











Bem, D. J. (1967). Self-perception: An alternative interpretation of cognitive dissonance phenomena. Psychological Review, 74(3), 183.

Bem, D. J. (1972). Self-perception theory. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 6, pp. 1-62). Academic Press.

Bem, D. J., & McConnell, H. K. (1970). Testing the self-perception explanation of dissonance phenomena: On the salience of pre-manipulation attitudes. Journal of personality and social psychology, 14(1), 23.

Festinger, L. (1962). Cognitive dissonance. Scientific American, 207(4), 93-106.