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What is cognitive dissonance?

Last updated

13 September 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Ever wondered why we often make choices that leave us scratching our heads? Or how businesses can create a magnetic pull for customers? The answer may lie in a fascinating psychological phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance.

Whether you're a researcher delving into the mysteries of the human mind or a business aiming to forge genuine connections with your audience, unraveling the secrets of cognitive dissonance is your ticket to unlocking profound insights and driving transformative change.

In this article, we delve deep into the theory of cognitive dissonance, revealing how it relates to decision-making, dealing with discomfort, and empowering businesses to craft compelling strategies.

What is cognitive dissonance theory?

Cognitive dissonance refers to the discomfort or tension we experience when we hold two or more conflicting beliefs or attitudes, or when our actions are inconsistent with our beliefs.

We human beings naturally seek harmony between our thoughts, values, and actions. Cognitive dissonance theory explains the mental unease and emotional discomfort that arise when this harmony is disrupted, leading us to strive for internal consistency and alignment.

This theory has profound implications for understanding decision-making processes and how we shape our values and behaviors.

Signs of cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance can be complex and somewhat subjective. Since it's rooted in a person’s personal beliefs, it’s usually easier to look out for signs of it, rather than trying to understand the state itself.

Recognize those moments of unease as they relate to the following situations:

  • Guilt or regret about past decisions or actions

  • Shame or embarrassment about past decisions or actions, hiding them from others

  • Discomfort before making a decision or taking action in a situation

  • Rationalization or justification of a decision or action taken in the past

  • Acting or making decisions based on social pressures, not because you want to do so

  • Making decisions by reacting to the pressure of a "fear of missing out" (FOMO)

Common causes of cognitive dissonance

What causes us to experience cognitive dissonance? There are several contributing factors to consider.

Most people feel uncomfortable about their actions and decisions in the following scenarios.

The availability of new information

People are comfortable when their beliefs, values, and actions align and support each other. Sometimes, the availability or presentation of new information can upset this comfort.

For example, years ago, consumers felt they were making healthy decisions by choosing a diet soft drink over a regular soft drink. However, information available today suggests that diet sodas are as unhealthy as their full-sugar counterparts. Many consumers, upon the presentation of new information, feel guilty about drinking their favorite diet fizzy drinks.

Forced compliance in decision-making

We can sometimes feel pressured into making decisions or taking action because people around us are encouraging us in a certain direction. These pressures can be direct and indirect peer pressure.

Imagine moving forward with a work project launch because a manager instructed you to meet a deadline. However, your core beliefs contradict these instructions because you feel the project needs more testing to be safe or effective. You comply to avoid getting fired, even though you disagree with your decision.

Large and small decisions

Every decision you make presents an opportunity for cognitive dissonance. When facing a decision between two similar options, for example, you feel dissonance because both are equally appealing. After you've made your selection, your mind seeks to reinforce your decision as the right one, to reduce feelings of discomfort.

For example, after you finally decide which of two toothpaste brands to buy, you internally make yourself feel good about your purchasing decision. Even if you're not fully satisfied with how the toothpaste works, you might justify the purchase by telling yourself it was on sale when you bought it.

Understanding the effects of cognitive dissonance

The intensity of cognitive dissonance varies. Small decisions, for example, will cause less discomfort than major decisions. Buying the wrong toothpaste is less uncomfortable than buying the wrong car.

The degree to which your target audience experiences cognitive dissonance depends on several factors. How strong dissonance impacts an individual boils down to two key influences.

  • The personal attachment to the value or belief: Cognition is a personal concept based on a series of values or beliefs about the self. These beliefs are valuable to a person, making them important. Scenarios that challenge these sense-of-self beliefs will cause more cognitive dissonance. Personal beliefs often include identity, religious beliefs, and politics, which is why these topics tend to be more passionate for people than other topics.

  • The frequency of dissonant beliefs: The more contradicting beliefs a person has, the stronger the cognitive dissonance discomfort is likely to be. A person who feels guilty about a past decision and feels forced to make a decision today (and may also feel discomfort about a future decision) that doesn't align with a belief is going to be far more uncomfortable than someone who's facing a similar challenge for the first time.

What cognitive dissonance feels like

Understanding what causes cognitive dissonance is important to your research or business. But it's also important to recognize how dissonance manifests. External signs and internal feelings associated with a dissonance experience include:

  • Stress

  • Shame

  • Embarrassment

  • Anxiety

  • Regret

  • Sadness

Daily examples of cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance can impact actions and decision-making at various levels of engagement. Here are a few examples of how cognitive dissonance can affect our everyday lives.

  • Unhealthy lifestyle: Although John aspires to lead a healthy lifestyle, he struggles with maintaining a regular exercise routine and often indulges in unhealthy eating habits. These choices generate a sense of guilt for him.

  • Smoking: Amanda is fully aware of the negative impact of smoking on her overall well-being. However, when she lights up a cigarette, she convinces herself that her current high stress levels justify this behavior in the moment.

  • Compulsive shopping: Despite Ryan's understanding of the importance of saving money, he finds it irresistible to splurge on new purchases whenever he has some spare cash. Regret follows when unforeseen expenses arise.

5 implications of cognitive dissonance in a business context

In the world of business and commerce, cognitive dissonance can have certain implications.

Consumer decision-making

Cognitive dissonance often arises after a purchase decision. Customers may experience discomfort if they perceive a gap between their expectations and the actual product or service received.

Businesses should proactively address this dissonance by providing exceptional post-purchase support, such as clear return policies or responsive customer service, to mitigate potential buyer's remorse.

Brand loyalty

Cognitive dissonance can also occur when consumers are exposed to negative information about a brand they are loyal to.

Businesses must maintain consistent brand messaging and ensure their products or services align with the values and expectations they've cultivated among their customer base. Effective communication can help reduce the dissonance that arises from brand-related conflicts.

Pricing and value perception

Consumers often experience cognitive dissonance when making purchasing decisions based on price. If they perceive a product as too expensive, but they still buy it, they may feel dissonance between the price paid and the product's perceived value.

Businesses can address this by clearly demonstrating their product or service's value, providing justifications for pricing, and offering options for customization or bundling.

Marketing and messaging

Crafting persuasive marketing messages that resonate with consumers' existing beliefs can help reduce cognitive dissonance.

Businesses should align their messaging with the target audience's values, ensuring the product or service appears as a natural fit within the consumer's existing framework of beliefs. This alignment reduces the likelihood of dissonance and enhances the effectiveness of marketing efforts.

Employee morale and engagement

Cognitive dissonance isn't limited to customers; it can also impact employees. When they encounter conflicting values or beliefs in the workplace, it can lead to job dissatisfaction and decreased engagement.

Businesses should promote a positive organizational culture that aligns with their stated values. This will help to reduce the amount of cognitive dissonance employees experience between their personal values and those promoted by the company, boosting morale and productivity.

How to resolve cognitive dissonance

When you understand how cognitive dissonance impacts your target audience, you can begin to explore ways to resolve those feelings of discomfort.

Harmonizing with reinforced beliefs

To restore equilibrium between conflicting beliefs, people often introduce new, reinforced concepts that strike a balance between comfort and discomfort in their decision-making.

For example, a product addressing a specific need might also align with environmental concerns and feature a special discount. This convergence of values can sway consumers towards a purchase, as the reinforced beliefs counterbalance the dissonance.

Shifting beliefs for cohesion

One of the most challenging methods to resolve cognitive dissonance involves altering deep-seated beliefs. By successfully reshaping someone's perspective on their core convictions, the dissonance can be effectively eliminated.

For example, people who hold strong beliefs about the detrimental impact of gas-powered cars on the environment might find it more comfortable to switch to a hybrid or electric vehicle. However, this shift requires convincing them to consider greenhouse gasses and emissions as significant issues worthy of attention.

Easing the burden of a conflicting belief

Mitigating cognitive dissonance can be achieved by diminishing the significance of the conflicting belief in the decision-making process. By reducing its weight, the discomfort stemming from the dissonance is lessened.

For example, in the realm of pet products, brands might emphasize the benefits of natural ingredients and enhanced pet health. This approach can make spending more on premium pet food appear less of an issue, thereby reducing the sense of dissonance.

Seeking therapeutic paths

For some people, seeking professional therapy is an effective strategy to alleviate the persistent discomfort associated with cognitive dissonance.

Imagine someone experiencing intense guilt and embarrassment after stumbling through a public speech because they forgot the words. This cognitive dissonance arises from the belief that they should have been better prepared. Through therapy, individuals can learn to recalibrate the weight of the dissonance or even alter the belief that external opinions hold significant sway. This process can help people recognize that minor mishaps, such as misspeaking during a presentation, do not warrant undue internal anxiety.

Leveraging the psychology of cognitive dissonance

As you continue your research journey, whether it's for a particular project or to gain deeper insights into your business landscape, embrace the theory of cognitive dissonance. Harness this profound understanding of decision-making to elevate your results.

Whether the dissonance is favorable or unfavorable, this theory resonates with everyone's decision-making, making it an invaluable asset for researchers, marketers, and visionary business leaders.


Who proposed the cognitive dissonance theory?

Leon Festinger first presented the cognitive dissonance theory in 1957 to illustrate the relationship between perceptions, motivations, and cognitions. His theory helped to clarify the conditions that contribute to how people change their attitudes and beliefs.

Is cognitive dissonance good or bad?

Both. It can work positively by prompting a person to healthier or more positive change. It can also be detrimental by rationalizing poor or unhealthy behavior.

What is the opposite of cognitive dissonance?

The opposite of cognitive dissonance is cognitive consonance. This concept describes the alignment of a person’s core beliefs and values, as opposed to cognitive dissonance, which describes the conflict between values and beliefs.

How does cognitive dissonance encourage behavioral change?

Cognitive dissonance creates an underlying psychological tension that motivates a person to make a behavioral or value-based change to avoid the tension.

Is cognitive dissonance an incompatibility between attitudes and behaviors?

Yes, cognitive dissonance is the inconsistency and incompatibility of a person's values, attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors. When someone acts or behaves in a way that doesn't align with what they believe to be right, the contradiction causes discomfort.

How does cognitive dissonance impact self-esteem?

One of the contributing factors to low self-esteem is the overwhelming presence of guilt, shame, embarrassment, or rejection. Many of these feelings can be associated with cognitive dissonance, as they relate to a person's actions and beliefs. Prolonged dissonance and the intensity of it can lead to significant mental discomfort.

Does cognitive dissonance explain the link between attitudes and behaviors?

Yes, cognitive dissonance describes the link between a person's attitude and behavior when they don't align with each other. Human behavior drives people to make decisions that lead to comfort in those decisions. When conflict arises between beliefs and actions, this is cognitive dissonance.

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