Cognitive Dissonance: The Battle of Conflicting Beliefs

Cognitive Dissonance: The Battle of Conflicting Beliefs

Consider these statements:

“I enjoy smoking” and “I know smoking is unhealthy for me”

“I love eating cheesecakes” and “Eating cakes will spike my blood sugar levels”

“I value honesty” and “I can pass this exam by cheating”

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

When we hold these contradictory viewpoints, we experience a stressful, psychological tension, known as cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is about inconsistency between two cognitions (beliefs, opinions, attitudes, and perceptions) or between our cognition and our behavior (actions). This inconsistency result in anger, sadness, frustration, stress, confusion, or simply embarrassment. We generally tend to avoid dissonance and align our cognitions so as to lead a harmonized life. Whenever we encounter a dissonance state, we alter one of our cognitions to reduce the conflict and bring a harmonious state again. For instance, when we have contradictory thoughts like valuing honesty and passing an exam by cheating, we may avoid cheating so as to restore the harmony disrupted by the conflicting cognitions.

The term was first coined in 1957 in a book called “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance” by an influential psychologist of the 20th century, Leon Festinger. Festinger defined it as “a state of mental discomfort that arises from holding two different beliefs or values”. The theory of cognitive dissonance has been one of the most popular theories in social psychology. Festinger conducted an experiment where he asked participants to engage in an extremely dull task. After the task, he asked the participants to communicate to others that the task was very interesting and enjoyable. The students were randomly divided into two groups, one of them received $20 and other received $1,  for lying that the experiment was fun. Many of the $1 participants actually convinced themselves that the experiment was fun. To reduce the distance between their prior beliefs (i.e., the task was boring) and their behavior (i.e., lying about the task being fun), they started believing a big lie for a small incentive of $1. The participants belonging to $20 did not face any dissonance as they felt comfortable in lying just for the big amount of money.

Why Do We Engage In Cognitive Dissonance?

Festinger’s theory emphasizes the importance of maintaining consistency between cognitions and behaviors. When this consistency is absent, the uneasy discomfort that follows is cognitive dissonance. So why do we engage in cognitive dissonance? Based on our accumulated life experiences, we start having expectations about what things go together and what do not. When these expectations are not fulfilled, we engage in dissonance. For example, a person waiting at a restaurant would expect to get food on his table. If that expectation is not fulfilled by the service provider at the restaurant, there would exist dissonance between these two pieces of information.

Reducing Cognitive Dissonance

The state of dissonance is unpleasant for many as living out of integrity with our belief-system and values turns out to be an excruciating process on the psychological well-being of an individual. It can cause discomfort, stress, and anxiety. In order to reduce this discomfort, individuals engage in reducing the dissonance. Dissonance reduction is a psychological phenomenon occurring when a person has made a choice between two equally appealing alternatives. People perceive themselves as rational decision-makers by justifying their decision. This can be explained by Brehm (1956) who observed that when people are given two equally appealing alternatives, they choose the alternative which is objectively better by devaluing the unchosen alternative. This came to known as ‘free-choice paradigm’, which can be taken as an example for reducing cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance can be reduced by following one of the ways:

  1. Changing cognitions: It includes changing attitudes or beliefs that are causing the dissonance. For example, changing the attitude from smoking as an enjoyable process to a ‘dirty’ and ‘unattractive’ habit compromising hygiene and health may help someone to quit smoking.
  2. Changing behaviors: It includes changing the actions that are causing the dissonance. For example, replacing smoking with healthier alternative behaviors like chewing nicotine or working out whenever the urge to smoke arises.
  3. Denying the evidence: It includes ignoring or discrediting the evidence that is causing the dissonance. For example, despite being presented with the images of the harmful effects of smoking on cigarette packets, an individual continues smoking without feeling conflicted about the potential health risks.
  4. Rationalization: It includes defending or justifying what is causing the dissonance. For example, some individuals rationalize their smoking habit by convincing themselves that it is a form of stress relief, allowing them to justify their behavior.


The theory of cognitive dissonance obviously has many implications for everyday life. In rarest cases, one will find someone with no or few contradictions. Having contradictions within one’s beliefs is not inherently a negative aspect. Bringing attention to these inconsistencies may present us with an opportunity to grow by understanding self. In addition to throwing light on one’s own cognition and behavior, a more nuanced perspective on the world is achieved where everything is not black and white. For psychology students, especially those enrolled in highly esteemed colleges like Alliance University, which has a stellar reputation for providing top-notch psychology education, this idea has significant ramifications. With access to top psychology colleges in Bangalore and a thorough Bsc Psychology syllabus, students can explore the intricacies of human behavior and thought. Aspiring psychologists can study the nuances of cognitive dissonance and its consequences at Alliance University, laying the groundwork for a fruitful career in psychology.


  • Chen, M. K., & Risen, J. L. (2010). How choice affects and reflects preferences: Revisiting the free-choice paradigm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(4), 573–594.
  • Brehm, J.W. (1956). Postdecision changes in the desirability of alternatives. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52(3), 384.
  • Festinger, L. (1962). Cognitive Dissonance. Scientific American, 207(4), 93–106.