What is cognitive dissonance?

A noun is the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially in relation to behavioral decisions and attitudinal change. Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation that involves conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. This causes a sense of mental discomfort that leads to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce discomfort and restore balance. Cognitive dissonance is the psychological tension we feel when trying to have two (or more) opposing pieces of information.

Usually, we try to eliminate this dissonance by performing a new consonant action or discarding incongruous information. The inner discomfort and tension of cognitive dissonance could contribute to stress or unhappiness. Cognitive dissonance can interfere with their perceptions of themselves and their abilities, which is why it can often be so uncomfortable and unpleasant. How cognitive dissonance affects friendship, dating and marriage, as well as how it develops in abusive relationships.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person has two related but contradictory cognitions or thoughts. The uncomfortable feeling you feel when you think about where food comes from is a well-documented example of cognitive dissonance. Some of the ways in which people reduce the discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance include seeking information that aligns with and supports current beliefs, reducing the importance of conflicting beliefs, and changing beliefs to reduce feelings of conflict. Alternatively, they can reduce cognitive dissonance by being aware of their values and seeking opportunities to live those values.

For example, a person may get so tired of feeling cognitive dissonance every time they smoke that they seek help. Another common example of cognitive dissonance is the rationalization that takes place when people “cheat” while on a diet. The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe mental distress that results from having two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. You haven't thought much about it before, but if you keep choosing the same clothes, you'll feel a certain cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance may be something you don't even notice because your brain resolves it quickly, such as when someone bumps into you on the way to work and you spill your coffee. Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger, based on a participatory observation study of a cult that believed that the Earth was going to be destroyed by a flood and what happened to its members, in particular those who were truly committed and who had left their homes and jobs to work in the cult when the flood didn't occur. To get a clear idea of what cognitive dissonance is, it's helpful to first understand what happens when that tension (or “dissonance”) occurs.

Hilary Gibbons
Hilary Gibbons

Subtly charming twitter ninja. Freelance zombie guru. Friendly bacon enthusiast. Tv scholar. Extreme food junkie.