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Cognitive Dissonance in Psychology: Theory, Examples & Definition

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Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort you feel when you do something that's against your beliefs. Read on to find out more about the theory of cognitive dissonance, discover examples from real life, and test your knowledge with a quiz.

We also recommend watching The Cognitive Model in Psychology and Abnormal Functioning and Assessing the Cognitive Model in Psychology: Strengths and Weaknesses

Cognitive Dissonance Defined

In Aesop's fable 'The Fox and the Grapes,' a fox sees some grapes hanging high on a vine and wants to eat them. He tries to jump up, but can't get to them, because they're too high. When he realizes that he can't get them, the fox becomes disdainful of the grapes; he tells himself that those grapes were sour and that he didn't want them anyway. This is an example of cognitive dissonance - the disagreeable feeling people experience when one belief or action conflicts with a pre-existing belief or action.

The Fox and the Grapes

Festinger's Theory

In 1957, psychologist and teacher Leon Festinger pointed out that, often, people hold two opposing beliefs, or they believe one thing but do something that's against that belief. The feeling that results is called cognitive dissonance, and we often try to alleviate it by justifying our actions or changing our beliefs. Either way, the goal is to have our actions and beliefs in line with each other.

Festinger performed many experiments that demonstrated cognitive dissonance. In one study, he had participants do a series of boring tasks. After they finished, they were asked to rate the tasks. As you can imagine, their ratings showed that they found the things they were asked to do tedious. But then Festinger introduced a twist: he offered the subjects either $1 or $20 to tell someone waiting to participate in the experiment that the tasks were interesting and fun. Many of them lied.

Later, Festinger asked the participants to rate the tasks again. What do you think he found? The people who lied for $1 actually rated the tasks as more interesting than they did before they lied. Festinger theorized that this was because they had lied for so little money that they needed to justify the lie in their minds. So, they subconsciously changed their beliefs to match their actions.

And those who lied for $20? They didn't have to change their beliefs, but they did have to justify why they were willing to lie. For them, the money was enough justification.

Cognitive Dissonance

Examples of Cognitive Dissonance

People often demonstrate ways to deal with cognitive dissonance. For example, if someone that we don't like does something nice for us, we might reconcile that by convincing ourselves that she did the nice thing just to make us feel guilty for not liking her. Or, if you know that smoking is bad, you might justify the fact that you smoke by saying that, if smoking doesn't kill you, something else will.

Summary

Psychologist Leon Festinger first introduced the theory of cognitive dissonance in the 1950s. Cognitive dissonance occurs when we act in a way different from our beliefs. To deal with the uncomfortable feeling, we will either change our actions to be in line with our beliefs or change our beliefs to match our actions.

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