What is Cognitive Dissonance? Dealing with an uncomfortable truth

What Is Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the psychological stress experienced by a person when faced with two or more conflicting beliefs, ideas, or values ​​directly opposed to their own beliefs.

In the case of cognitive dissonance, someone will do everything possible to undo the inconsistency, making the beliefs consistent. The discomfort is caused by the person’s belief that clashes with the newly perceived information. To reduce the experienced discomfort, the person tries to resolve the contradiction and reduce the unpleasant feeling. Often this results in denial, the denial of one’s own belief, or a “golden mean” is chosen rationally.

A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

In the “Cognitive Dissonance Bible” A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), author Leon Festinger argues that people always strive for internal psychological consistency to function properly mentally. Thus, someone experiencing an internal inconsistency tends to feel uncomfortable and look for a way to ease this unpleasant feeling.

On the one hand, we can do this by adding a new perspective to the cognition that causes the psychological dissonance or avoiding circumstances and conflicting information that can increase the magnitude of the cognitive dissonance. We usually rely on defense mechanisms to reduce stress.

Defense mechanisms

Dealing with the nuances of conflicting ideas or experiences is mentally stressful. To reduce that stress, people tend to engage their defense mechanisms. These could be:

Denial: In denial, we don’t admit that there is a problem (uncomfortable feeling). Instead, we’re going to make excuses or justify the denial.

Example: “I think he was wrong! Come on, it’s just like that, right?”

Projection: In projection, we recognize a negative feeling, but instead of recognizing that it is our own negative emotion, we attribute it to someone else. That is, we project it onto someone else.

Example: Suppose you are nervous because your manager has called you for an interview. You fear your dismissal and see it as brutal and terrifying. In the conversation, he indicates that he will extend your contract and that you can even count on a promotion. In this case, you have projected your fear onto your manager.

Sublimation: With sublimation, the problem (unpleasant feeling) is softened/weakened to avoid unpleasant feelings. Someone very angry tends to come up with mitigating circumstances to deal with the frustration.

Example: Your partner has cheated on you, and you feel distraught. This can’t be true, can it? To soothe your frustration, you list the fine qualities he/she has and maybe even ask yourself if you haven’t made any mistakes that could justify his / her behavior.

Rationalization: In rationalization, we come up with an excuse to lessen the uncomfortable feeling.

Example: You just had a rejection for a job application. The rationalization is: “Well, it wasn’t such a nice company,” even though you know very well that you would have loved to work there.

Of course, you can use other defense mechanisms to deal with cognitive dissonance, but these are the main ones.

What Causes Cognitive Dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance mainly arises from the situations below.

Enforced compliance

Enforced compliance creates dissonance between the cognition (I didn’t want to do this) and the behavior (I did it anyway). This enforced compliance occurs when a person takes an action that is inconsistent with his or her beliefs. They cannot change the behavior because the action has already taken place, so they must reduce the dissonance by re-evaluating the attitude towards what happened.

Example: A sergeant orders a soldier in a war zone to take any action against his principles. He shoots at an enemy line, killing people. He must find a way to deal with his uncomfortable feeling. He can sublimate by stating, “Otherwise, they would have shot us, so I did the right thing.” That way, he can better deal with the fact that he shot those “possibly innocent” people.

Decision making

We make decisions all the time in life. We decide to get up to make a cup of coffee or to go shopping at a certain time. Many of these decisions we make daily generate dissonance because you have to make choices. It’s one or the other.

The options to choose from have both advantages and disadvantages. If you make a choice, you exclude the other option and thus cannot take advantage of the benefits of that option. In addition, you also choose the disadvantages of the chosen alternative that you have to accept.

Festinger argues that people have several ways to reduce the cognitive dissonance caused when making a decision. One way is to change the behavior. As noted earlier, this is often very difficult, so people often use different mental maneuvers. A common way to reduce dissonance is to increase the chosen alternative’s attractiveness and decrease the attractiveness of the rejected one. This is called “spreading the alternatives.”

Example: Suppose you have to choose a day at the beach for which you have to drive an hour there and an hour back, or a day at an amusement park nearby. Both have advantages but also disadvantages. On the one hand, you love to laze on the beach, but on the other hand, it also saves a lot of driving time if you choose to go to the amusement park.

Either way, you experience cognitive dissonance. If you choose the beach, you have to drive back a long way if you are lazy from the sun. On the other hand, the amusement park is not really a place to relax. You end up choosing the beach after coming up with several extra benefits so you can take the travel time for granted.


We tend to value the achievement of goals for which we have to fight the hardest. This is because dissonance would arise if we put a lot of effort into something to achieve, and then it turns out we can’t get it done.

When we fight for a diploma for years and continue to fail the re-exams at the end of the journey, a feeling of unease naturally arises. In order to avoid the following dissonance, we try to convince ourselves that our effort is not that bad and that it was not worth it anyway. So we try to kid ourselves so as not to feel uncomfortable. This method of reducing dissonance is known as “effort justification.”

Example: after you have studied hard for a test in which you had confidence in a good grade, the result turns out to be disappointing. One way to lessen the disappointment (dissonance) is to say to ourselves, “Well, at least it’s not even worse.”

Examples of cognitive dissonance

Situations in which cognitive dissonance can occur include:

Smoking despite being aware of the adverse health effects of tobacco use.

You know very well the detrimental effect that your pack of cigarettes a day is having on your health. You breathe heavily, you are out of breath halfway up the stairs and you cough yourself to death. Yet you light up a cigarette at every opportunity. In this example, you convince yourself of the “need” to light up a cigarette, even though you know that the need is not there and that it is terribly unhealthy.

As a health coach, you tout a healthy diet and lifestyle to your followers on Instagram, while opening your second bag of chips of the day and drinking a can of beer. When you are caught, you come up with 1001 reasons to justify your behavior.

This type of cognitive dissonance is called hypocrisy. When you are caught, however, this situation can make you feel extremely uncomfortable. It’s not even so much the fact that you’ve been caught that gives you an uncomfortable feeling, it’s more that while you were eating and drinking you were already aware of your wrong behavior.

You’ve just read a hugely impressive medical study in which all the researchers involved convincingly point out that corona injections are unsafe. Then you see on the news that the major scientific authorities claim the opposite, waving a stack of papers and saying they have the evidence in hand.

In this example of cognitive dissonance, your opinion had just been reinforced and substantiated by a number of scientists. Then you see on television that they seem to be wrong. Who do you believe then? The scientists in the study or the “authorities” on TV? This dichotomy in the mind is a typical example of cognitive dissonance and very topical during the pandemic.

As an environmentally aware citizen you take your responsibility: you separate your waste, you do not live beyond your means and you do not go on excessive vacations. Yet that Dodge RAM SRT is very tempting.

In this example of cognitive dissonance, you invent reasons to justify your purchase, which really goes against all your principles. It is a company car and it comes in handy when doing home improvement (even though you hardly ever do any of those jobs). You know it’s nonsense to buy such a battleship, but of course it’s also pretty cool to accelerate at the traffic lights with such a roaring engine.

Dealing with cognitive dissonance

Everyone deals with cognitive dissonance differently. There are countless degrees of uncomfortable feeling. These gradations depend on the values ​​we assign to our principles. In most cases, most people are able to cope with significant dissonance and do not experience the tensions predicted by the theory.

People who are mentally “inflexible” or have strong values ​​can experience considerable stress when faced with conflicting thoughts. In many cases, the challenge for them is to adjust their expectations and set their principles “to some extent” aside.

Critical evaluation

Over the years, much research has been done on cognitive dissonance, with interesting and sometimes unexpected findings. It is a theory with very broad applications that shows that we strive for consistency between attitudes and behaviors and that we do not shy away from using defense mechanisms to reduce discomfort.

The experience of cognitive dissonance can be properly tested in practice. From a scientific point of view, this is more difficult because, of course, we cannot physically perceive cognitive dissonance, and so it cannot be measured objectively.

The concept of dissonance is also quite vague. Is it a perception as “cognitive” suggests? Or is it a subjective feeling about the perception? When you look up the definition of dissonance, you will also find the term “discord” and this is perhaps the best way to see it: different sounds (conflicting thoughts/feelings) that cause a cacophony (cognitive dissonance).

Frequently asked questions

What is an example of cognitive dissonance?

Suppose a friend tells you that birds actually fly through the air upside down, while you have been taught since childhood that it is different. You will call him crazy and not even wait for his substantiation. 

Cognitive dissonance involves feelings of unease and tension resulting from a confrontation with conflicting beliefs. It is in human nature to sort out this confusion and relieve this uneasiness in various ways. Examples include protective mechanisms such as repression, rationalization, projection, sublimation, regression, and escapism. These mechanisms help to protect ourselves from the uneasy feeling. 

What does cognitive dissonance mean?

Cognitive dissonance describes the discomfort experienced when confronted with two conflicting beliefs. These beliefs manifest themselves in the form of a piece of knowledge, such as a thought, an attitude or personal value.

What are signs of cognitive dissonance?

Signs of cognitive dissonance include feelings of restlessness, doubt, confusion, feeling hunted, anger, indignation, and fear. These feelings can even culminate in physical pain, where the ratio cannot cope with the conflicting information and physical pain results from the production of glutamate. 

The feelings of cognitive dissonance are reduced by employing the unconscious responses of protective mechanisms such as repression, rationalization, projection, sublimation, regression and escapism. These mechanisms help us to make the uncomfortable feeling bearable.  

What is the best example of cognitive dissonance?

A typical and simple example of cognitive dissonance is the following situation: you know you are a little overweight, but still those snacks at the checkout are very tempting. It gives you an uncomfortable feeling; on the one hand you desperately want to snack, but on the other hand you know full well that by doing so you are destroying your goal of losing weight. The mental discomfort you experience is an example of cognitive dissonance. 

In the end you opt for the snack. You reason that you have earned it and make up a thousand reasons to justify your choice. This is a typical example of a protection mechanism that comes into play to repress the unpleasant feeling.

Is cheating an example of cognitive dissonance?

Cheating is not an example of cognitive dissonance, but it can be a direct result. When you are in a relationship in which you are not happy, cheating can be a way to still make you feel nice. It is a form of escapism, in which you try to compensate for the shortcomings in your relationship with someone outside your relationship. 

How can you reduce cognitive dissonance?

There are several communication techniques you can use to reduce cognitive dissonance:

  • By nuancing your existing beliefs – a clashing belief from someone close to you can come in like a bomb, especially if you stubbornly cling to your own beliefs. In this way, no discussion is possible and a stressful situation follows. By nuancing your beliefs and at least being open to someone else’s beliefs (taking note of them does not mean adopting them), the symptoms of cognitive dissonance can be reduced.
  • By adopting new beliefs – By adopting a completely new belief, disappear you can immediately reduce a feeling of dissonance. Although our beliefs are often deeply held, with some practice and the “power of repetition” you can change your beliefs and reduce uncomfortable feelings.
  • By reducing the value of your beliefs – How much value you place on a belief largely determines how strong the symptoms of cognitive dissonance are. By placing less value on your opinions, symptoms can be quickly reduced. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and an opinion is not a universal truth.

Is cognitive dissonance good or bad?

Although cognitive dissonance can cause firm symptoms, it is nevertheless a human and natural reaction and therefore not necessarily bad. In fact, it is a mechanism that helps us to be mentally healthy and happy. It protects us from outside influences. The most important thing is to be aware of how cognitive dissonance works so that you can reduce symptoms. 

What is the opposite of cognitive dissonance?

The opposite of cognitive dissonance is cognitive consonance or cognitive coherence, in which mental processes run coherently, resulting in a pleasant feeling of inner harmony.

Is cognitive dissonance normal?

Cognitive dissonance is a perfectly natural reaction when we are confronted with a clashing belief. Festinger described the phenomenon occurs when a person has two or more incompatible beliefs at the same time, creating an inner conflict. This conflict results in psychological discomfort.

Why do I have conflicting thoughts?

Another name for conflicting thoughts is cognitive dissonance. This mental tension occurs when you are confronted with clashing beliefs and diametrically opposed to what you have always believed. The uneasy feeling can also arise from an overload of facts, where the brain cannot process them all at once. 

What is a synonym for cognitive dissonance?

Synonyms for cognitive dissonance are sensory overload, confusion, and confusion. 

Do narcissists have cognitive dissonance?

Narcissists often use cognitive dissonance and gaslighting in relationships. They manipulate their victims with facts and suggestive questions. Through these communication techniques, their victims become paralyzed with self-doubt and lose their sense of reality, among other things.

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