Cognitive Dissonance - Our Conflict Between Beliefs and Behaviour

Cognitive Dissonance - Our Conflict Between Beliefs and Behaviour

Despite its widespread presence, cognitive dissonance is often unrecognised or misunderstood, even though it plays a pivotal role in shaping our beliefs, decisions, and behaviours. Whether it's navigating social situations, struggling with personal values, or making professional decisions, this is where cognitive dissonance occurs. By understanding this process, we can better understand not only ourselves, but also the world around us.

What is Cognitive Dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance, at its core, is a theory concerning a conflict in the mind. This conflict arises when we hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values simultaneously or when our behaviour doesn't align with our beliefs. It's like holding two opposing ends of a magnet that refuse to meet, causing a psychological tension that our minds naturally seek to resolve.

This theory was first proposed by social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. Festinger suggested that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance). Cognitive dissonance is essentially a reflection of this disharmony or tension that arises from an inconsistency between what we believe and what we do or think.

For example, if you consider yourself an environmentally conscious person but find yourself frequently using single-use plastic products, you might experience cognitive dissonance. In other words, your behaviour (using single-use plastics) is inconsistent with your self-perception as an eco-friendly person. This inconsistency creates an uncomfortable mental state that you will likely need to resolve, either by modifying your behaviour or adjusting your belief.

Understanding cognitive dissonance and how it manifests itself in our lives helps with our self-awareness and personal growth. Below we will explore the ways cognitive dissonance impacts various aspects of our lives, and how we can constructively manage these opposing constructs.

The Psychological Mechanics of Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is more than just an abstract concept; it is a psychologically uncomfortable state that can motivate us towards change. Dissonance is, in essence, a form of mental stress. As humans, we have a natural inclination for harmony in our thoughts and actions, so when dissonance arises, it creates a mental discomfort we strive to alleviate.

The level of discomfort can depend on a variety of factors, including the significance of the belief, the degree of inconsistency, and individual differences in tolerance for dissonance. For example, if a deeply held belief contradicts a minor one, the dissonance can be significant and potentially lead to drastic changes in behaviour or beliefs to reduce the conflict.

Our self-perception and self-esteem also play key roles in cognitive dissonance. Often, the discomfort arises from an inconsistency between our behaviours and our perception of ourselves. For example, if we see ourselves as honest but tell a lie, the resulting cognitive dissonance can be unsettling.

Cognitive dissonance also links with other psychological theories. For instance, confirmation bias, where we favour information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs, can be a way of managing cognitive dissonance by selectively aligning new information with our existing beliefs. Understanding these connections allows us to better understand the depth and breadth of cognitive dissonance's influence on our lives.

Coping Mechanisms and Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a mental tug-of-war that our minds strive to resolve. To reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, we can employ various strategies. The most common methods include changing our behaviour, beliefs, or adding new information that supports the existing belief.

For example, consider a smoker who knows smoking is detrimental to health. They may decide to quit smoking (changing behaviour), convince themselves that smoking isn't as harmful as suggested (changing beliefs), or justify their behaviour by saying they exercise regularly to balance out the negative effects (adding new information).

This brings us to the concept of confirmation bias, which often accompanies cognitive dissonance. When we're faced with dissonance, we might look for information or interpret it in a way that confirms our current beliefs and behaviours.

In our smoker example, the individual might gravitate towards articles that downplay the health risks associated with smoking. This selective gathering and interpretation of information can reinforce existing beliefs, making them even more resistant to change.

Cognitive Dissonance and Decision Making

Cognitive dissonance plays a crucial role in our decision-making processes. Every time we make a choice, especially a significant one, there is a potential for dissonance to arise. This is because our decisions often involve rejecting one appealing option for another, leading to a dissonance between our choice and the alternative.

For instance, consider a situation where you have two job offers - one from a start-up offering a creative work environment but lower pay, and another from a corporate firm offering higher pay but a more rigid work environment. If you choose the start-up, you might feel dissonance regarding the lost financial stability offered by the corporate job. This is often referred to as 'post-decision dissonance'.

‘Buyer's remorse’ is another common example of post-decision dissonance. After making a significant purchase, you might start to question whether you made the right choice, especially if you had to choose between equally appealing alternatives.

Our minds naturally want consistency in our beliefs and actions. Therefore, understanding the role cognitive dissonance plays in our decision-making processes can help us make choices that align more closely with our values and long-term goals.

Cognitive Dissonance in Health, Politics, and Education

Cognitive dissonance has significant implications across various facets of our society, including health, politics, and education. In terms of health, cognitive dissonance can play a crucial role in behaviour change. For example, someone who identifies as a health-conscious individual yet indulges in unhealthy eating habits might experience dissonance. Their efforts to align their behaviours with their beliefs could lead to adopting healthier eating habits.

Political beliefs often create cognitive dissonance. People might hold onto certain political beliefs due to their social or cultural contexts, even when faced with conflicting information. As a result, they may experience dissonance, leading them to dismiss, deny, or reinterpret the conflicting information to maintain their current belief system.

Cognitive dissonance also has a substantial impact on education and learning. When learners encounter new information that contradicts their pre-existing knowledge or beliefs, they experience cognitive dissonance. How they resolve this dissonance can significantly influence their learning process and the depth of understanding they achieve.

Managing Cognitive Dissonance

While cognitive dissonance can lead to discomfort, it can also foster personal growth. Acknowledging and managing cognitive dissonance can lead to self-reflection, critical thinking, and ultimately, more informed decisions.

To manage cognitive dissonance, the first step is awareness. Recognising when we experience dissonance and understanding what's causing it can give us the ability to address it consciously.

Next, evaluation is key, so analyse the conflicting beliefs or behaviours causing the dissonance. Is the dissonance caused by a deviation from your core values or from minor, flexible beliefs? This can help the resolution method, whether it's changing our behaviour to align with our beliefs or reassessing the validity of our beliefs.

Finally, remember that it's okay to change your beliefs. Beliefs aren't static; they're shaped by our experiences and the information we acquire. We can see the conflict of cognitive dissonance as an opportunity for growth and so use cognitive dissonance as a tool for self-improvement and personal development.


Cognitive dissonance, whilst a complex psychological phenomenon, is a universal part of human experience. The mental tension it creates influences our attitudes, behaviours, and decision-making processes. However, it's important to remember that cognitive dissonance, while uncomfortable, is not inherently negative. Instead, it can serve as a catalyst for self-reflection, critical thinking, and positive behaviour change.

By recognising and understanding cognitive dissonance, we can make sure our choices align with our beliefs and values. It can be a way of introspection, prompting us to reassess our attitudes and beliefs, and make changes when necessary. Understanding cognitive dissonance is a step toward greater self-awareness and more informed decision making.

Further Reading

If you're interested in going deeper into the world of cognitive dissonance, here are a few suggestions for further reading:

"A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance" by Leon Festinger, the origins of cognitive dissonance theory with the seminal book by the theorist himself.

"Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts" by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson - This book provides an accessible exploration of cognitive dissonance and its influence on our daily lives.

"The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil" by Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist behind the Stanford Prison experiments. Although not exclusively about cognitive dissonance, it explores how situational forces can lead to harmful behaviours, often driven by cognitive dissonance.