Cognitive Dissonance Theory

  • Leon Festinger developed the cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957)
  • Dissonance occurs when a person perceives a logical inconsistency in their beliefs, when one idea implies the opposite of another.
  • Inconsistency among beliefs or behaviors will cause an uncomfortable psychological tension.
  • The dissonance might be experienced as guilt, anger, frustration, or even embarrassment.
  • This will lead people to change their beliefs to fit their actual behavior, rather than the other way around, as popular wisdom may suggest.
  1. Humans are sensitive to inconsistencies between actions and beliefs.
  2. Recognition of this inconsistency will cause dissonance, and will motivate an individual to resolve the dissonance.
  3. Dissonance will be resolved in one of three basic ways:
    a. Change beliefs
    b. Change actions
    c. Change perception of action

The classic experiment by Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959 (Boring task experiment)
In this experiment all participants were required to do what all would agree was a boring task and then to tell another subject that the task was exciting. Half of the subjects were paid $1 to do this and half were paid $20. Following this, all subjects were asked to rate how much they liked the boring task. This latter measure served as the experimental criterion/the dependent measure. According to behaviorist/reinforcement theory, those who were paid $20 should like the task more because they would associate the payment with the task. Cognitive dissonance theory, on the other hand, would predict that those who were paid $1 would feel the most dissonance since they had to carry out a boring task and lie to an experimenter, all for only 1$. This would create dissonance between the belief that they were not stupid or evil, and the action which is that they carried out a boring tasked and lied for only a dollar (see Figure 2). Therefore, dissonance theory would predict that those in the $1 group would be more motivated to resolve their dissonance by reconceptualizing/rationalizing their actions. They would form the belief that the boring task was, in fact, pretty fun. As you might suspect, Festinger’s prediction, that those in the $1 would like the task more, proved to be correct.
  1. Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance, Evanston, IL: Row & Peterson.
  2. Festinger, L. & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203:210.


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