Cognitive Dissonance Research Paper Summary

by Jason Shaw


Cognitive dissonance describes the state of mind, characterized by two conflicting thoughts on the same issue. As a result of this dissonance, unpleasant and tense feelings arise, forcing the individual to seek dissonance-reducing strategies. This study draws from a range of literature on cognitive dissonance to discuss the concept in detail, exemplify its occurrence in several different situations; economics and consumer behavior, religion, stances on militarism, in-service employees, and a group sense. This is then succeeded by a look at the role of dissonance in human life. An overview of the aspects of cognitive dissonance is discussed, after which the study is concluded.

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Cognitive Dissonance ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ 

Cognitive dissonance is the state of mind in which a person has two distinct views on the same thing at the same time​​ (Forgas, Cooper, and Crano, 2010).

In most cases, the views are on two distinct sides.​​ The mind approaches the point that under interrogation it gives the same weight to the matter. This affects decision making in many individuals. Consequently, there is always the feeling that one could have taken the alternative conclusion. Cognitive dissonance is a usual and very customary condition that, at most times, comes about when someone is doing something awful or something contrary to their instincts (Moskowitz, 2001).

 ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ An example of cognitive dissonance usually comes into play when dealing with drugs.​​ Typically, the mind has the instinct that substance addiction is not good; on the other hand, other variables such as peer pressure, desire, or even enthusiasm affect the brain​​ (Awa and Nwuche, 2010). In most cases, the first thought that comes before the cognitive dissonance state is usually the correct decision. According to Matthew and Regner (2011), this clearly indicates that dissonance is typically strong when individuals are doing something against personal beliefs. If individuals find themselves in instances of committing flaws, then the discomfort that comes about is as a result of cognitive dissonance.​​ 

 ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ Dissonance plays a crucial role in decision-making, especially if the decisions are about personal or self-image​​ (Craighead and Nemeroff, 2002).​​ The mind still has its take, whether it be foolishness, sentiment, or immorality.​​ If an action has already been taken, so the dissonance of the after-the-fact causes one to alter their beliefs.​​ In instances whereby individuals’ beliefs change, dissonance then comes before the action and prevents us from making decisions we have made before.​​ If one changes the actions of another, their thoughts and emotions may thus change, minimizing dissonance.​​ Changing the willingness of a child to think in a positive way does not produce a strong character, but changing his actions provides an indication of mild dissonance, thereby enhancing his actions.

 ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ Apart from short time decisions, dissonance also dictates the​​ long-term​​ decision of an individual.​​ For instance, Mary has, for ten years, been in an abusive marriage with John. She had to deal with the ugly sides of John like, negligence, alcoholism, physical, and emotional abuse.​​ Her dissonance may have been poor for the last ten years, but it grows over time.​​ With the persistence of John’s ugly behaviors, her feelings and emotions create two sides of decision making. The mind, with the help of her discomforts, comes to a decision that the marriage is a mistake. If a dissonance case takes longer to mature into decision making, the consequences of the resultant findings are usually sterner, as compared to short term dissonance cases (Hatfield and Rapson, 2000).​​ 

 ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ As much as there are claims that dissonance always comes naturally without interference, the influence on its part cannot be overlooked (Festinger, 2001). To prove this, the behavior and character of men are put into perspective. Take two guys who have entirely different names towards ladies, nice guy and not very nice guy, Tony and Mike respectively. Tony will treat a lady nicely, offer her gifts and compliments. A lady may stay with him just because she is being paid or bribed to do so; hence, the feelings towards him lessen with time, and the urge to replace him with another man becomes irresistible. On the other hand, Mike has an ignorant attitude, no compliments, and no gifts. In this relationship, there may not be much to anticipate, but a lady still finds the urge to be around him. In this scenario, the lady gets more attached to him than with the well-mannered guy. This happens, and many women find themselves in love with men who abuse them, which is totally unhealthy when talking about the right feeling to acquire from dissonance (Hogg and Terry, 2000).

 ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ There is an alternative perspective; however, that the reason why the two decisions provided cannot exist together has proven an uphill task to many individuals (Williamand Garland, 2002). The features of cognitive dissonance are not mainly branded.​​ 

It is more generalized in a way that individuals sense a little contradiction in their thoughts and deeds. Analysts, however, do not give a specific point where the paradox arises. Other analysts argue that, if contradictions intensely embed​​ inside individuals’ personal psyche, the evidence must be provided on the topic of rejection in the individuals.​​ 

 ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ The cognitive dissonance could believably be amid one’s self-perception and unknown feelings or behavior.​​ It is the duty of an individual to settle on which decision they make, whether they are influenced from the inside or by external circumstances. Additionally, the numerous judgments, feelings, and characters one has to define the self-concept - illustrated as who we perceive ourselves to be and the way we portray our identity and personality to other people (Pugh, Groth, and Hennig-Thurau, 2011).

Examples of Cognitive Dissonance

 ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ One of the manifestations of cognitive dissonance is in terms of consumer behavior and economic consequences.​​ Traditionally, rational decision-making on the part of consumers informs most of the economic theories in use. Cognitive dissonance shares the views of rational decision-making on the consumers’ information about the consequences of their actions and acting to maximize their own welfare. However, Akerlof and Dickens (2001) argue that cognitive dissonance provides sound explanations for some consumer phenomena that puzzle the traditional approach. An example of cognitive dissonance is in the concept’s description of advertising. Observations show that a number of products are indistinguishable in terms of quality or composition.​​ Here, advertising seeks to lay a claim of quality or inherent advantage of one work over others, which succeeds in many cases and influences consumer loyalty.​​ 

Akerlof and Dickens (2001) explain that, in such cases, the advertising provides individuals with an external justification for beliefs. People usually seek to lower cognitive dissonance, which the advertisement helps in achieving. Advertisements thus promote feelings of social adeptness, attractiveness, and intelligence, among others. An ad that does not connect with the emotions of the individual may remain obscure. The advertisement with the most significant effect and subsequent success of purpose is the one that dramatically helps people towards achieving cognitive consonance away from dissonance. The economic manifestation of cognitive dissonance also justifies legislation on social security. Akerlof and Dickens (2001) argue that cognitive dissonance would make individuals apprehensive of contemplating old age and limited ability to earn. When people feel uncomfortable to consider old age, they may make the wrong trade-offs between current consumption and retirement savings. In light of such a situation, compulsory old-age insurance is wise. The same argument for legislation on retirement savings can be made on other aspects of the economy, such as safety. Employees may find it uncomfortable contemplating the dangers of working in a hazardous sector. Consequently, such employees may inappropriately fail to invest in protection from their earnings. Thus, legislating for safety payments is an informed approach to addressing the problem.

 ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ Cognitive dissonance is also quite evident in the development of religious cognition.​​ Montel (2001) explains that man in the contemporary world has two perspectives of the world; the cause and effect (experienced) world and the God-created world defined by things only experienced through faith. Whereas a few individuals may claim following either of the two, most people cannot hold these two cognitions separately. Hence, most people suffer the discomfort of cognitive differences from their cognition of the supernatural and the world of science. We believe in the natural cause of rain and what influences raining while at the same time thinking that God causes rains according to the beliefs of various religions. For instance, the text in the Bible has not changed for years, while science has advanced in great leaps; yet, people have not necessarily quit following the teachings. People have maintained beliefs in the laws of causality alongside the view of God’s ability to suspend or replace such laws. Most science practitioners also believe in a personal God and commit their practices to the influence of God. The cognitive dissonance experienced in such situations leads people to seek consonance; in such cases, Montel (2001) argues that religious beliefs often prove more potent than causality. Certain behaviors and practices were undertaken to please God and ascertain a perceived afterlife exemplify the triumph of religion over natural behavior. Such methods include fasting to the point of death, the sacrifice of humans, and engaging in religious wars. Whereas people pursue faith in order to quell cognitive dissonance, such actions, and practices, unfortunately, reverse the need to preserve life.

 ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ Pugh and Groth (2011) present the case of service employees depicting cognitive dissonance. Employees in service industries are required to properly manage their felt and displayed emotions since exhibiting positive emotions form a central aspect in their practice. Cognitive dissonance at an emotional level arises in cases where the employees show positive emotions, whereas they are dissatisfied with their jobs and suffering from exhaustion. The scholars argue that the employee’s self-concept mediates this emotional dissonance, the importance of displaying emotions, and the self-efficacy to fake emotions. The discrepancy between the felt and expressed sentiments raises the tension characteristic of cognitive dissonance. The tension revolves around feelings of estrangement from self and the accompanied inauthenticity emotions. Pugh and Groth (2011) argue that cognitive dissonance in the service industry directly influences employee well-being and thus determines their productivity.​​ 

 ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ McMinn (2006) provides a scenario exemplifying cognitive dissonance based on military action, death, and patriotism. War elicits potentially conflicting attitudes from people; they may believe that supporting going to war policies from the government indicates patriotism. On the other hand, people may be tense and apprehensive about war due to the deaths caused, especially to individuals from their localities or families. During the course of the action, people may support withdrawal in order to remove their friends and family from war; this may again raise tension as they may feel such stances disrespect the already dead soldiers. Hence, individuals experience cognitive discomfort due to​​ war and the consequences arising from militarism in relation to their beliefs and experiences.

Cognitive Dissonance in Relation to other Concepts: Social Preference and Group Dynamics

 ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ Matthey and Regner (2011) discuss cognitive dissonance as it​​ relates​​ to social preferences. These scholars associate cognitive dissonance with social choice, stating that other-regarding behavior relies on the desire to avoid a divergence between behaviors considered appropriate and behaviors actually chosen. Under full information about the consequence of action to other people, individuals may choose to ignore such information if given the opportunity. In case individuals choose to ignore, two inconsistent psychological dispositions arise; a norm to behave reasonably and a deviation from the model leading to cognitive dissonance. The outcomes are different among people, with some either proceeding with the deviation from the norm while others opt-out. For instance, higher material pay off may outweigh the psychological cost arising from cognitive dissonance, and thus such individuals proceed with the deviation from their normal behavior towards others. In comparison, genuine pro-social people would find the dissonance to be high and therefore chose fair outcomes to avoid unpleasant feelings.

 ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ Hogg and Terry (2000) conceive the experience of cognitive dissonance by an individual in the group context. The scholars first identify the nature of cognitive dissonance in the individual setting, conflicting cognitions followed by dissonance-reduction seeking. In the group setting, cognitive dissonance follows the same causal route, with individuals in that group experiencing situations that contradict their principles. However, a number of disparities are noted between the group and in an individual. First, prior knowledge of the consequences of one’s actions would lead to their withdrawal from acts that contradict their norms in order to reduce dissonance. In contrast, the group still executes actions that would raise dissonance at the individual level, even in the presence of anticipation. Secondly, dissonance does not lead to dissonance reduction pursuit, for example, through a change of attitude. The explanation behind these observations lies in the diffusion of responsibility that characterizes group dynamics. Diffusion of responsibility lightens the load on individuals, and thus they are able to execute potentially aversive actions even in anticipation of the consequences. Similarly, the distribution of burden reduces the pursuit of dissonance reduction strategies in comparison to when individuals bear much responsibility. Hence, individuals in a group show less attitudinal change due to the psychological cost of dissonance in contrast to individual actions.

Role of Dissonance in Human Life

 ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ Cognitive dissonance is a crucial aspect of decision making and problem-solving since most decisions and problems entail conflicting attitudes/behavior.​​ In our day-to-day lives, we come across situations in which simple or complicated decisions have to be made. Cognitive dissonance mediates our decision making in that we usually settle on the alternative that reduces the dissonance. Hence, cognitive dissonance serves an essential role in cases where the consequences of actions are anticipated. In situations where an effort has already been done, individuals reduce the dissonance through changing behavior or justifying their behaviors by changing the cognition that causes conflict (Nurs, 2003). Hence, our management of cognitive dissonance also serves to ensure psychological peace with the decisions made. Cognitive dissonance also helps manage conflicts as it influences change in individuals. For instance, drawing the attention of a person to the disparity in what they say/believe and their actions may force them to react positively. This is exemplified in situations where religion is used to quell ethnic differences or violence. Reminding individuals about their religious beliefs that discourage violence and killing and encourage togetherness and equality may help them desist from such actions. Thus, conflict management techniques such as mediation may defuse tensions by taking advantage of cognitive dissonance in people.

 ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ Cognitive dissonance forms a critical concept driving behavior change efforts in individuals. According to Moskowitz (2001), cognitive dissonance arises in cases where people commit behaviors followed by interpreting the meaning of such actions. A motivational state succeeds in their assessment of such activities in terms of the appropriateness of their behavior. Influencing behavior change follows studies in aspects and influences of cognitive consistency, entailing personal correlates of persuadability, anticipatory belief changes, resistance to persuasion, and the self-concepts of different people (Craigward and Nemeroff, 2002). As a result, cognitive dissonance centrally applies to many approaches of personal change, persuading people to change their beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors.​​ 

Cognitive dissonance has also been applied in practice in terms of influencing. In particular, cognitive dissonance contributes to aspects of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on relevant problems to the patient and a transparent underlying model. Importantly, CBT finds use in the clinical practice setting, basing on psycho-educational therapy, and finding compatibility with the traditional biomedical approach. Williams and Garland (2002) argue that CBT approaches therapy through encouraging patients to work on making changes in their feelings and actions in relation to what they learn. Thus, cognitive dissonance arises when the patient’s feelings and learning conflict, and the patient reduces this conflict by following what has been known. An example of the concepts of CBT in clinical practice can be showcased through​​ patients with depression. Here, low mood, lack of enthusiasm, negative thinking, and anxiety lead to the patient degenerating into a vicious cycle of the disease characterized by inactivity or unhelpful behavior. Cognitive dissonance helps in the assessment procedures for such patients through discerning the changes in behavior and thinking that have occurred in them to compensate for their situations. When such areas in action and perception are identified, cognitive therapy is used to reverse/correct these. New cognitions are instituted or unhelpful/deleterious ones removed. Cognitive dissonance arises when the individual acts in a particular behavior, and basing on the cognitions learned/reintroduced, Williams and Garland (2002) state that treatment results.


Cognitive dissonance refers to the state when an individual has two conflicting states of mind, therefore, eliciting unpleasant and tense feelings in the person. People always seek to reduce this cognitive dissonance and get rid of the discomfort through changing behavior, changing cognition to justify action, or adding new cognitions to explain the behavior. Cognitive dissonance is evident in our day-to-day lives as exemplified by a number of situations; consumer behavior in the advertisement, saving for old age and paying safety insurance, positions on religion and natural/causality law; employees serving in the service industry; and our thoughts on military action. In a social group sense, diffusion of responsibility occurs, leading to a situation where the group takes on highly​​ aversive tasks than the individuals would. The distribution of burden also mediates the reduction of dissonance as group members seek less cognitive dissonance reduction than at the individual level. Cognitive dissonance has pivotal roles in human life; it informs our decision making and problem-solving and the behaviors we exhibit after making personal decisions. Cognitive dissonance also informs conflict management and behavior change efforts. In practice, the concept applies to the behavior change aspects of cognitive behavior therapy.​​ 

​​ References,

  • Arkelof, D. A., & William, T. D. (2001). The economic consequences of cognitive dissonance. The American Economic Review, 307-320.

  • Awa, H. O., & Nwuche, C.A. (2010). Cognitive consistency in purchase behavior: Theoretical ​​ and empirical analyses. International Journal of Psychological Studies,

  • Craigward, E., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2002). The Corsini encyclopedia of psychology and behavioral science, Volume 1, New York: Wiley and Sons.

  • Festinger, L. ​​ (2001). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

  • Forgas, J., Cooper, J., & Crano, W. (2010). The psychology of attitudes and attitude change, London: Routledge.​​ 

  • Hatfield, E., & Rapson, R. L. (2000). Emotional contagion. The Corsini encyclopedia of psychology and behavioral science (Vol. 2). New York: John Wiley and Sons, 493-495.​​ 

  • Hogg, M. A., & Terry, D. J. (2000). Attitudes, behavior, and social context: the role of norms and group membership. London: Routledge.

  • Matthey, A., & Regner, T. (2011). Do I really want to know? A Cognitive Dissonance-Based explanation of other-regarding behavior. Games, 2(1), 114-135.​​ 

  • McMinn, J. G. (2006).War, death, and cognitive dissonance: A case study for social psychology. USA: National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science.

  • Montel, C. (2001). Speculations on a privileged state of cognitive dissonance. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 31(2), 119-139.

  • Moskowitz, G. B. (2001). Cognitive social psychology: the Princeton Symposium on the legacy and future of social cognition. London: Routledge

  • Pugh, S., Groth, M., & Hennig-Thurau, T. (2011). Willing and able to fake emotions: A closer examination of the link between emotional dissonance and employee well-being. Journal ​​ of Applied Psychology, 96(2), 377-390.​​ 

  • Williams, C. J., & Garland, A. (2002). A cognitive-behavioral therapy assessment model for use in everyday clinical practice, Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 8, 172-179.


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