According to Leon Festinger (1957) human beings commonly experience difficulty in maintaining consistency between their beliefs and the reality of their existence. One example is that of a person who continues to smoke despite knowing that it is dangerous to his health. This is what Festinger called cognitive dissonance. He posited that many people strive to maintain consonance between what they believe and what they actually do or want. The theory of cognitive dissonance is discussed below.
What is Cognitive Dissonance?
The word cognition refers to knowledge, opinion or understanding of the environment. The way people understand their world and what happens, as well as what should happen in it, is cognition (Starzyk et al, 2009). This understanding and knowledge defines the beliefs that underline a person’s existence. In many cases these beliefs are consistent with what happens. For instance a person who believes in education goes to school to acquire it. This is called consonance (Festinger, 1957). The opposite also obtains, where a person believes one thing but goes ahead to practice the opposite, like in the smoking example given earlier, which causes cognitive dissonance.
Occurrence of Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance occurs when people come across new information or events that change their previously held beliefs and perceptions (Starzyk et al, 2009). One may believe that owning a car is fun, until he comes across a motoring accident. Another person may believe that doing exercise is good until he injures himself. Such contradictions tend to change previously held beliefs suddenly and completely. However, previous beliefs are persistent, and will not change instantly. As a result there will be dissonance.
Even without new occurrences, everyday life is itself full of some irreconcilable contradictions (Festinger, 1957). Cooking makes food tasty, but it also kills off vital vitamins. Eating raw food also means imbibing potentially dangerous microorganisms which can kill. To cook, or not to cook, that is the new question. This daily dissonance means that people typically live with a disturbing level of confusion in their cognition of their environment (Starzyk et al, 2009).
Managing Cognitive Dissonance
Human beings strive to reduce cognitive dissonance in their lives. They do this by changing their actions that cause dissonance, like deciding to quit smoking. They also do it by changing their previous cognition, like rationalizing that they will die anyway, even if they don’t smoke (Festinger, 1957). Another way is that they try to avoid situations or knowledge that cause dissonance in their lives. A good example is a Moslem avoiding Christian gatherings, which may contradict his divine beliefs. They do all these because dissonance causes discomfort to them. So cognitive dissonance is a motivator for a person to try and establish a psychological balance in his life.
Cognitive dissonance is discomfiture resulting from the inconsistency caused by the existence of two or more contradicting beliefs, opinions or understandings about the environment in which a person lives. Such inconsistencies make it difficult for the individual to determine which course his life will take. Consequently, it causes some level of discomfort, which the person strives to resolve by eliminating the inconsistency.
Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp 1-10.
Starzyk, K. B., Fabrigar, L. R., & Soryal, A. S. (2009). Reminder: The role of level and salience of attitude importance in cognitive dissonance. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin Jan, 35(1), 126–137.