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What is Cognitive Dissonance?

By Kate Lonas
Updated May 17, 2024
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When people learn something that doesn’t agree with what they currently know to be true, they may do one of several things. They may change the first idea to fit the newly introduced second idea; they may add another idea to the first two, to bridge the difference; or they may drop either of the two ideas. All of these are reactions to a state called cognitive dissonance, a mental feeling of discomfort or stress that, according to some psychologists, people will do anything to avoid.

A psychologist named Leon Festinger developed the theory of cognitive dissonance in the mid-1950s. He considered a cult that expected aliens to destroy the earth on a particular date and time, and who were deeply invested in this belief. When this event failed to happen, the members of the cult did not abandon their original idea, but adjusted it by maintaining that the aliens had not come because God, seeing how devoted this small group of humans was, gave his divine protection to Earth. The group then became more fervent in their beliefs.

The members of this cult were protecting their cognitive consonance, the integrity of their knowledge, by creating a new idea that allowed both their convictions and the material truth of a world not destroyed by aliens to coexist. Most of the things that people know aren’t so closely related. These ideas can operate together simultaneously in a state of cognitive irrelevance that poses no challenges to the mind at all. To think that boy scouts are well-behaved and that mittens are warm are two ideas that, taken together, create no tension, for instance. But if a rude boy scout should happen along, cognitive dissonance occurs. It will be necessary for the mind to resolve this somehow, either by revising the previously-held high opinion of boy scouts, imagining that this boy scout will not be a boy scout for long, or forgetting that the bad boy scout ever existed.

Cognitive dissonance happens every time some new concept varies from a related older one, and that occurs every day. Cognitive dissonance, in fact, is an essential aspect of learning. Much of the time, the intensity of the cognitive dissonance is not great and the tension is easily resolved. When the conflicting notions touch closely on a person’s opinion of himself or of a matter he considers to be of importance, however, cognitive dissonance is most painful.

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Discussion Comments
By icecream17 — On Nov 23, 2010

Sunny27- I agree with you. I think that the most significant cognitive dissonance attitude change involves the way the American people view Obama.

Many people who did not take the time to study his background and voting record were in awe of a candidate that spoke in flowery terms but said nothing.

Most of the people that supported him had very high expectations of him because he spoke in such an articulate manner.

They got caught up in the romantic notion of electing the first black president and did not really understand the man that they were voting for.

Needless to say, Obama’s approval rating is now in the low 40’s and falling everyday. The last congressional election caused his party to lose 63 seats in the House of Representatives and was considered the largest gains against a sitting president since 1948.

The majority of people that supported him are now suffering from an incredible case of cognitive dissonance.

By Sunny27 — On Nov 23, 2010

Mutsy- Cognitive psychology also explains the same phenomenon with regards to celebrities. We often enjoy an actor’s films and associate positive attributes to the actor without even knowing them.

However, like many Hollywood actors, sometimes they engage in politics and can sound a bit condescending if you are from the opposing side.

For example, when Sean Penn went to see Hugo Chavez the socialist dictator in Venezuela and praised him publicly it really turned me off to him.

Also, when Danny Glover said that Castro, the communist dictator in Cuba was a great leader, I lost all respect for him.

These actions really changed my opinion of these actors that I won’t watch a film that they are in. Cognitive dissonance theory is most helpful for understanding our changes in beliefs toward things and people.

By mutsy — On Nov 23, 2010

Cafe41- Cognitive dissonance psychology is a study of how a person becomes disappointed in something that they previously held a high opinion of.

Social psychology cognitive dissonance can also occur with social experience. Let’s say your child’s teacher invites you to the classroom to participate in an event.

Your child’s teacher always seemed friendly and greeted you every time she saw you. However, when you enter the classroom the teacher is yelling at the children and actually humiliating them.

At this point, you have shifted your thinking from feeling that the teacher was warm and friendly to rude and borderline abusive. This is a true form of dissonance in cognitive attitudes.

By cafe41 — On Nov 23, 2010

Cognitive dissonance in psychology is nothing more than a change of heart about something. For example, if you are excited to see a movie that has been talked about for a while only to leave the theater disappointed because the movie did not live up to your expectations then you experienced a cognitive dissonance attitude change.

The same could be said if you make reservations for a restaurant that you remember enjoying previously only having a mediocre experience then the experience will change your attitude about the restaurant and you will no longer consider it with such high regard.

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