What Does Cognitive Dissonance Mean? The Theory and Definition
The theory describes the tension that occurs when your beliefs and behaviors don’t match up. Take a deep dive into what happens next.
Medically Reviewed by Samuel Mackenzie, MD, PhD
You may not be familiar with the term “cognitive dissonance,” but it’s the word psychologists use to describe a phenomenon that you likely encounter regularly, if not daily. We humans probably always have, though it wasn’t until the 1950s that the social psychologist Leon Festinger outlined its theory and named it. Since then it’s become one of the most influential theories in psychology. (1,2)
“Cognitive dissonance is basically this phenomenon whereby we have a natural drive for consistency, in that our belief system must be consistent with itself and it must be consistent with our actions,” says Matt Johnson, PhD, a professor and associate dean at Hult International Business School in San Francisco. But that consistency doesn’t always happen, and distress can arise as a result.
Festinger’s original premise was that humans prefer to live in a stable world, in which beliefs are consistent with one another and actions align with beliefs. So when you fall out of that perfect harmony and either think or act in opposition to your belief system, tension builds and you become distressed. That distress is called dissonance.
The theory further suggests that present actions can influence subsequent beliefs and values, a conundrum psychologists have noted when studying cognitive dissonance. Our beliefs and values should determine our actions, not the other way around — right?
But if we accept that our beliefs or values can influence our actions and that our actions can influence our beliefs or values, that helps explain a lot of very common human tendencies: like our tendency to rationalize or justify behavior, or the way our beliefs and values change as we navigate different situations in life, and that common human pitfall, hypocrisy. (3)
It’s a universal feeling that all humans have to deal with. “Cognitive dissonance is common to everyone as we encounter different decisions and experiences in our lives that may challenge our existing belief systems or contradict some of our current behaviors,” says Corrine Leikam, PsychD, an associate director at Sober College, an addiction treatment facility in Los Angeles.
Why is it important to think about how cognitive dissonance relates to your own health and wellness? Because the mental or emotional distress it can cause can definitely affect your health and well-being.
The intensity of the discomfort that comes from cognitive dissonance depends somewhat on personality. People who are flexible enough to adjust their thoughts or live with “gray areas” may not have a strong response when they notice the discrepancies. “Some people may experience it more intensely or frequently if they have a high need for consistency in their lives,” Dr. Leikam says. And recognizing and addressing those negative thoughts or emotions is important.
How Cognitive Dissonance Makes People Feel
Recognizing the disparity between thoughts or actions is what causes dissonance — and makes you feel the need to return to harmony. “In any instance where our beliefs are inconsistent, we essentially have a really profound psychic discomfort, and we must act in a way that resolves that conflict,” Johnson says.
That’s because that discomfort brings a host of less-than-ideal feelings with it. Anxiety and distress are common, Leikam says. And it’s worth noting that the distress you feel will be more intense the more important the belief is to you. So a core value or a long-held truth being challenged (such as, for example, a spiritual belief or moral) will be more troubling than something that doesn’t mean as much to you (such as, for example, breaking a recent commitment to a New Year’s resolution you weren’t that invested in in the first place).
Consider an example Johnson often uses in class: Let’s say you’re a vegetarian. You believe that it’s wrong to eat meat, and you also believe you do not eat meat. But one night you go out for drinks and end up having a few too many rounds. Your guard is down. You’re not thinking clearly. At the end of the night, you eat a couple of steak tacos, which of course are not vegetarian. The next day, you probably feel guilty and embarrassed. You may also feel angry with yourself or like a failure for caving on your intention to live a meat-free life
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