Cognitive Dissonance


A tendency to seek consistency among attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs.

People strive to have consistency among their attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs. Cognitive dissonance is the state of mental discomfort that occurs when a person’s attitudes, thoughts, or beliefs (i.e., cognitions) conflict. If two cognitions agree with one another, there is consonance, and a state of comfort results. If two cognitions disagree with one another, there is dissonance, and a state of discomfort results. id="footnote36a"> class="nounder totri-footnote" href="">1

People alleviate cognitive dissonance in one of three ways: by reducing the importance of dissonant cognitions, adding consonant cognitions, or removing or changing dissonant cognitions. For example, advertising campaigns that urge people to show how much you care by buying diamonds seek to create cognitive dissonance in consumers—i.e., dissonance between the love that people have for others, and the pressure to prove that love by buying diamonds. In order to alleviate the dissonance, people can reduce the importance of the dissonant cognition (e.g., a diamond is, after all, just a bunch of pressed carbon), add consonant cognitions (e.g., recognize that the advertising campaign is trying to manipulate them using cognitive dissonance), or remove or change dissonant cognitions (e.g., show how much you care by doing something else or, of course, buying the diamonds).

When a situation involves incentives, it is interesting to note that incentives of different sizes yield different results. When incentives for an unpleasant task are small, people reduce dissonance by changing the dissonant cognition (e.g., “it is okay to perform this task because I like it”). When incentives for an unpleasant task are large, people reduce dissonance by adding a consonant cognition (e.g., “it is okay to perform this task because I am paid well”). When incentives are small, people are inclined to change the way the way they feel about what they are doing to alleviate dissonance. When incentives increase, people retain their original beliefs and alleviate dissonance by justifying their participation with their compensation. A small incentive is usually required to get a person to consider an unpleasant thought or engage in an unpleasant activity. Any incentive beyond this small incentive reduces, not increases, the probability of changing attitudes and beliefs—this critical point is known as the point of minimum justification. id="footnote37a"> class="nounder totri-footnote" href="">2

Consider cognitive dissonance in the design of advertising and marketing campaigns, or any other context where influence and persuasion is key. Use consonant and dissonant information when attempting to change beliefs. Engage people to invest their time, attention, and participation to create dissonant cognitions, and then provide simple and immediate mechanisms to alleviate the dissonance. When using compensation to reinforce change, use the minimal compensation possible to achieve change.