Cognitive Dissonance

As you do, I was discussing Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance with a colleague this week. Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. This produces a feeling of mental discomfort leading to an alteration in one of the attitudes, beliefs or behaviours to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.

For example, when people smoke (behaviour) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition), they are in a state of cognitive dissonance. The smoker has to accommodate somehow – by changing behaviour (cutting down on smoking), belief (denying the science or using another theory – confirmation bias – to persuade themselves that there is no risk) or attitude (finding some other, obtuse, justification).

I was discussing how cognitive dissonance explains the observation that taught students can take an initial and immediate step backwards in understanding / learning from being in a lesson. (They develop understanding as they ‘inwardly digest’, as my father would have said – the learning settles in and becomes accepted in time.)

As I have thought about the conversation overnight I have realised how it (cognitive dissonance) also applies to children’s immediate response to an adult’s intervention in poor behaviour, to remove a child who has disrupted a lesson, or to prevent someone getting physically hurt. It often does not go down well, and rarely leads to an immediate or long-term change in behaviour. Our immediate physical intervention to prevent a situation developing does not usually lead to long-lasting new and better behaviours (but then we do not expect it to in that situation).

Who came up with cognitive dissonance theory?

Leon Festinger first investigated cognitive dissonance, in an observation study of a cult. The cult believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood; the study looked at what happened to its members — particularly the deeply committed who had given up homes and jobs for the cult — when the flood did not happen.

While fringe members were more inclined to accept that they had made fools of themselves and to write it off, the committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (an example of confirmation bias) - the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members.

How Attitude Change Takes Place

Festinger suggests that we all have an inner drive to hold our attitudes and behaviours in harmony and to avoid dissonance. It ‘feels’ unsettling or unnerving for things to appear out of place, balance or in conflict. In a way this explains car-sickness when one sense says the body is moving and another that it is sitting still – the conflicting input causes dissonance that we fight to reconcile or eliminate.

When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviours, something must change to eliminate the dissonance.

Dissonance theory does not say that efforts at reduction will actually work, only that, in a state of cognitive dissonance, we will take steps to reduce that dissonance.

According to Festinger’s theory, three things cause cognitive dissonance: Forced Compliance Behaviour, Decision Making, and Effort.

Forced Compliance Behaviour

When someone is forced to do (publicly) something they (privately) really do not want to do, dissonance is created between their cognition (‘I didn't want to do this’) and their behaviour (‘I had to do it’). Likewise, dissonance occurs when someone is forced to stop doing something they really want to do.

Forced compliance occurs when an individual performs an action that is inconsistent with his or her beliefs – we make a child apologise when they do not feel they have done anything wrong, we make them share when they want full use, we force them to give another child a turn in goal when they only want that position, we stop them ‘pushing in’ when they want to be first, we step in to prevent one child hurting another when they feel justified. Because our actions are often reactive, the behaviour cannot be changed as it is already in the past, so dissonance will only be reduced by re-evaluating their attitude to what they have done. We hope there will be learning, but that is not a guaranteed outcome.

This prediction, on attitudes changing in light of forced behaviour so as to reduce internal dissonance, was tested by Festinger. His researchers asked participants to perform a series of boring and pointless tasks (such as turning pegs in a pegboard for an hour); participant's attitudes toward this task were highly negative at the start.

Participants to perform a series of dull tasks and were then paid either $1 or $20 to tell a waiting participant that the tasks were really interesting.  When the participants were asked to evaluate the experiment, the participants who were paid only $1 rated the tedious task as more fun and enjoyable than the participants who were paid $20 to tell the lie!

Being paid only $1 is not sufficient incentive for lying and does not make the task worth doing for the money; those who were paid $1 experienced dissonance. They could only overcome that dissonance by convincing themselves and others that the tasks really were interesting and enjoyable. Being paid $20 provided a reason for turning pegs, and there was therefore no dissonance – you could justify doing it for the cash.

Decision Making

Life is filled with decisions, and decisions (as a general rule) arouse dissonance. We move from one state to another, rejecting our former position – nice new curtains, wearing socks with sandals, changing jobs, joining a club…


We convince ourselves that things achieved through lots of effort are intrinsically highly valuable, even if other people do not recognise the value (my Christmas cake is much nicer than a shop bought, obviously, as it took so long and so much love to bake).

How cognitive dissonance can be resolved:

Dissonance can be reduced in one of three ways: changing existing beliefs, adding new beliefs, or reducing the importance of the beliefs.

Change one or more of the attitudes, behaviour, beliefs, etc.,

When one of the dissonant elements is a behaviour, the individual can change or eliminate the behaviour. However, this frequently presents problems for people, as it is often difficult for people to change well-learned behavioural responses (e.g., giving up smoking or not hitting others).

Acquire new information that outweighs the dissonant beliefs.

For example, thinking smoking causes lung cancer will cause dissonance if a person smokes.

However, new information such as “research has not proved definitely that smoking causes lung cancer” may reduce the dissonance, and in terms of aggressive behaviour – ‘hitting someone does not always mean I get excluded’.

Reduce the importance of the cognitions (i.e., beliefs, attitudes).

A person could convince themselves that it is better to "live for today" than to "save for tomorrow."

In other words, he could tell himself that a short life filled with smoking and sensual pleasures is better than a long life devoid of such joys. In this way, he would be decreasing the importance of the dissonant cognition (smoking is bad for one's health, being in trouble for hurting others is not so bad and only temporary).


Presenting children with the universality of rights causes dissonance for some, as they do not recognise the needs or rights of other people (they may still be egocentric, lacking empathy yet). For this dissonance to give the desired outcome and change in behaviour we have to work on that child’s belief system, to get them to recognise the rights of others and to value others. It is not as simple as forced compliance – that only leads to compliance while the forces of law and order are visible (like driving below the speed limit in front of a speed camera). This is not quick or simple for some children and so we, the adults, must be patient, consistent and determined.

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