The cognitive dissonance theory was coined by Leon Festinger (1957). Festinger suggests that our thoughts can show three relationships:
- Consonance: “I am a good student”, and “I always prepare for school”
- Dissonance: “I smoke”, and “smoking is a great health risk”
- Irrelevance: “I am a good student”, and “smoking is a great health risk”
According to dissonance theory, we have an inner motivation to achieve or restore cognitive consonance as it fosters a pleasant feeling. This is because when we have consonant thoughts, we are more true to ourselves.
Also, when we experience dissonance, we tend to experience tensions/unpleasant feelings that foster attitude or behavior change so that we achieve or restore consonance.
The cognitive dissonance theory was illustrated in a classic experiment by Festinger and Carlsmith (1959). Here, participants were asked to evaluate a dull task. Participants who were paid $1 rated the task as more fun and enjoyable than participants who were paid $20.
Participants who were paid $1 lied to themselves because why would they do a dull task for only $1 if it was not fun and enjoyable? Participants who were paid $20 did not have to make up lies as they were paid relatively well.
5 ways we avoid cognitive dissonance
- We change behavior so that it matches our thoughts, attitudes or beliefs
- We change our thinking so that it matches our behavior
- We find and believe information that matches our behavior
- We avoid information that contradicts our beliefs
- We avoid situations where we risk to act in ways that contradict our thoughts, attitudes or beliefs
If you want to change someone’s attitude, you could try to create cognitive dissonance in that person’s thoughts.
For example, someone who believes smoking is a great health risk, but still smokes, might experience cognitive dissonance. You could try to emphasize this dissonance so that he begins to realize that his thoughts are dissonant.
We should note that many people seem to cope just fine with dissonance. Why is that? The degree to which a person experiences cognitive dissonance depends on two factors:
- The proportion of dissonant and consonant thoughts
- The importance of the thoughts
First, if I believe I live a healthy lifestyle, the proportion of consonant thoughts that support this belief are larger than the proportion of dissonant thoughts that disprove it.
Secondly, someone who thinks that his dissonant thoughts have no personal significance/importance are less likely to change them, e.g. “I smoke even though I know smoking is a great health risk because it does not affect me as I am invulnerable.”