15 Sep 2022


Cognitive Dissonance: Concept Discussion

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Academic level: College

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Researchers have been interested in the process of learning for a while, a number of learning theories aiming to explain the process of learning have been developed. All theories use different approaches to explain learning process, for instance, behavioral theories pay attention to human behavior, while cognitive theories pay attention to mental processes. Cognitive dissonance theory falls into the category of cognitive learning theories; it attempts to explain learning based on the unique psychological processes of individuals. Cognitive dissonance theory focuses on the relationship between cognitions and behaviors. Human beings have countless and related cognitions that determine behavior, but when the cognitions are not related they cause ‘dissonance.” 

According to Telci et al. (2011) cognitive dissonance theory has changed the way psychologists view decision making process, and learning in general. It was developed and published in 1957 by Leo Festinger. The heart of cognitive dissonance theory is the idea of cognitions; cognitions are bits of knowledge about anything. Human beings have countless cognitions that determine their behavior, for instance, most human beings like cognitions. Festinger noted that most cognitions had nothing to do with each other, while some cognitions are related and they are called “consonant” cognitions. It is only rational that cognitions that are related should follow each other, for example a person who likes ice cream and is attempting to lose weight has two “dissonant” cognitions. 

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Festinger experimented on the cognitive dissonance theory by infiltrating a cult with his colleagues in the 1950s. The cult believed the prophesy that the world would end on a specific date due to flooding, but when the prophecy did not happen, the members felt duped. To cope with the unnerving feeling, the cult members went to extreme levels to explain that the prophecy was real, and that the cult saved the world from ending. After the cult experiment, Festinger and colleagues tested the theory in a laboratory setting (Festinger, 1957). Participants were asked to engage in a boring task, and they were required to tell the next participants how interesting the task was. Participants who were paid a lot of money rated the task as boring, while those who were paid a minimal fee rated the task as more interesting. Those who were paid a lot of money experience less dissonance when lying about the task, while those who were paid minimum had to explain why they went through the trouble of doing a boring task, thus they had to change their belief system and actually convince themselves that the task was interesting. 

Festinger (1957) acknowledges that having “dissonant” cognitions is uncomfortable. Cognitive dissonance produces a feeling of discomfort as human beings do not like dealing with conflicting beliefs and behaviors, hence they will attempt anything to restore balance/ consistency. Individuals will attempt to eliminate or reduce cognitive dissonance by all means; some ignore the tension while others use various strategies to reduce the tension. Festinger (1957) noted that cognitive dissonance can occur in large-scale and in small-scale. Ethnic or religious conflicts are examples of a large scale cognitive dissonance. Catholics and Protestants have different cognitions and belief systems, which makes others unreceptive to other ideas. Festinger (1957) notes that cognitive dissonance is quite unpleasant, people would rather be close-minded than deal with the consequences of cognitive dissonance. This can affect the way of thinking of an individual and their relationship with others. 

The dissonance can be reduced or solved by adopting various strategies. Individuals can change or more attitudes, behavior or the belief to reduce the dissonance. For instance, individuals who believe that smoking is harmful to one’s health often give up smoking because smoking is against their beliefs. The second strategy for reducing cognitive dissonance is by acquiring new information that will outweigh the dissonant belief. Using the example of smoking again, one can acquire new information from new studies that show that smoking is not fully proven to cause lung cancer, this will reduce the dissonance and the individual is less likely to feel uncomfortable when engaging in smoking. Information can be obtained through learning or observing what others do. Mentors play a critical role in ensuring that they mold others to change their behavior. This process is explained by the dissonance theory. 

Lastly, the dissonance can be reduced by reducing the importance attached to the cognitions. Cognitions are bits of knowledge about various concepts. Individuals can reduce dissonance by assigning little value to the cognitions, for instance, individuals can themselves that it is better to lead a fun life without any restriction. Carefree individuals do not assign much value to their cognitions, and are more likely to experience less dissonance in their lives (Casagrande, 2004). It is worth noting that the different strategies used in reducing dissonance do not eliminate the dissonance entirely, but the extent of the discomfort caused by the dissonance will reduce (Festinger, 1957). Cognitive dissonance theory is one of the most cited cognitive theories, and it plays an important role in attitude change. Cognitive dissonance is applied in decision making and encouraging compliance behavior. 

Cognitive dissonance has implications on a number of processes related to learning, particularly decision making and human memory. Decision making can be challenging when deciding between almost similar alternatives, and when an individual decides what to do, he/she will rationalize the decision by exaggerating the positive aspects of the preferred choices, and the negative aspects of the other alternatives. Cognitive dissonance is often used to justify forced compliance. In learning institutions, students find themselves doing things they do not want to do. Students do not enjoy waking up early to study, but because they do not want to fail, they end up doing the things they do not want to do. In order to minimize the dissonance, students will actually change their beliefs. Cognitive dissonance theory states that human beings make decisions based on the consistency or inconsistency of cognitions. Human beings countless cognitions that make up their memory, and in most cases, they feel the need to ensure consistency in their cognitions. A student is more likely to study harder in order to understand a difficult concept because such concepts can cause dissonance. 

According to Casagrande (2004) Cognitive dissonance theory is a dominant paradigm that has been studied by many researchers. Cognitive dissonance theory shows that individual values, opinion and behaviors are determined by cognitions, however, individuals are willing to change their belief systems to avoid dissonance, hence, the theory plays an important role in learning. 

Learning is described as the act of acquiring new information or the change in one’s disposition (Dembo, 1994). Learning is a continuous process of acquiring new information in a manner that will rhyme with the belief system already held by the student. Intentional learning is different from tacit learning, which bombards students with new information that might be different from their belief system. When learning new concepts, students deal with a lot of unsettling misconceptions, hence it is the responsibility of the instructor to help students make sense of the new information and to reduce the dissonance. Instructors can reduce the dissonance by explaining new information in a way that the students will change their belief system to avoid conflicts. 

Cognitive dissonance is a powerful tool that can inspire meaningful learning among students. In most cases, students are not motivated to learn on their own, but when they experience dissonance, they are motivated to learn. Cognitive dissonance inspires self-assessment, when students experience dissonance; they evaluate their knowledge and belief system to identify the cause of dissonance. Once a student has identified the cause of dissonance, one will set goals on how to reduce the dissonance through practice and search for information. The dissonance acts as source of long-term growth; it engages students in reflection and imagination that will enable them to reduce the dissonance. 

Ince (2012) uses common examples in the learning process to explain the importance of cognitive dissonance theory. Students commonly experience the paradox of learning, whereby students do not understand what they are supposed to learn in the first place. New concepts can be very unnerving, and in most cases, students can choose to ignore, because the concepts are quite strange. For example, at the beginning of every new semester, I find it hard to study because I have no idea about most of the concepts that we are going to learn through the semester. At that moment, the concepts are not related to the concepts that we learnt in the previous semester, and they do not make sense to me, thus creating dissonance. But as the semester progresses, or due to further reading, I begin to understand a few concepts. This will motivate me to learn because the new concepts are related to the other concepts, which were previously challenging. Cognitive dissonance is applied to the learning process; students are motivated to learn more, once they understand a small aspect of a new concept. Since education is progressive, this theory helps students to build new knowledge from the previously established knowledge. 

Cognitive dissonance theory influence student motivation and success. Based on the experiment conducted by Festinger and colleagues in the laboratory to test the theory, it became evident that individuals can engage in boring tasks when there are external rewards. However, when the rewards are not appealing, they actually learn to enjoy the process. Learning is a challenging process, not all students are intrinsically motivated. Grades and rewards for exemplary performance are some of the external stimuli used to motivate students to learn. Alternatively, students who are not motivated by extrinsic rewards actually manage to change their belief systems so that they can enjoy learning. This theory therefore, ensures there is continuity in learning as students can be able to gain an inner drive to complete their studies. 

According to Ince (2012), instructors can use cognitive dissonance theory to change students’ attitudes and to motivate them to perform better. Instructors identify the beliefs behind the students’ attitudes to get a clear understanding of his/her students. Then the instructor will introduce new beliefs supported by powerful information to counter the student belief system, creating a dissonance. A high dissonance is created by providing comprehensive information to support the new belief system, such that the students will have to adjust their belief systems to accommodate new beliefs and attitudes. 

In conclusion, cognitive dissonance theory is probably one of the most relatable cognitive theories. Individuals experience many forms of dissonance in their daily lives, and they resort to various measures to reduce the dissonance. Cognitive dissonance can be a source of self-motivation and evaluation for learners. Making sense of new concepts is a conflicting process that often leads to dissonance. However, there are productive ways of dealing with the dissonance such as development of competencies that reduce the dissonance. The application of cognitive dissonance theory in a student life is not limited to learning only.It can also help students to develop long-range planning and decision-making skills that will make them independent in their actions. 


Casagrande, D. (2004, December). Bateson, Festinger, and the Recursive Role of Cognitive Dissonance in Social Organization. In Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association

Dembo, M. H. (1994). Applying educational psychology . Longman/Addison Wesley Longman. 

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 

Ince, A. J. (2012). Diving for pearls: an exploration of cognitive dissonance as an educative resource in complex professional learning (Doctoral dissertation, Institute of Education, University of London). 

Telci, E. E., Maden, C., & Kantur, D. (2011). The theory of cognitive dissonance: A marketing and management perspective. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences , 24 , 378-386. 

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