Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance can be understood as a state of feeling triggered by incompatible perceptions. Such states can be diverse, including individual opinions, attitudes, thoughts, goals, or conflicting emotions.
Cognitive Dissonance

What is Cognitive Dissonance? 

Cognitions are a person’s perceptions of reality that can be interrelated. Cognitive dissonance occurs when two sets of cognitions exist simultaneously in a person and contradict or exclude each other.

When a person experiences such dissonance, they want to resolve it. To do so, they must seek an environment in which the dissonance can be reduced or even eliminated. A good example is a person who smokes: the person is likely aware of the medical consequences of smoking, but their positive attitude towards smoking contradicts this awareness, creating a cognitive dissonance.

In this case, one way to reduce the dissonance (the behaviour aimed at eliminating cognitive dissonance) would be to deny the medical facts or not perceive them in everyday life. The best and healthiest option would be to change their behaviour and quit smoking.

Cognitive Dissonances in everyday life

Cognitive dissonances occur more often than one might think. Most of them are not recognised as such because they happen unconsciously. For example, purchasing decisions frequently trigger cognitive dissonance. Actions and decisions turn out to be bad in hindsight: after buying a new washing machine, one realises that it was vastly overpriced. However, people usually do not admit to making a mistake but instead prepare appropriate justifications for others and for themselves. 

Another example from everyday life is the assessment of other people. One learns something negative about an acquaintance, which is entirely contradictory to the otherwise positive image one had of that person. 

Perceptions of cognitive dissonances can become uncomfortable. If someone wants to live healthier, spend more time outdoors, and exercise, but fails due to lack of discipline, it creates a contradiction between their self-image and reality. 

Frequently asked questions and answers  

In the field of social psychology, cognitive dissonance is referred to as a negatively perceived state by an individual. People experience this state due to incompatible cognitions such as thoughts, opinions, perceptions, attitudes, or desires. 

Social psychologist Leon Festinger summarises these cognitions as cognitive elements. They are basic building blocks of human memory. If two elements are contradictory, dissonance arises. Festinger’s theory assumes that the negative state of cognitive dissonance puts pressure on a person to reduce or eliminate it. The need for dissonance reduction depends on the perceived extent of the corresponding dissonance. 

Another hypothesis of Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance is that the dissonance between two elements cannot be greater than necessary to change the less resistant element. The less resistant element would change at the time of maximum possible dissonance, thereby eliminating cognitive dissonance. 

For most people, cognitive dissonance manifests itself especially at the beginning of a new year. If you think about your New Year’s resolutions within the first few weeks or months after the New Year, you quickly realise that you were usually unable to stick to them. 

Eating less candy and doing more exercise? Few people make these desires a reality. There is usually a lack of time and discipline to put these intentions into practice. The resulting negative feeling is that of cognitive dissonance, two sets of cognitions contradict each other: one knows that one wants to exercise more and eat less candy but cannot do it for various reasons. 

The simplest solution would be to change one’s behaviour and go to the gym regularly, for example. However, few people are that disciplined. In such situations, the obvious contradictions are talked down, people distract themselves with other things or specifically look for information that makes their behaviour look more positive. They argue, for example, that two or three visits to the gym have no effect, or that chocolate is good for the nerves and can’t be all that unhealthy. 


  • Gabler Wirtschaftslexikon. Definition: Was ist “kognitive Dissonanz”? Springer Gabler | Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH:
  • KOGNITIVE DISSONANZ – Warum wir uns so leicht selbst betrügen. G+J Medien GmbH: