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Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive dissonance is a communication theory adopted from social psychology. The title gives the concept: cognitive is thinking or the mind; and dissonance is inconsistency or conflict. Cognitive dissonance is the psychological conflict from holding two or more incompatible beliefs simultaneously. Cognitive dissonance is a relatively straightforward social psychology theory that has enjoyed wide acceptance in a variety of disciplines including communication.

The theory replaces previous conditioning or reinforcement theories by viewing individuals as more purposeful decision makers; they strive for balance in their beliefs. If presented with decisions or information that create dissonance, they use dissonance-reduction strategies tot regain equilibrium, especially if the dissonance affects their self-esteem. The theory suggests that 1) dissonance is psychologically uncomfortable enough to motivate people to achieve consonance, and 2) in a state of dissonance, people will avoid information and situations that might increase the dissonance. How dissonance arises is easy to imagine: It may be unavoidable in an information rich-society. How people deal with it is more difficult.

History and Orientation

Leon Festinger (1951) synthesized a set of studies to distill a theory about communication's social influences. Cognitive dissonance enjoyed great popularity from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s. Theoretical problems and conflicting findings lead to temporary replacement by similar "self" theories in the early 1980s, but cognitive dissonance regained its place as the umbrella theory for selective exposure to communication by the late 1980s.

Scope and Application

Dissonance theory applies to all situations involving attitude formation and change. This theory is able to manipulate people into certain behavior, by doing so these people will alter their attitudes themselves. It is especially relevant to decision-making and problem-solving.


Consider a driver who refuses to use a seat belt despite knowing that the law requires it, and it saves lives. Then a news report or a friend's car incident stunts the scofflaw into facing reality. Dissonance may be reduced by 1) altering behavior… start using a seat belt so the behavior is consonant with knowing that doing so is smart or 2) seeking information that is consonant with the behavior… air bags are safer than seat belts. If the driver never faces a situation that threatens the decision not to use seat belts, then no dissonance-reduction action is likely because the impetus to reduce dissonance depends on the magnitude of the dissonance held.


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This text was excerpted from the website of the University of Twente in The Netherlands (www.tcw.utwente.nl).

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