Cognitive Dissonance Theory


What is it?

Cognitive dissonance is an internal inconsistency between actions or behaviours and thoughts, attitudes or beliefs. This disharmony between a person’s beliefs and behaviours causes mental discomfort when they realise they are acting in a way that does not align with their core values. According to cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957), individuals tend to seek consistency between their cognitions and behaviours. This is also known as the principal of cognitive consistency.

An individual can resolve cognitive dissonance in one of three ways:

1. Change their behaviour to be more aligned with their beliefs

2. Change their belief to be more aligned with their behaviour; or

3. Rationalise the behaviour by changing the way you perceive your actions.

Why is it important for behaviour change?

Identifying an individual’s desire to seek consistency between their actions and beliefs can be used to achieve behaviour change. It is important for behaviour change because people struggle to live with inconsistent values and behaviours, thus bridging the gap can be a strong motivation to change behaviour. Sometimes peoples thoughts and attributions will be as a result of cognitive dissonance and not necessarily reflect their core values.


Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance, Evanston, IL: Row & Peterson.

Festinger, L. & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203 – 210.

Dickerson, C. A., Thibodeau, R., Aronson, E., & Miller, D. (1992). Using cognitive dissonance to encourage water conservation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 22(11), 841-854.

How could you apply this theory?

Cognitive dissonance should be considered when designing any behaviour change program. In order to find whether there is cognitive dissonance affecting people ask yourself are they acting in a way that aligns with their core values and beliefs. Reminding people of their beliefs and nudging them to be more mindful of their actions is a great way to kick-start this ‘inner drive’ (Festinger, 1957) that people have to strive for cognitive consistency.  

Behaviour change strategies should align cognitions and behaviours with values and beliefs.

Example of theory applied/Story

  • In the cane industry, although a grower might want to save the reef (belief), their actions may not align with this belief (e.g. not being BMP accredited or engaging in best practices). They may change their cognitions to rationalise their inactions by stating; “If I change my practices, it won’t make a substantial difference to the entire reef ecosystem so what’s even the point? I may as well keep doing things the same if no one else is changing either.”  By doing this, they have cognitive consistency rather than changing their actions and uptaking better farming practices

  • This was first highlighted in Festinger and Carlsmith’s 1959 study. Participants were asked to complete a lengthy, boring task. These participants were then offered either $1 or $20 in payment and were asked to tell the next participants (confederates) that the task was enjoyable. Results demonstrated that participants who were offered only $1 were later rated the task as more enjoyable than participants who were offered $20. Being paid $1 is an unclear justification to lie about the task, so participants instead reduced their cognitive dissonance by changing how enjoyable they viewed the task. Those who were paid $20 did not need to change how they enjoyable their viewed the activity, because the money was justification for them to lie.

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