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?

Arousing cognitive dissonance and utilising an individual’s desire to seek consistency between their actions and beliefs can be used to achieve behaviour change. There have been studies (Dickerson et al., 1992) that have made changed people’s behaviour through nudges which remind them of their core values and make the individual’s question their behaviour in a particular context.


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.

Related Concepts

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.  

Although we are mostly working with people with the right intentions for global positive outcomes (e.g. saving the environment), it is worth bearing in mind what the individuals underlying motives and values are as nudging someone with the wrong intentions could opposing behaviour change opposing our end goals and outcomes.

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 rationalise their actions 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.”