Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort a person feels when their behavior does not align with their values or beliefs.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a person holds two contradictory beliefs at the same time.

Read on to learn more about cognitive dissonance, including examples, signs a person might be experiencing it, causes, and how to resolve it.

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Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two related but contradictory cognitions, or thoughts. The psychologist Leon Festinger came up with the concept in 1957.

In his book “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance,” Festinger proposed that two ideas can be consonant or dissonant. Consonant ideas logically flow from one another. Dissonant ideas oppose one another.

For example, a person who wishes to protect others and believes that the COVID-19 pandemic is real might wear a mask in public. This is consonance.

If that same person believes the COVID-19 pandemic is real but refuses to wear a mask, their values and behaviors would contradict each other. This is dissonance.

The dissonance between two contradictory ideas, or between an idea and a behavior, creates discomfort. Festinger argued that cognitive dissonance is more intense when a person holds many dissonant views and those views are important to them.

Because it is something a person feels internally, it is not possible to physically observe dissonance. As such, no set of external signs can reliably indicate a person is experiencing cognitive dissonance.

However, Festinger believed that all people are motivated to avoid or resolve cognitive dissonance due to the discomfort it causes. This can prompt people to adopt certain defense mechanisms when they have to confront it.

These defense mechanisms fall into three categories:

  • Avoiding: This involves avoiding or ignoring the dissonance. People may avoid people or situations that remind them of it, discourage people from talking about it, or distract themselves with consuming tasks.
  • Delegitimizing: This involves undermining evidence of the dissonance. A person may do this by discrediting the person, group, or situation that highlighted the dissonance. For example, they might say it is untrustworthy or biased.
  • Limiting impact: This involves limiting the discomfort of cognitive dissonance by belittling its importance. A person may do this by claiming the behavior is rare or a one-off event, or by providing rational arguments to convince themselves or others that the behavior is OK.

Alternatively, people may take steps to try to resolve the inconsistency. It is possible to resolve cognitive dissonance by either changing one’s behavior or changing one’s beliefs so they are consistent with each other.

Some examples of cognitive dissonance include:


The following demonstrates how smoking can result in cognitive dissonance:

  • Conflict: Many people smoke even though they know it is harmful to their health. The magnitude of the dissonance will be higher in people who highly value their health.
  • Cognitive dissonance: A person may dislike the physical side effects of smoking but feel the act of smoking is relaxing and helps in other ways, such as alleviating their stress.
  • Resolving cognitive dissonance: They may use nicotine replacement therapy, such as gum or patches, to feel the effects of nicotine with fewer adverse effects. This may help them cut down or quit smoking.

Eating meat

The following demonstrates how eating meat can result in cognitive dissonance:

  • Conflict: Some people who view themselves as animal lovers eat meat and may feel discomfort when they think about where their meat comes from. Some researchers refer to this as the “meat paradox.”
  • Cognitive dissonance: A person may enjoy the taste of the meat but cannot afford ethical produce. They may feel guilty that they cannot afford meat from more humane sources.
  • Resolving cognitive dissonance: A person may choose to consume less meat and consider meat substitutes, such as tofu.

Doing household chores

The following demonstrates how doing household chores can result in cognitive dissonance:

  • Conflict: A male might believe in the equality of the sexes but then consciously or unconsciously expect their female partner to do most of the household labor or parenting.
  • Cognitive dissonance: The person may notice their partner is contributing more to the household chores and feel guilty. However, they may try to rationalize their actions by thinking that the chores are not that hard and they had a challenging day at work.
  • Resolving cognitive dissonance: They can work with their partner to divide the household chores fairly.

Supporting fast fashion

The following demonstrates how supporting fast fashion can result in cognitive dissonance:

  • Conflict: A person might be aware of the effects of fast fashion on the environment and workers but still purchase cheap clothes from companies that engage in harmful practices.
  • Cognitive dissonance: The person feels guilty about buying cheap clothes from companies that engage in harmful practices. However, they are unable to afford more expensive, ethically made clothing.
  • Resolving cognitive dissonance: A person may choose to buy clothes from thrift stores or save up to purchase one or two ethically sourced clothing items they can wear in multiple situations.

Anyone can experience cognitive dissonance. Sometimes, it is unavoidable.

People cannot always behave in a way that matches their beliefs. For example, a person may have to do something they disagree with at work.

Other potential triggers include:

  • having to make a decision when presented with multiple options or information
  • experiencing social pressure
  • addiction, such as with smoking

Cognitive dissonance can affect people in many ways. The effects may relate to the discomfort of the dissonance itself or the defense mechanisms a person adopts to deal with it.

The internal discomfort and tension of cognitive dissonance could contribute to stress or unhappiness. People who experience dissonance but have no way to resolve it may also feel powerless or guilty.

Avoiding, delegitimizing, and limiting the impact of cognitive dissonance may result in a person not acknowledging their behavior and thus not taking steps to resolve the dissonance. In some cases, this could cause harm to themselves or others.

However, cognitive dissonance can also be a tool for personal and social change. Drawing a person’s attention to the dissonance between their behavior and their values may increase their awareness of the inconsistency and empower them to act.

For example, a small 2019 study notes that dissonance-based interventions may be helpful for people with eating disorders. This approach works by encouraging people to say things or role-play behaviors that contradict their beliefs about food and body image. This creates dissonance.

The theory behind this approach is that in order to resolve the dissonance, a person’s implicit beliefs about their body and thinness will change, reducing their desire to limit their food intake.

The study found that this intervention was effective for heterosexual women but less effective for nonheterosexual women. Reasons why are unclear.

To resolve cognitive dissonance, a person can aim to ensure that their actions are consistent with their values or vice versa.

A person can achieve this by:

  • Changing their actions: This involves changing behavior so it matches a person’s beliefs. Where a full change is not possible, a person could make compromises. For instance, a person who cares about the environment but works for a company that pollutes might advocate for change at work if they cannot leave their job.
  • Changing their thoughts: If a person often behaves in a way that contradicts their beliefs, they may question how important that belief is or find that they no longer believe it. Alternatively, they might add new beliefs that bring their actions closer to their thinking.
  • Changing their perception of the action: If a person cannot or does not want to change the behavior or beliefs that cause dissonance, they may view the behavior differently instead. For example, a person who cannot afford to buy from sustainable brands might forgive themselves for this and acknowledge that they are doing the best they can.

Cognitive dissonance is not a mental health condition. A person does not necessarily need treatment for it.

However, if a person finds that they have difficulty stopping a behavior or thinking pattern that is causing them distress, they can seek support from a qualified healthcare professional, such as a primary care doctor or therapist.

A person may wish to consider reaching out to a professional if:

  • they have an addiction
  • the behavior causes problems at work, at school, or in relationships
  • they feel stressed, anxious, or depressed
  • they feel overwhelming guilt or shame

Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person’s behavior and beliefs do not complement each other or when they hold two contradictory beliefs. It causes a feeling of discomfort that can motivate people to try to feel better.

People may do this via defense mechanisms, such as avoidance. Alternatively, they may reduce cognitive dissonance by being mindful of their values and pursuing opportunities to live those values.

A person who feels defensive or unhappy might consider the role cognitive dissonance might play in these feelings. If they are part of a wider problem that is causing distress, people may benefit from speaking with a therapist.