Originally proposed by Leon Festinger, cognitive dissonance theory suggests we experience an unpleasant and uneasy state of mind whenever we become aware of major conflicts between our values, thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, etc. Cognitive dissonance can occur in many situations, especially when we need to choose among important options.
Why does cognitive dissonance occur? The dissonance results from the knowledge that we have already made a decision, and our thoughts corresponding to both the “positive characteristics of the rejected alternatives, and those corresponding to negative characteristics of the chosen alternative” (p. 261).¹
For example, after you buy an expensive bracelet, you might experience dissonance because you have spent a lot of money on a bracelet that is obviously not perfect or is not as beautiful as another piece you could have bought.
Dissonance could also occur “after an attempt has been made, by offering rewards or threatening punishment, to elicit overt behavior that is at variance with private opinion” (p. 261).¹
Let me explain using an example. Assume two facts about a hypothetical woman: She is financially struggling, and she opposes the objectification of women. Now suppose she is offered a high-paying job that requires her to dress in revealing clothes and behave flirtatiously with customers. If she takes the job, she may experience dissonance between the financial reward and her negative “private opinion” of the job’s sexist requirements. If she refuses the job, she may experience dissonance between having upheld her values and not having obtained money which she valued too.
Application of cognitive dissonance: Sexism at work
Here’s a more detailed example concerning a man (let’s call him John) who just found out he and other men at the company earn twice what their equally qualified female coworker (let’s call her Jane) makes.
Will John experience cognitive dissonance? Not necessarily. He might believe men, compared to women, are much better in this line of work, and therefore, deserve higher pay. Even if he agrees the pay is unfair for Jane, he may not experience dissonance if he does not value justice highly.
But suppose John values justice, and also thinks the situation is very unfair, and as a result experiences dissonance. John has several options in reducing his dissonance:
He could bring up the issue with his boss, inform Jane of the salary difference, contact human resources, etc.
Out of fear for his own job, John may decide not to take any action. But how else can he bring his beliefs and actions into alignment and return to the state of harmony—the state before he had found out about the pay difference?
He can use mental techniques and various forms of justification.
For instance, he might reason…
-Men’s primary commitment is to work but women’s primary commitment is to their family and children, so it makes sense women get paid less.
-There are historical reasons (men being breadwinners) why men are paid more.
-Jane gets other kinds of benefits from working for the company, benefits that might not be available to men (e.g., maternity vs paternity leave).
-There is no easy fix.
-It’s not his business.
-The salary difference is trivial anyway (he gets paid only a few thousand dollars more).
-The very fact that this issue is weighing on his conscience means John is a fair and caring guy, so he doesn’t really need to do anything.
-The person who should feel bad is the boss, not John.
Regardless of the accuracy or appropriateness of these thoughts and beliefs, John will experience less dissonance only if he finds them convincing.
Concluding thoughts on cognitive dissonance
As can be seen in the example concerning John and Jane, in face of inner dissonance and conflict people try to bring their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors into harmony—even if that means rationalizing injustice, stereotyping others, or deceiving themselves. But we are all “guilty” of doing whatever is necessary to reduce dissonance. Remember, we are not always aware of experiencing dissonance; therefore, it helps to bring awareness to our values, thoughts, and behaviors frequently, so we know more about what is motivating our actions…or lack of them.
1. Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.