Cognitive Dissonance Theory

In 1957, psychologist Leon Festinger suggested in his cognitive dissonance theory that every person has an inner drive and desire to avoid dissonance (or disharmony) in all of their attitudes and beliefs (cognitions), and that they ultimately wish to achieve harmony (consonance) among their cognitions.

If a person has feelings of discomfort due to conicting, simultaneous cognitions, this is known as cognitive dissonance. In order to reduce the discomfort and restore balance, a cognition has to undergo an alteration of some sort.

Festinger began investigating his theory while studying participants from a cult. The people he observed believed that the planet was going to be destroyed by a great flood, and some members went to extreme lengths for the cause they believed in, selling their homes and leaving their jobs in anticipation of the coming calamity. When the great flood they had spoken of never occurred, Festinger wanted to observe their reactions.

While some recognized that they had been foolish and left the cult, members that were more committed to the cause reinterpreted evidence to support their story, claiming that the earth was saved because of the cult members’ faithfulness.

When the cognitions were inconsistent, the members of the cult sought to alter their beliefs to restore consistency and harmony.

Doctoral Definition

Cognition: A part of knowledge in the form of an emotion, behavior, idea, belief, value, or attitude. For example, the knowledge that you caught a baseball, the knowledge that a song makes you happy, and the knowledge that you like the color green are all cognitions. A person can have many cognitions going on concurrently, and cognitions will create dissonant and consonant relationships with other cognitions.


Dissonance can be created when a person is forced to do something in public that in private they would not want to do. This creates a dissonance between the cognition, which states, “I did not want to do that,” and the behavior. This is also known as forced compliance, which occurs when a person does something that is inconsistent with what he or she believes.

Because a past behavior cannot be changed, the only way to reduce the dissonance is by re-evaluating and changing the person’s attitude towards the behavior. To prove forced compliance, Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith conducted the following experiment.

The Experiment

  1. Divide your test subjects into two groups: Group A and Group B. Group A should not be provided any introduction about the tasks, and Group B should be given an introduction that presents the activities in an enjoyable and interesting manner.
  2. Start out by having the participants perform a series of incredibly boring and repetitive tasks. For the first half hour, ask the subjects to place twelve spools on and off of a tray with one hand. For the next half hour, have the subjects turn square pegs clockwise on a pegboard in quarter-turns, again only using one hand. Once the cycle has been nished and all forty-eight square pegs are turned the subjects will have to start turning the square pegs again.
  3. Once completed, interview the subjects on how enjoyable they found the tasks to be.
  4. Let around one-third of the subjects go at this point. This is your control group. Prior to being released, these people should discuss in their interview how the project could be improved for future studies.
  5. Everyone else remaining will be given the option of becoming the experimenter. All they have to do is tell the next group of participants about the tasks they are about to perform in a positive manner. Half of the group will be offered $1 for their contribution, and the other half will be offered $20 for their contribution.
  6. Interview the subjects once again and ask them to rate these four parts of the experiment: whether they feel the tasks they had to perform were enjoyable or interesting (on a scale of -5 to +5); whether this experiment allows them to learn about their own skills (on a scale of 0 to 10); whether they believe this experiment was measuring anything important (on a scale of 0 to 10); and whether the participant would want to do another study like this in the future (on a scale of -5 to +5).

The Results

In Festinger and Carlsmith’s original experiment, eleven of the seventy-one responses were deemed invalid for a variety of reasons. Of the remaining responses, the scores were as reported below:

Interview QuestionExperimental Condition Control (N=20Experimental Condition One Dollar (N=20)Experimental Condition Twenty Dollars (N=20)
How enjoyable the tasks were (from -5 to +5)-.45+1.35-.05
How much you learned (from 0 to 10)3.082.803.15
Scientific importance (from 0 to 10)5.606.455.18
Would you participate in a similar experiment (from -5 to +5)-.621.20-.25

Festinger and Carlsmith believed the answer to the first question was the most important and that these results showed cognitive dissonance. Because the control group was not offered any money, this was how the participants truly felt about the test (rating it a negative 0.45). The dramatic difference between the group that was offered $1 and the group that was offered $20 can be explained by cognitive dissonance.

The subjects involved in the study were conflicted between the cognitions “I told someone the test was interesting” and “I really found it to be boring.” When offered a single dollar, the participants began internalizing and rationalizing their attitudes into thinking that it was actually enjoyable because there was no other justication to be had. Festinger and Carlsmith believed that the group that was offered $20, however, had the money as a justification for their actions. Therefore, the group that was offered $1 had insufficient justication for their actions and experienced cognitive dissonance.