Cognitive Dissonance: Changing Attitudes and Behaviour

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Cognitive Dissonance: Changing Attitudes and Behaviour

We have a group who believed the world was going to end on a specific date…They would be picked up at a specific time by flying saucers. They were all sitting around waiting and, of course, nobody came. And, after four to six hours of turmoil and desperation, they reached the conclusion that God had saved the world because they had sat up all night praying. And then…they went out proselytizing very hard. (Leon Festinger, Psychologists on Psychology)

Most of us feel the need to justify our actions however odd and bizarre they may be. People who smoke know that nicotine addiction is seriously harmful to health. The same is true of people who drink more than two to three times what is recommended.

We are powerfully motivated to achieve consonance. There is some debate about whether this is equally true in all cultures.

Why can even skilled interviewers seem never to be able to get politicians to answer simple questions? One answer is that politicians are terrified about appearing inconsistent: if you don’t make promises or predictions you do not have to honour them.

Dissonance theory is interestingly provocative. It suggests behaviour can lead to attitude change more easily than the other way around. Change the behaviour and the attitudes follow.

The theory speaks of the ’insufficient justification effect’. When our actions are not obviously explained by external rewards (like money) or coercion (like orders) we will experience dissonance. Cognitive dissonance celebrates the attitudes-follow-behaviour effect, not the other way around. The more you coerce people the less they change.

Imagine you have three groups of people who write long critical well-referenced essays about some important issue that they personally do not believe in (capital punishment, apartheid, research on animals). One group is forced to do it (with severe punishment if they do not), one group is paid handsomely (£100) while the third group is paid a paltry sum (£1) for their efforts. The theory states, and the data shows, that it is the third group whose attitudes should change most toward that of the topic of the essay because they can’t easily justify doing it because of being forced to, or the reward of much money.

Dissonance is aroused and has to be reduced under very specific situations, according to the theory.

First, people must feel that their attitude-discrepant behaviour is freely chosen, completely volitional and that they are personally responsible for it. If they act under coercion from some external force or threat (or lack of choice) dissonance is not necessarily aroused.

Second, they must feel that this attitude-discrepant behaviour is firmly committed and irrevocable. If the behaviour is easily modifiable this reduces dissonance.

Third, they must believe that their behaviour has important consequences for themselves and others. If the consequences are minor or trivial they are unlikely to experience any dissonance.

Fourth, people experience most dramatic dissonance pressure when the particular attitudes or behaviour concerned is that which is central to their self-concept, self-worth and value.


The theory states the following:

1 If a person is forced to behave in ways contrary to his/her belief they will experience dissonance.

2 The greater the force compelling the behaviour the less the dissonance and vice versa.

3 Dissonance can be reduced by changing attitudes.

4 Attitude change is greatest when forces to act are paradoxically minimal not maximal.

Dissonance also predicts that we have a tendency to derogate our victims. When we behave badly towards another individual or group without any obvious justification we shift our beliefs to justify this behaviour by thinking of the victim more negatively.

We like to think of ourselves as decent, kind, moral individuals who are just and unlikely to cause innocent people harm or distress. So if we do something hurtful like shout, ignore or even hit another person our dissonance is aroused. If we can’t ’take back’ this behaviour by apology or compensation the easiest way to resolve our dilemmas is to derogate the victim further by pointing out how bad they were and fully deserving of our ill-treatment of them.

Dissonance after Decisions

Many of the important decisions we make involve making difficult choices. Many people draw up lists of plusses and minuses to help them make a well-informed choice. They consult others.

Studies show that we justify our decisions after having made them by upgrading the decision we have made and downgrading the decision we turned down. It has been called ’buyers’ nostalgia’, or post-decision rationalization.

People notice that they read advertisements for the products they have bought more often, enthusiastically and closely after (not before) they made the purchase.

Gamblers say they feel more confident about winning after they have placed their bet than beforehand.


Social psychologists have studied, in detail, the science and practice of persuasion; that is, the tricks and techniques salespeople and others use to try to persuade us to buy.

Thus ’compliance professionals’ try to induce people to make a verbal commitment that is consistent with the behaviour they will at a later stage request from people.

These commitments work best when they are done publicly, take some effort and appear completely voluntary and not coerced. That is why so many organizations encourage people to make free, open pledges about their values and behavioural intentions. Often people add new justifications to support the wisdom of their early justifications.


Cooper, J. (2007). Cognitive Dissonance: 50 Years of a Classic Theory. London: Sage Publications.

Festinger, L. (1962). ’Cognitive dissonance’. Scientific American. 207 (4): 93—107.