What Is Cognitive Dissonance? Cognitive Dissonance In A Nutshell

The term cognitive dissonance was first described by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. Festinger and his colleagues paid people either $1 or $20 to engage in a boring task for an hour. The participants who were paid $1 evaluated the task as more enjoyable than those who were paid $20, which seems counterintuitive. Therefore, cognitive dissonance describes mental discomfort arising from holding two contradictory values, attitudes, perspectives, ideas, or beliefs. 

Understanding cognitive dissonance

In what would become a pioneering experiment, Festinger and his colleagues paid people either $1 or $20 to engage in a boring task for an hour. The participants who were paid $1 evaluated the task as more enjoyable than those who were paid $20, which seems counterintuitive. 

However, lower-paid participants rated the task as more enjoyable than higher-paid participants because of cognitive dissonance. The paltry $1 they received was not enough to warrant them lying about the task, so they effectively convinced themselves that it was enjoyable. On the other hand, those who were paid $20 believed the amount was enough to justify lying and did not experience cognitive dissonance.

Put more succinctly, the dissonance occurred between the cognition of the $1 group (they really did not want to lie) and their behavior (they nevertheless lied). To reconcile this disconnect, they changed their belief about the boring task by instead reporting that it was enjoyable.

Ultimately, Festinger demonstrated that people have a desire for consistency in their beliefs and behaviors – even if it is achieved in a non-rational way.

What causes cognitive dissonance?

Multiple studies have shown that cognitive dissonance is caused by three main factors.

1 – Forced compliance behavior 

When someone is publicly forced to do something they privately did not want to do, cognitive dissonance results. 

Since the behavior causing the disconnect occurred in the past and cannot be altered, dissonance needs to be reduced by the individual re-evaluating their beliefs. This is what happened to participants in the study described in the previous section.

2 – Decision making 

As a general rule, decision-making invites dissonance. The employee who receives a lucrative job offer to work overseas must weigh up the pros and cons of accepting the job or staying put nearer to friends and family. Whichever option is chosen, the act of making a decision forces the individual to accept that they’ll never get to enjoy the advantages of the unchosen alternative. What’s more, it forces them to accept the disadvantages of the chosen alternative. 

To reduce dissonance during decision-making, many people adopt a strategy called “spreading apart the alternatives”. This means they increase the attractiveness of the chosen alternative while decreasing the attractiveness of the rejected alternative.

3 – Effort 

Humans also tend to attach more value to goals or items considered the most difficult to achieve. This helps us avoid the dissonance that results when we expel a great deal of effort in achieving something that turns out to be a waste of time.

On the contrary, we may convince ourselves the effort was quite enjoyable or that we didn’t expend as much time or effort as originally thought. This method of reducing cognitive dissonance by reframing the experience as more interesting is called effort justification.

Common examples of cognitive dissonance

Here are three examples of cognitive dissonance that most may be able to relate to:

  1. Getting enough exercise – most people value their health and want to live for as long as possible. However, they may spend all day sitting at a desk and pay for a gym membership they never use. 
  2. Being productive at work – office employees who are not closely monitored may spend the majority of their workday watching YouTube videos or planning their next vacation. Most feel guilty about their lack of productivity but may justify non-work activities by proclaiming they’ve had a busy month.
  3. Picking up after the dog – most dog owners are responsible and take plastic bags with them on walks. However, consider a scenario where a dog decides to do its business on the one day the dog owner forgets the bags. The owner may look around to see if anyone noticed and then quickly vacate the area. At home, they feel guilty for their actions but ultimately rationalize it by convincing themselves that this will be the last time it happens.

Key takeaways:

  • Cognitive dissonance describes mental discomfort arising from holding two contradictory values, attitudes, perspectives, ideas, or beliefs. The term was first described by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957, who conducted a series of pioneering experiments on the subject.
  • Cognitive dissonance is primarily caused by forced compliance behavior, decision making, and effort. In each case, disharmony between the beliefs and behaviors of the individual causes them to avoid discomfort in sometimes irrational ways.
  • Relatable examples of cognitive dissonance include getting enough exercise, being productive at work, and picking up after the dog.

Connected Thinking Frameworks

Convergent vs. Divergent Thinking

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. Whereas divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. Where convergent thinking might work for larger, mature organizations where divergent thinking is more suited for startups and innovative companies.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analyzing observations, facts, evidence, and arguments to form a judgment about what someone reads, hears, says, or writes.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is a holistic means of investigating the factors and interactions that could contribute to a potential outcome. It is about thinking non-linearly, and understanding the second-order consequences of actions and input into the system.

Vertical Thinking

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Maslow’s Hammer

Maslow’s Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the instrument or the Einstellung effect, is a cognitive bias causing an over-reliance on a familiar tool. This can be expressed as the tendency to overuse a known tool (perhaps a hammer) to solve issues that might require a different tool. This problem is persistent in the business world where perhaps known tools or frameworks might be used in the wrong context (like business plans used as planning tools instead of only investors’ pitches).

Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was first described by Canadian sociologist Lawrence J. Peter in his 1969 book The Peter Principle. The Peter Principle states that people are continually promoted within an organization until they reach their level of incompetence.

Straw Man Fallacy

The straw man fallacy describes an argument that misrepresents an opponent’s stance to make rebuttal more convenient. The straw man fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, defined as a flaw in the structure of an argument that renders it invalid.

Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is a paradoxical phenomenon where the act of suppressing information to reduce visibility causes it to become more visible. In 2003, Streisand attempted to suppress aerial photographs of her Californian home by suing photographer Kenneth Adelman for an invasion of privacy. Adelman, who Streisand assumed was paparazzi, was instead taking photographs to document and study coastal erosion. In her quest for more privacy, Streisand’s efforts had the opposite effect.


As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.

Recognition Heuristic

The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.

Representativeness Heuristic

The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.

Take-The-Best Heuristic

The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.


The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Bundling Bias

The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.

Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

First-Principles Thinking

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Six Thinking Hats Model

The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Second-Order Thinking

Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Bounded Rationality

Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Mandela Effect

The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Read Next: BiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger

Read Next: Heuristics, Biases.

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