Cognitive Dissonance

Phil Barker

Originally published in Sept. 2003, Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in August, 2017

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This essay talks about seemingly opposite things:  how cognitive dissonance perpetuates conflict, and how it can be used to de-escalate or even resolve conflict.  

Its importance has been particularly evident in the United States during the last Presidential election cycle, and now that Donald Trump has become president of the United States.More...

What Is Cognitive Dissonance?

In 1957, Leon Festinger published a theory of cognitive dissonance, which has changed the way psychologists look at decision-making and behavior.[1] At its heart, cognitive dissonance theory is rather simple. It begins with the idea of cognitions. Cognitions are simply bits of knowledge. They can pertain to any variety of thoughts, values, facts, or emotions. For instance, the fact that I like ice cream is a cognition. So is the fact that I am a man. People have countless cognitions in their heads.

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Most cognitions have nothing to do with each other. For instance, the two cognitions mentioned before (that I am a man and that I like ice cream) are unrelated. Some cognitions, however, are related. For instance, perhaps I have a sweet tooth and I like ice cream. These cognitions are "consonant," meaning that they are related and that one follows from the other. They go together, so to speak.

However, sometimes we have cognitions that are related, but do not follow from one another. In fact, they may be opposites. For instance, perhaps I like ice cream, but I am also trying to lose weight. These two thoughts are problematic -- if I eat ice cream, then I may gain weight, and if I really want to lose weight then I cannot eat ice cream. These types of cognitions are referred to as "dissonant."

The basic idea behind cognitive dissonance theory is that people do not like to have dissonant cognitions. In fact, many people argue that the desire to have consonant cognitions is as strong as our basic desires for food and shelter. As a result, when someone does experience two or more dissonant cognitions (or conflicting thoughts), they will attempt to do away with the dissonance.

Eliminating Cognitive Dissonance

There are several key ways in which people attempt to overcome, or do away with, cognitive dissonance. One is by ignoring or eliminating the dissonant cognitions. By pretending that ice cream is not bad for me, I can have my cake and eat it too, so to speak. Ignoring the dissonant cognition allows us to do things we might otherwise view as wrong or inappropriate.

Another way to overcome cognitive dissonance is to alter the importance (or lack thereof) of certain cognitions. By either deciding that ice cream is extremely good (I can't do without it) or that losing weight isn't that important (I look good anyway), the problem of dissonance can be lessened. If one of the dissonant cognitions outweighs the other in importance, the mind has less difficulty dealing with the dissonance -- and the result means that I can eat my ice cream and not feel bad about it.

Yet another way that people react to cognitive dissonance is by adding or creating new cognitions. By creating or emphasizing new cognitions, I can overwhelm the fact that I know ice cream is bad for my weight loss. For instance, I can emphasize new cognitions such as "I exercise three times a week" or "I need calcium and dairy products" or "I had a small dinner," etc. These new cognitions allow for the lessening of dissonance, as I now have multiple cognitions that say ice cream is okay, and only one, which says I shouldn't eat it.

Finally, perhaps the most important way people deal with cognitive dissonance is to prevent it in the first place. If someone is presented with information that is dissonant from what they already know, the easiest way to deal with this new information is to ignore it, refuse to accept it, or simply avoid that type of information in general. Thus, a new study that says ice cream is more fattening than originally thought would be easily dealt with by ignoring it. Further, future problems can be prevented by simply avoiding that type of information -- simply refusing to read studies on ice cream, health magazines, etc.

Dennis Sandole explains that transitions between paradigms is very difficult and is often fraught with an upsurge in violence.

Applying Cognitive Dissonance to Conflict

The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in Perpetuating Conflict

Cognitive dissonance can play a tremendous role in conflict -- both in its perpetuation and in its elimination. Both large-scale and small-scale conflicts can be aggravated and/or lessened because of cognitive dissonance. An example from ethnic conflict may help to demonstrate.

A large-scale conflict, particularly one based on identity such as an ethnic conflict, can be perpetuated by cognitive dissonance. In Northern Ireland, for instance, the image of Protestants or Catholics as inhuman allows for actions that otherwise might not be perpetuated. It can also lead people involved in the conflict to ignore information that might contradict these viewpoints. For instance, a Catholic may intentionally avoid or simply be unreceptive to ideas that paint Protestants in a positive light, or vice versa. Once negative cognitions are in place, they are often reinforced by other similar cognitions while contradictory thoughts (which would shed light on a situation) are ignored or avoided.

This all means that a Protestant or Catholic who otherwise may strongly believe in the notion that "Thou shall not murder" may participate in terrorist activities. Although these two cognitions are dissonant, this dissonance can be overcome by creating new cognitions ("they aren't human" or "they're barbarians," etc.) or by emphasizing one cognition at the expense of the other. Perhaps more importantly, the conflict can be perpetuated by the fact that these people aren't open to new information that might dispel these false ideas about the other side. Thus an Israeli may not be willing to hear about the thoughts, feelings and family of a Palestinian, because these contradict the Israeli's view of Palestinians as inhuman.

Similar examples can be found on all levels of conflict. Individuals on both sides of the abortion debate can be unwilling to look at new information about the other side's stance in an attempt to avoid cognitive dissonance. This concept helps explain why people are so opposed to counterarguments, especially when it regards a value or belief that is very important to them. Cognitive dissonance is so unpleasant that individuals would often rather be close-minded than be informed and deal with the repercussions of cognitive dissonance.

Dennis Sandole talks about the importance of understanding the paradigms of the people involved in the conflict.

The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in Reducing Conflict

In spite of people's desire to avoid it, the proper use of cognitive dissonance can be a useful tool in overcoming conflict. Cognitive dissonance is a basic tool for education in general. Creating dissonance can induce behavior or attitude change. By creating cognitive dissonance, you force people to react. In other words, a child can be encouraged to learn by creating dissonance between what they think they know and what they actually do -- drawing attention to the fact that they know stealing is wrong even though they took a cookie, etc. The same idea can be used in adults. By introducing cognitive dissonance (pointing out the conflict between what people know and do), we can encourage a change in thought or action.

Turning again to the conflict in Northern Ireland, by pointing out the contradiction between religious beliefs and terrorism, people can be forced to rethink their actions. A Protestant or Catholic terrorist can participate in violent activities because they have dehumanized the other side in their mind. This eliminates any dissonance between their actions and their beliefs against murder or violence. By introducing new information -- perhaps emphasizing the humanity of the other side (their families, their lives, letting the two sides meet in a casual environment, etc.) -- a new dissonance is created between what they are doing and what they now know to be true. This forces a reaction. The individual must now either change their actions or readjust their thoughts to account for this new information.

Similarly, in the abortion debate, the introduction of new information to both sides can lead to reconciliation through understanding and changes in both action and thought. Although individuals may never agree on the politics and policy of abortion, the conflict -- particularly violent conflict -- can be reduced and eliminated.

How to Produce Cognitive Dissonance

Dialogue is one method to produce cognitive dissonance and thus attitude change that has been used in both these and many other cases. The Public Conversations Project, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, (U.S.) for instance, has been running dialogues between pro-life and pro-choice abortion activists for many years. While people do not leave these dialogues having changed sides, they do come out of them with a new respect for people "on the other side" and an understanding that logical, rational, "good" people can feel the opposite way they do about this issue. This tends to tone down their approach to advocacy, generally making it more constructive than it might otherwise have been.[2]

Disarming behaviors are another way to create cognitive dissonance. This is done by simply learning what the other side thinks of or expects of you, and then doing something very different. For example, if you are considered by the other side to be uncaring and cruel, make a small gesture that demonstrates that you care about the other sides' feelings or situation. This causes cognitive dissonance. As is discussed in the essay on disarming behaviors, just doing this once may not be enough to change anyone's attitudes or behavior, as they are likely to ignore the dissonant information. If it is done several times, however, or if the behavior is visible enough that it cannot be ignored, the results are sometimes striking. Two of the best examples of this process were Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's unexpected trip to Israel in 1977 and Soviet Premier Gorbachev's trip to the United States in 1990. Both of these leaders had never visited the "enemy" country before, and when they did, they were so personable that it changed the minds of the Israelis and the Americans about the "goodness" and intents of "the enemy." (More information about these trips can be found in the essay about disarming behaviors.)

Any way to increase interpersonal communication and contact is another way to produce dissonance, break down stereotypes, and start building trust where none existed before. Joint projects, problem solving workshops, prejudice reduction workshops, and tolerance education all are ways to create cognitive dissonance and change hostile attitudes between disputants into attitudes that are likely to be more conciliatory and amenable to conflict transformation.

Current Implications

This essay talks about seemingly opposite things:  how cognitive dissonance perpetuates conflict, and how it can be used to de-escalate or even resolve conflict.  

Its importance has been particularly evident in the United States during the last Presidential election cycle, and now that Donald Trump has become president of the United States. 

One of the biggest factors in Trump's rise was social media, which Trump backers used extensively to paint a very negative image of Hillary Clinton, her behaviors, and her policies, while painting a strongly positive image of Donald Trump. Whenever news was publicized that contradicted those images, it was branded "fake news" and Trump dubbed  the media as "the enemy of the American people."  So the way Trump and his followers dealt with the many negative stories arising about Trump--for instance about his misogyny, about his racism, or about his inexperience -- which contradicted their image of Trump as a strong, effective leader, was to deny the truth of those stories.  They were deemed the result of a media "witch hunt." 

The extension of this dynamic is that we now have two primary and many more secondary social groups in this country that have profoundly different images of what is going on and why.  It seems as if we live on different planets. Consequently, our ability to understand "the other," or to empathize with "the other" is almost nil.

Does this mean cognitive dissonance is impotent as a conflict resolution tool?  It certainly makes its use harder--but it is still not impossible.  

While cognitive dissonance as a conflict escalator works at the mass communication level, its use as a conflict moderator most often must happen at the interpersonal level. Once people make the effort to really connect with and empathically listen to people on the other side of the "fact divide," this can create cognitive dissonance that actually softens enemy images, reduces delegitimization, and helps heal wounds between groups.

That means that to make this work, we need to turn away from our social media and actually start talking to real people--including those on "the other side."  If large numbers of people would be willing to do that...stereotypes and enemy images could quickly begin to dissolve, and our political divide would simultaneously lessen and become much more complex.  But as we explored in the Frontiers Seminar on complexity--that complexity is actually beneficial for addressing intractable conflicts--as it breaks down overly simple -us-versus-them images and replaces them with much more complex images of "the other" that provide multiple ways of responding and reconciling.

-- Heidi Burgess. August, 2017.

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[1] Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., 1957.

[2] See for a description of their work and specifically for a description of a well-publicized abortion dialogue and its results.

Use the following to cite this article:
Barker, Phil. "Cognitive Dissonance." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

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