Cognitive Dissonance

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Humans strive for cognitive consistency, at least according to the theory of cognitive dissonance and a host of consistency theories that emerged in the mid-20th century. The theory of cognitive dissonance was advanced by Leon Festinger in the 1950s. It proposes that inconsistencies among our beliefs, attitudes, knowledge, and/or behavior can give rise to the uncomfortable feeling of cognitive dissonance. Upon experiencing this feeling, humans are motivated to reduce it in order to return to a more consistent state. Although Festinger theorized that cognitive dissonance can occur, he did not suggest that cognitive dissonance always occurs when people are faced with inconsistency. He noted that the experience of dissonance depends upon three factors: (a) the number of consonant elements, (b) the number of dissonant elements, and (c) the importance of each element. A more important dissonant belief will cause more cognitive dissonance than a less important dissonant belief. One dissonant belief and many consonant beliefs will produce less dissonance than many dissonant and many consonant beliefs. The experience of dissonance can motivate people to engage in any of a number of dissonance reduction strategies. The objectives of these strategies are to (a) increase the number and/or importance of consonant elements and/or (b) to decrease the number and/or importance of dissonant elements. This can be done by changing one’s attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. This also can be done by seeking agreeable information and avoiding discrepant information. Over the years, many modifications to the theory have been proposed. Some researchers, for example, have argued that the theory works mainly with respect to cognitive elements related to the self. Despite proposed modifications, scholars continue to draw from the original theory. Although the theory was first introduced and examined by psychologists, it gained traction in the field of communication. The theory was helpful in explaining some earlier patterns observed by those researching the influence of communication, such as the seeming preference citizens displayed for like-minded information. In contemporary communication literature, the theory is most frequently referenced when scholars want to offer an explanation for why an effect may occur. Research is less frequently done specifically on the central tenets of the theory. This article focuses predominantly on articles that have been written in the field of communication rather than attempting to review the numerous studies that have been done on this topic in related fields, such as psychology and political science. Although research did yield articles from many different communication subfields, many citations were from the area of mass media as opposed to interpersonal communication, for example. This article emphasizes recent contributions and those that have garnered considerable attention through high rates of citation.

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In Oxford Bibliographies in Communication.