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Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a theory proposed by the psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957.

Cognitive dissonance is a state that an individual reaches once they have an imbalance between cognitions. For the purpose of this theory, cognitions are defined as being an attitude, emotion, belief or value, or even a mixture of these cognitions.

Conflicting cognitions: cognitive dissonance

Once two cognitions are held and there is a conflict of interests between them, the individual falls into a state of cognitive dissonance. This may be demonstrated by an individual purchasing a brand of washing machine, initially believing that it was the best product to buy. Their cognition is that they have a good washing machine. However, after the purchase, they may be exposed to another cognition that informs them that there is a better washing machine out on the market (for example, through an advertisement). This then leads to an imbalance between their cognitions and a psychological state which needs to seek consonance between the two cognitions.

Ways to reduce cognitive dissonance

A person in a state of cognitive dissonance will then seek consonance. There are various ways to achieve this. However, changing a cognition gives some discomfort: one has to reflect and admit to oneself that one has had a wrong cognition.

Therefore, rather than adapt to these cognitions, one may deride the new improved washing machine, and perceive the new advertisement as untrue. This is another way of allowing one's cognitions to be in a consonant state once more.

However, there are even more ways of reducing the state of dissonance. One example is through selecting information after the purchase. It might be that a person would purposefully avoid other washing machine advertisements knowing that the decision had been made and finding out about other products could lead to some discomfort.

Festinger proposed that cognitive dissonance is a similar psychological tension to hunger and thirst and that people will seek to resolve this tension.

Reduction of cognitive dissonance is good because one feels better, and because one can come closer to consonance by eliminating contradictions. On the other hand some of the ways of reduction of cognitive dissonance involve a distortion of the truth, which may cause wrong decisions. The harder way of changing favorable cognitions may in the longer run be better.

Cognitive dissonance and conspiracy theories

Some people believe that cognitive dissonance can be instrumental in the creation of conspiracy theories. Suppose that Fred believes that satanic ritual abuse kills hundreds of thousands every year. However, these supposed deaths don't get reported in the media. This leads Fred into cognitive dissonance, which he can resolve either by changing his belief in satanic ritual abuse, or by believing that satanic cultists have infiltrated the media. In the latter case, Fred's original belief is augmented by a new belief in a media conspiracy, and this starts the process towards the creation of a new conspiracy theory.

See also