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Cognitive Dissonance Theory: A Research Study and Associated Examples from Pakistan

Mehmood Ul Hassan Khan
Muhammad Yuosf


We live in a complicated world and multilayered society where elements of love and hatred, virtue and vice and conspiracy and compassion work side by side to motivate the people to do wonders or excel beyond other expectations. The world is full of stresses, frustrations, conflicts and resolutions.

Right from the beginning, people have been differing and resisting about any change in their recognized social, religious, cultural and the last but not the least, commercial beliefs. On the contrary, conflicts are generated, highlighted and projected to achieve certain motivations in order to win a political battle, cultural domination, religious superiority and corporate paybacks. Cognitive Dissonance is the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time.

Cognitive dissonance is central to many forms of persuasion to change beliefs, values, attitudes and behaviors. The tension can be injected suddenly or allowed to build up over time. Different communication methods are applied to motivate certain readership or clusters of people to defame any political figure, distort any noble idea/movement and create ambiguities and controversies.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory (CDT) argues that the experience of dissonance or incompatible beliefs and actions is aversive and people are highly motivated to avoid it. In their efforts to avoid feelings of dissonance, people will avoid hearing views that oppose their own, change their beliefs to match their actions, and seek reassurance after making a difficult decision.

It is commonly applied in the disciplines of economics, political sciences, international relations, psychology and sociology. It is also useful to use in the fields of marketing, management, advertising and criminology.

Cognitive dissonance is a very powerful motivator which will often lead us to change one or other of the conflicting belief or action. Human being is a social animal said by Aristotle has different conflicting shades in its personality, taught process, conducting patterns and executing preferences.

This theory tries to explore different experiments, reasons, logics and conclusions in order to reduce conflicting conditions. It also speaks about consistence, inconsistency, different kind of consistency in a person, multicultural studies, religious affiliation/ emotional attachments political euphoria and business decisions in any specific environment.

It also tells us the different methods of reducing cognitive dissonance by bringing change in behavioral cognitive element, changing an environmental cognitive element or by adding new cognitive elements.

This research studies may be useful to teachers and students of communication, political sciences, economics, international relations, management, marketing and other related disciplines. American Psychological Society (APS) methods will be followed.


American social psychologist Leon Festinger tabled this theory in 1956. It comes from social psychology. It is one of the most famous and influential theories. It proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors or by justifying or rationalizing all these human characteristics. It shows the distressing mental state caused by inconsistency between two beliefs or a belief and an action. It assumed that humans are consistent and they must find a resolution when beliefs, conflicts or actions do not match beliefs.

He synthesized a set of studies to refine a theory about communication’s social influences. He proposed cognitive dissonance theory as a way to explain the tension that exists when people’s attitudes are dissimilar with their behaviors.

It has been one of the most influential theories in social psychology who study attitudes and attitude-behavior consistency. It remained one of the main hot topics during the late 1950s-1970s. The self theories were formulated through theoretical problems and conflicting findings in the early 1980s, but cognitive dissonance regained its place as the umbrella theory for selective exposure to communication by the late 1980s.


Festinger first developed this theory in the 1950s to explain how members of a cult who were persuaded by their leader, that the earth was going to be destroyed on 21st December and that they alone were going to be rescued by aliens. In his book, When Prophecy Fails, he tells how when the aliens did not destroy the earth as the cult leader predicted, that the cult changed its message to lesson the dissonance. They accepted the new prophecy that the aliens had spared the planet for their sake. Notice they changed.

In the 1950s, the field of psychology was dominated by the idea of behaviorism, which basically taught that all behavior is motivated by rewards and punishment.


Cognitive dissonance is one of the most heavily studied phenomena in the history of psychology. The term cognitive dissonance describes a psychological state in which an individual’s cognitions beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors are at odds (Festinger, 1957). People experience cognitive dissonance as aversive (Elliot & Devine, 1994), and are motivated to resolve the inconsistency between their discrepant cognitions.

Empirical studies have suggested that cognitive dissonance theory provides fruitful insight to, for example, religious behavior (Festinger, Carlsmith, 1964) and curing phobias (Cooper, 1985). In an influential article, Akerlof and Dickens (1982) argue that cognitive dissonance theory may have important implications also for a wide range of economic problems such as safety regulation, social security, innovation, marketing, and crime. Recently, cognitive dissonance theory has also been suggested to provide insights to the understanding of voting behavior and elections.

Psychologists have long been interested in the nature of cognitive dissonance, as this phenomenon has implications for many areas of psychology, including attitudes and prejudice (e.g., Leippe & Eisenstadt, 1994), moral cognition (e.g., Tsang, 2002), decision making (e.g., Akerlof & Dickens, 1982), happiness (e.g., Lyubomirsky & Ross, 1999), and therapy (Axsom, 1989). It has been refined in later work (Aronson, 1959; Brehm & Cohen, 1970; Festinger, 1964; Brehm, 1956).


Cognitive dissonance plays a role in many value judgments, decisions and evaluations. Becoming aware of how conflicting beliefs impact the decision-making process is a great way to improve your ability to make faster and more accurate choices.


Here are some examples of the Cognitive dissonance theory:

Example 1

The example grapes are sour follows a pattern: one desires something, finds it unattainable, and reduces one’s dissonance by criticizing it. If I have some, I would not eat them, justification.

Example 1I

Knowing that smoking is harmful (First cognition) while liking to smoke (second cognition). The Cognitive dissonance theory’s conditions were met because those cognitions are dissonant.

Example III

Believing that lying is bad (First cognition) and being forced to lie (second cognition).

Example IV

Liking a friend (first cognition) while knowing that he hates your brother (second cognition)


It is an important communication theory adopted from social psychology. It has generated hundreds and hundreds of studies, from which much has been learned about the determinants of attitudes and beliefs, the internalization of values, the consequences of decisions, the effects of disagreement among persons, and other important psychological processes.

It has two distinctive parts i.e. cognitive, thinking or the mind; and dissonance, inconsistency or conflict. It is the simplest version of the social psychology theory that has enjoyed wide acceptance in a variety of disciplines including communication. It focuses human beings/individuals as one of the important actors to take effective and meaningful decisions. It also highlights their struggle (internal/eternal) for maintaining status que achieving in their beliefs. It speaks about different communication methods to influence their decisions making process by creating dissonance. It pinpoints their responses by using dissonance-reduction strategies to regain equilibrium, especially if the dissonance affects their self-esteem (Heider, 1958).

It suggests that:

(a) Dissonance is psychologically uncomfortable enough to motivate people to achieve consonance.
(b) In a state of dissonance, people will avoid information and situations that might increase the dissonance.
(c) People are motivated to maintain consistency between their attitudes and their behaviors, or between different attitudes that they hold. That is, they want their behavior to match what they believe, or they want to have attitudes that match each other.
(d) When people have inconsistent attitudes and behaviors for example, when they behave contrary to their values they are likely to experience dissonance. Dissonance is aversive states of tension that people are motivated to reduce or eliminate (Festinger, 1957). Dissonance is particularly strong when attitudes/behaviors that are important to the self are involved (Aronson, 1968).


Since it is very important and has multiplier effects it applies to all situations involving attitude formation and change. This theory is able to manipulate people into certain behavior, by doing so these people will alter their attitudes themselves. It is especially relevant to decision-making and problem-solving.


There are several strategies for reducing dissonance, including:

(a) Changing the behavior to match one’s attitude

(b) Changing the attitude to match one’s behavior

(c) Cognitively minimizing the degree of inconsistency or its importance


Consider a driver who refuses to use a seat belt despite knowing that the law requires it, and it saves lives. Then a news report or a friend’s car incident stunts the scofflaw into facing reality. Dissonance may be reduced by altering behavior i.e. start using a seat belt so the behavior is consonant with knowing that doing so is smart or seeking information that is consonant with the behavior i.e. air bags are safer than seat belts. If the driver never faces a situation that threatens the decision not to use seat belts, then no dissonance-reduction action is likely because the impetus to reduce dissonance depends on the magnitude of the dissonance held.


Cognitive Dissonance Theory has generated literally hundreds of studies. Its strengths are given below as:
(a) It has motivated a great deal of discussion and also has implications for a variety of situations.
(b) It makes predictions about whether people will seek information i.e. selective exposure.
(c) It makes predictions about human thought and behavior after making a decision i.e. post-decisional dissonance.
(d) It has implications for persuasion as well as the specific form of persuasion called induced compliance.
(e) Cognitive Dissonance Theory is a very wide-ranging theory.

(f) Other scholars believe that Cognitive Dissonance Theory is basically useful and explanatory but needs some refinements. For example, Wicklund and Brehm (1976) argue that Cognitive Dissonance Theory is not clear enough about the conditions under which dissonance leads to a change in attitudes.
(g) Festinger’s theory is not only the most important consistency theory; it is one of the most significant theories in social psychology. CDT has been the framework for over a thousand research studies (Perloff, 1993), most of which have supported the theory.

(h) (Harmon-Jones, 2000) believe that continuing to refine the theory by examining cognitions more specifically, for example, will yield rich theoretical insights.
(i) Cognitive Dissonance Theory has contributed greatly to our understanding of cognitions and their relationship to behaviors. The concept of dissonance remains a powerful one in the research literature, informing studies in psychology, cognitive psychology, communication, and other related fields

It has weakness too which are explained below as:

(a) It makes no predictions about how dissonance will be reduced. It lists several options for reducing cognitive dissonance (add consonant cognitions, change dissonant cognitions, alter the importance of cognitions), but surely persuaders want dissonance to be resolved in a way that furthers their goals. In other words, testability is not so high.
(b) The fact that it does not make specific predictions, like Social Judgment Theory, means that we should qualify the statement on experimental support for this theory.
(c) If the research on Dissonance Theory had been able to test specific predictions, the empirical support for this theory might be stronger than it is.
(d) It does not consider the nature of the persuasive message.

(e) It ignores the effects of message variables on cognitive dissonance and persuasion.

(f) Some researchers argue that dissonance may not be the most important concept to explain attitude change.

(g) Other researchers (Cooper & Fazio, 1984) argue that the original theory of cognitive dissonance contains a great deal of “conceptual fuzziness.”


One of the advantages of Dissonance Theory is that it can consider more than two cognitions at a time. Another advantage is that it acknowledges that some cognitions are more important than others, and that the importance of cognitions influences the amount of dissonance. Specifically, it predicts that the amount of dissonance is influenced by two factors: (1) the proportion of dissonant and consonant cognitions and (2) the importance of the cognitions.
For example, if I know four bad things and six good things about my friend Bob, I should experience more dissonance than if I know one bad thing and six good things. In the example below, think about how much dissonance would exist if I had all four of the dissonant thoughts versus if I only had one of these cognitions. It makes sense that the more inconsistent thoughts I have, the more dissonance I should experience.


(a) Selective Retention:

Sheth (1970) assumes that people remember best and longest those messages that are consistent with their preexisting attitudes and beliefs. For instance, Television viewers, remember much more detail from the convention broadcasts of the political party to which they are philosophy closer than do the broadcasts of competing parties.

(b) Selective Perception:

It predicts that people will interpret messages in a manner consistent with their preexisting attitudes and beliefs. For example when your favorite politician change positions on an issue, they are flexible and heeding the public will, vice versa.


The Belief Disconfirmation: Leon Festinger (1956) says that people are confronted with information that is inconsistence with their belief, if the dissonance is not reduced by changing one’s belief, the dissonance can result in misperception or rejection of the information (When Prophecy fails).
Free Choice (Carrot & Stick, Incentive, Gift etc), Armus, 2001).

The Induced Compliance

The dominate paradigm at the time of the development dissonance theory was limited effects: thus, the selective processes were seen as limited media impact because content is selectively filtered to produce as little attitude change as possible.


This theory does have weaknesses and detractors. Firstly, one weakness that scholars point out relates specifically to our criterion of testability, which refers to the theory’s likelihood of ever being proven false. Researchers have pointed out that because Cognitive Dissonance Theory asserts that dissonance will motivate people to act, when people do not act, so testability.
Secondly, some critics argue that dissonance may not be the most important concept to explain attitude change. For instance, Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) found in the one dollar/twenty dollars experiment
Thirdly, biased scanning: It is argued that when people participate in an inconsistency such as arguing a position they do not believe in, they become motivated to think up all the arguments in favor of the position while suppressing all the arguments against it. Janis and Gilmore call this process biased scanning.

Fourthly, other scholars believe that Cognitive Dissonance Theory needs some refinements. For example, Wicklund and Brehm (1976) argue that Cognitive Dissonance Theory is not clear enough about the conditions under which dissonance leads to a change in attitudes. They believe that choice is the missing concept in the theory.

Fifthly, another refinement is suggested by the work of Joel Cooper and Jeff Stone (2000). Cooper and Stone point out that in the more than 1,000 studies using Cognitive Dissonance Theory, only rarely has the group membership of the person experiencing dissonance been considered. Cooper and Stone believe that group membership plays an important role in how people experience and reduce dissonance. For example, they found that social identity derived from religious and political groups had an impact on how people responded to dissonance.


The theory of cognitive dissonance has generated a good deal of research in consumer behavior. The relevant evidence from three phases of consumer behavior is reviewed here: pre-decisional determinants of product preference, post-decisional determinants of product preference, and information seeking behavior. The evidence from the first two areas generally supports the dissonance-based predictions, while the evidence from the third area generally fails to support the predictions. Twenty-three studies have since examined the applicability of dissonance theory to consumer behavior (Cohen, Houston, 1972).

With cognitive dissonance, you can use it to influence your customers. For example, if you want your customers to use tote bag for grocery shopping at your store, there are certain measures you can use. You can give out free tote bags and have them shop around which creates cognitive dissonance as other shoppers are self conscious and will buy a tote bag to not feel out of place in the store. You can also put up signs and posters of “saving earth through tote bags” in your store so customers are more inclined from pressure to buy and use them for grocery shopping (Hunt, 1970).


Many businesses cater their products, services, and advertising to the needs and wants of consumers. However, by skillfully applying the concept of cognitive dissonance businesses can create demand for their products or services.

In a free market, competitive pressures keep prices down to an equilibrium level. Yet certain companies have certain products that rise up into near-monopoly positions. This allows the company to charge higher prices. But why should consumers pay more when a basic, low-price product will likely fulfill the purpose for which the product was designed.

Another classical experiment in cognitive dissonance demonstrates an important concept (Miller, Brickman, & Bolen, 1975). One group of schoolchildren was told that they “should” do better in math, and another group was told that they “are” good in math. The latter group subsequently performed better in math. This suggests that rather than telling a consumer that they should buy a product, it might do better to build them up as the kind of high-class, sophisticated consumer that demands only the best.

Effective utilization of cognitive dissonance in a marketing campaign can be an important factor in fostering brand loyalty. Used in the right amount (the major trick), the consumer will feel driven to purchase a particular product. The important thing for businesses to realize, however, is that this concept can be a powerful tool for creative marketing professionals to diversify and/or expand market share (Anderson, 1966).


Cognitive dissonance plays a big role in perpetuating conflict. Take the example of Northern Ireland, or Bosnia, or the Israelis and Palestinians. In every case each side has characterized its opponents as less than human or barbarians and deserving of what is being done to them. This characterization allows people who may otherwise believe that it is wrong to kill to take part in terrorist activities or ethnic cleansing.
For example a Serb may not be willing to hear about the thoughts, feelings and family of a Bosnian, because these contradict the Serb’s view of Bosnians as inhuman. 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.

The Japanese bombardment of Pearl Harbor stunned a United States that had not been attacked by a foreign power on its own soil since the War of 1812. Arguably, even the American tragedy in Vietnam resulted from cognitive dissonance, as Republican and Democratic administrations alike mistook a war of national liberation as part and parcel of a global Soviet campaign for communist domination
Different ways in International Relations:

(a) Dialogue

In international relations Track II and Track III diplomacy play very important role in conflict resolutions. An example in the U.S. is the Public Conversations Project which has been facilitating dialogues between pro-life and pro-choice activists for several years.

(b) Disarming:

Behavior can create cognitive dissonance by acting against type. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s surprising trip to Israel in 1977 and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s trip to the U.S. in 1990 were the classic examples in this regard. Neither had visited the enemy’s country before. Each was quite personable and outgoing. This behavior elicited positive press and changed many Israeli and American minds about the intent or “goodness” of the enemy.

(c) Negotiation

It implies face to face communication. Often in tense conflict situations all communication has broken down between the sides. During the negotiation of the Camp David Accords, President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin did not meet face to face until the end. But both sides talked regularly to President Carter and his aides who shuttled back and forth with proposals and counter proposals. Anyway that increases communication and contact will create dissonance that disrupts stereotypes and hostile attitudes providing an impetus toward change.

Cognitive dissonance can play an important role in lessening or resolving conflicts. It can be a useful tool for overcoming or managing conflicts.
It may also be effective to lessen ethnic conflicts by pointing out the contradiction between religious beliefs and acts of terrorism or violence we can create pressure for people to rethink their actions. For example, a Protestant or Catholic terrorist in Northern Ireland can take part in violent activities because they have created cognitions that have dehumanized the other side. This gets rid of the dissonance between their actions and beliefs. Dissonance can be introduced by introducing new information about their opponents that shows the opponents as human. This will create dissonance between what they now know and what they are doing (Oshikawa, 1972).


In recent times, multinational companies have understood the impact of Cognitive Dissonance among its employees and thereby take actions to manage it. People tend to hang out with others of ‘their kind’. If an individual doesn’t have an opportunity to mix with others of his kind, he gets alienated in the organization pretty soon and is on the way out. Thus it is an extremely useful practice to organize something like a ‘Birds of a Feather’ events (Sears, 1968).


Defense analysts, intelligence specialists, political leaders and presidents can and do fall victim to pre-conceive views of sources and methods of national security threats. The entire U.S. defense establishment, including the White House, Pentagon, State Department, CIA, Congress, academia and industry, viewed American national security through the lens of communist conflict. As a result, the United States was conceptually and psychologically ill prepared for the coming 21st century conflict with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The emerging threats from transnational, non-state actors willing to die in the commission of horrendous attacks on American civilians at home and abroad simply could not be accommodated by the post-Cold War security model. Almost across the board, the assumptions of the American security community would crumble in the face of the new reality.


Robert (2009) says that global economic and financial crisis is also a cognitive crisis on a grand scale. It seems to be part and parcel of the global financial crisis because EU has lost the authority to give seminal lectures to the emerging economies on how things should be done.


(a) Assassination of Osama Bin Laden by the US Marines in May 2011 in Pakistan. The US establishment used cognitive dissonance theory to demoralize the high spirits of Al Qaeda and Taliban by quoting the deceased personal diary “My children not to fight against the US and participate in Jihad. It was telecasted by all the regional and international news channels and newspapers.

(b) Terrorist offspring networks have been using cognitive dissonance theory for winning support and sympathies around the globe. They have been projected US and the West as enemies of Islam and whosoever indulged in these fanatic activities must go straight to Heavens.

(c) Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri assassinated former Governer Punjab Salman Taseer. Some sections of the local media projected him as insane man and his act not because of devotion to Muhammad (Peace be upon him) but mental illness.

(d) Rehman Malik Federal Minister for Interior recently once again unearthed the signed copies of deal of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with former President General Pervez Musharraf. It raised doubts about Nawaz Sharif’s desire of democracy and fair play. It also created controversy about his legal pray in the apex court of the country about Memo-Gate Scandal.

(e) Halal Food case between Yummy Ice Cream and Walls: It was a famous case where ownership of the Yummy Ice Cream pleaded that wall did not use halal food stuff for its ice cream. The management also convinced the general masses by using cognitive dissonance theory and ultimately won the case.

(f) Famous case about the restoration of Chief Justice. The government counsel presented some naked pictures and documentary evidences of CJ in the court in order to defame his personality and cause.

(g) Benazir Bhutto twice Prime Minister of Pakistan had to face toughest channel of her political survival in the elections 1986. The opposition, especially Muslim League created conflicts to motivate their supports and right win sympathies to win elections by propagating “A Woman can not be Head of the State”.

(h) Imran Khan the symbol of change had to face the music in his early days of politics. In his first elections, the Muslim League projected him “Agent of Jews” and “Father of Illegal Baby” and ultimately he was defeated miserably.

(i) Even in today, most of the political parties and especially, Muslim League (N) labeled Imran Khan’s onslaught as agency sponsored and by doing this it may pollute the minds of democratic workers and supports.

(j) Nizam-e-Mustafa movement in Pakistan 1977 was the classic example of cognitive dissonance theory. The grand opposition created conflicts about Zulfikar Ali Butto’s religious faith and character.

(k) Granting of Most Favorite Nation (MFN) status to India started unending debate in Pakistan through ATPMA, mass media and other possible means.

(l) “Fight against Communism” projected as fight for the glory of Islam in Pakistan. Afterwards effects are still complicated and complex.


The theory of cognitive dissonance developed by Festinger in 1950s is that when a person experiences conflicting ideas, states of emotions or feelings they will be driven to reduce this state of tension and will take action to return to consonance. Two factors affect the strength of the dissonance: the number of dissonant belief, and the importance attached to each belief.

There are three ways to eliminate dissonance: reduce the importance of the dissonant belief, add more consonant beliefs that out weight the dissonant beliefs or change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent.

It applies to all situations involving the formation of attitudes and change. Therefore, it is particularly relevant to decision making and problem solving. Cognitive dissonance can be a motivating factor for us to make change in our lives. Some researchers note that the concept of dissonance is confounded by self concept or impression management.

It occurs most often in situation where an individual must choose between two incompatible beliefs or actions. The greatest dissonance is created when the two alternative are equally attractive. Furthermore, attitude change is more likely in the direction of less incentive since this result in lower dissonance.

Dissonance is when you have internal conflict; it is cognitive when you recognize it. Cognitive dissonance is as rare and precious as white pearl. It is key to promoting innovation and to reinventing oneself. It can be motivating factor for us to make change in our lives.


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