Change Psychology: Cognitive Dissonance Theory

recently wrote about building up a resource for Change knowledge here within this very Blog. Finally I got the time to deal with some basic psychological questions of Change. I am looking forward to be able to share those insights on “Change Psychology” with you, here.

The Cognitive Dissonance Theory is one of the most influential theories of the social psychology. It was published in 1957 by Leon Festinger and has provided a basis for various publications.

Basic Theory
The Cognitive Dissonance Theory assumes that people aim for a balance of their cognitive system. The cognitions of a person, for example opinions, convictions and knowledge, can be consistent or inconsistent. Cognitions are consistent, if they seem to be compartible for this person and they are inconsistent, if there is only the choice between the cognitions because the selection of one alternative means the opposite of the other alternative. The existing inconsistence does not have to be logical, it also can be a psychological inconsistance which differs individually. According to Festinger inconstitent cognitions create a bad mood, which Festinger calls dissonance. The level of dissonace depends on the proportion between inconsistent and consistent cognitions as well as the importance of the involved cognitions.

To reduce the dissonance there are three posibilities:

  • Add new consitent cognitions
  • Subduct existing inconsistent cognitions
  • Substitue consitent for inconsistent cognitions

Types of Dissonance-Reduction

Change of Cognitions
There is cognitive dissonance after almost all decisions in which a person has to chose between more than one alternative: The positive aspects of the not chosen alternative and the negative aspects of the chosen alternative cause inconsistence. The dissonance can only be reduced by revising the decision or by changing the cognitions according to the attractiveness of the alternatives. Because revising a decision is more stressful, usually dissonance is reduced by changing the cognitions. In this process cognitions about negative aspects of the chosen alternative are eliminated and with positive aspects replaced. This effect called “Spreading apart of Alternatives” is according to Festinger the most usual and effective type of dissonance-reduction after decisions.

Selective Search for New Information
Apart form changing cognitions the selective search for new information is another possibility of dissonance-reduction. The Cognitive Dissonance Theory says that the person after a decision tries to reach an overbalance of positive cognitions for the made decision. If there is not the posibility of adding new cognitions from memory, the person has to search for those new cognitions in the environment. This phenomenon of searching consitent information for the made decision is called “Confirmation Bias”.

Several studies show that the reduction of dissonance fails to appear, if people can confirm certain aspects of their self which are concerned with the decision. This phenomenon is called “Self-Affirmation”.

Development of the Theory
Since the publication in 1957 the Cognitive Dissonance Theory has been modified and developed in many ways. In addition there were attempts to explain the results of this theory with others, for example the Theory of Self-Perception, the Theory of Self-Presentation or the Reactance-Theory.

Psychology of Change (Picture source: article taken from
Psychology of Change (Picture source:
Original article taken from

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