In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cognitive Dissonance Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Core Historical Sources
  • Biographies and Autobiography of Classic Contributors
  • Journals
  • Intercultural Approach Dissonance and Cultural Context
  • Dissonance in NonHuman Animals

Psychology Cognitive Dissonance Theory
David C. Vaidis, Alexandre Bran
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0156


Appearing for the first time in the mid-20th century, the term “cognitive dissonance” appears nowadays about eight hundred times in PsycINFO and the original book has been cited more than forty-five thousand times in scientific publications: that is more than twice a day for about sixty years. The theory of cognitive dissonance was molded by Leon Festinger at the beginning of the 1950s. It suggests that inconsistencies among cognitions (i.e., knowledge, opinion, or belief about the environment, oneself, or one’s behavior) generate an uncomfortable motivating feeling (i.e., the cognitive dissonance state). According to the theory, people feel uncomfortable when they experience cognitive dissonance and thus are motivated to retrieve an acceptable state. The magnitude of existing dissonance depends on the importance of the involved cognitions. Experiencing a higher level of dissonance causes pressure and motivation to reduce the dissonance. Findings from several studies show that dissonance occurs when people do not act in accordance with their attitude (e.g., writing supportive arguments in favor of a topic that they do not agree upon; performing a task they disapprove). Festinger 1957 (cited under Core Historical Sources) considers three ways to cope with cognitive dissonance: (a) changing one or several involved elements in the dissonance relationship (e.g., moving an opinion to fit a behavior), (b) adding new elements to reduce the inconsistency (e.g., adopting opinions that fit a behavior), and (c) reducing the importance of the involved elements. Early theorists in this field suggested improvement to the cognitive dissonance theory by adding restrictions for the emergence of the phenomena. Three major developments have to be considered: the commitment purpose and freedom, the consequence of the act purpose, and the self-involvement. Since the 2010s, the theory has been refined with new integrative models and methodological breakthrough. Mostly studied in human beings, several studies shift paradigms to other animals such as nonhuman primates, rats, and birds. The cognitive dissonance theory has been applied to a very large array of social situations and leads to original experimental designs. It is arguably one of the most influential theories in social psychology, general psychology, and cross-discipline sciences more generally.

General Overviews

The field of cognitive dissonance is broad. Several paradigms were developed and many theories coexist. There are plenty of sources, mostly scientific articles and books, that provide a wide overview of the literature on cognitive dissonance. After about a half century of the development of the theory, several authors have published condensed works and state-of-the-art pieces concerning the topic, but they often suggest a partially deviant point of view. Aronson 1992 and Brehm 2007, written by two of Festinger’s historical students, offer historical anecdotic information as well as keystones to understand the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. In the same vein, Cooper 2019 proposes the author’s personal view of this story, focusing on his own theoretical achievements. Gawronski and Strack 2012 offers an overview of the cognitive consistency field. More aimed at advanced researchers in cognitive dissonance, Harmon-Jones 2019 (the second edition of Harmon-Jones and Mills 1999) is an edited volume that synthesizes modern perspectives on dissonance.

  • Aronson, Elliot. 1992. The return of the repressed: Dissonance theory makes a comeback. Psychological Inquiry 3:303–311.

    DOI: 10.1207/s15327965pli0304_1

    Aronson reviews the history of cognitive dissonance and mainly develops the self-consistency revision. This paper could be considered as the one that permits a regain of interest of the theory in the late 1990s.

  • Brehm, Jack W. 2007. A brief history of dissonance theory. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 1:381–391.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2007.00035.x

    The paper reviews the storyline of cognitive dissonance theory, from Festinger’s very beginning up to the spreading of experimentations all over the world. The author does not develop the reformulations but presents an outline of the theory.

  • Cooper, Joel. 2019. Cognitive dissonance: Where we’ve been and where we’re going. International Review of Social Psychology 32.1.

    DOI: 10.5334/irsp.277

    Cooper examines the long history of critiques of the theory and offers a view of the current state of cognitive dissonance. Throughout the paper, Cooper reviews his important contributions to the field.

  • Festinger, Leon. 1962. A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    The most essential work about the theory. Festinger develops the core concepts and then covers four situations of dissonance: consequences of decisions, forced compliance, exposure to information, and the role of social support. The last chapter also gives strong advice to improve and delimit the theory. The book has been initially printed in 1957 at Row Peterson and Company before being republished. The current available version is the one revised in 1985 by Festinger.

  • Gawronski, Bertram, and Fritz Strack. 2012. Cognitive consistency: A fundamental principle in social cognition. New York: Guilford Press.

    This book provides an overview of the cognitive consistency field and of the place of cognitive dissonance theory.

  • Harmon-Jones, Eddie. 2019. Cognitive dissonance: Reexamining a pivotal theory in psychology. 2d ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    Aimed at a postgraduate and researcher audience, this book is a collection of chapters written by various top experts in the field of cognitive dissonance. It offers a substantial panorama of the theories and research issues. The first edition was released in 1999 and the second edition proposed several updates.

  • Harmon-Jones, Eddie, and Judson Mills. 1999. Cognitive dissonance: Progress on a pivotal theory in social psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    DOI: 10.1037/10318-000

    Aimed at a postgraduate and researcher audience, this book is a collection of chapters written by various top experts in the field of cognitive dissonance. It offers a substantial panorama of the theories and research issues of the 2000s.

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