In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cognitive Consistency Theories

  • Introduction
  • Historical Overview
  • Conceptualizations
  • Is Cognitive Consistency Rational?

Psychology Cognitive Consistency Theories
J. Edward Russo, Anne-Sophie Chaxel
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0195


Cognitive consistency is the agreement, coherence, or fit among related beliefs. It is a fundamental topic in psychology research, with a long history that has recently returned to prominence. Over almost a century, cognitive consistency has played an active role in research, if sometimes under such other labels as coherence, compatibility, congruence, balance, and consonance (although usually its negative, dissonance). The diversity of labels was compounded by a dispersal of interest across several subareas of psychology and across multiple domains of application. If the phenomenon of cognitive consistency has received multiple labels, all the paradigms that we review are united by a core overall objective: to understand how, why, and when human beliefs are influenced by a desire for consistency. The goal of understanding cognitive consistency has led researchers to employ methods not previously used or not available until recently, such as those of neuroscience. We conclude our bibliography by considering the question of the rationality of cognitive consistency, an issue that has received considerable attention but whose complexity remains largely unresolved and actively debated.

Historical Overview

Psychologists’ interest in cognitive consistency originated with Gestalt theory in the 1920s, developed in the 1950s, and thrived in the 1960s, impelled by the theory of cognitive dissonance attributed to Festinger inter alia. Festinger 1964 and Abelson 1968 review at length the variations of cognitive dissonance theory, its derivative theories, and the main research questions of this period. The substantial interest that cognitive consistency theories received in the 1960s waned in the 1970s, which mainly saw the development of multiple refinements of the original theory of cognitive dissonance (reviewed in Greenwald and Ronis 1978). However, the topic continued to play an active role in research, if sometimes under other labels, some of which are reviewed by Aronson 1992. Recent developments in cognitive psychology, social cognition, and research methods have allowed cognitive consistency theories to return to prominence, as described by Cooper 2007 and Gawronski and Strack 2012.

  • Abelson, Robert P. 1968. Theories of cognitive consistency: A sourcebook. Chicago: Rand-McNally.

    This book includes more than eighty essays related to cognitive consistency. Editors include Robert Abelson, Elliot Aronson, William McGuire, Theodore Newcomb, Milton Rosenberg, and Percy Tannenbaum.

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

    DOI: 10.1207/s15327965pli0304_1

    This paper summarizes the history of the cognitive consistency literature prior to 1990 and attempts to integrate newer theories such as self-affirmation with the original dissonance research of the later 1950s.

  • Cooper, Joel. 2007. Cognitive dissonance: Fifty years of a classic theory. London: SAGE.

    A relatively recent review focused on cognitive dissonance theory.

  • Festinger, Leon. 1964. Conflict, decision, and dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    A review of cognitive dissonance theory, which also includes a thorough discussion of competing theories.

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

    The most recent account of cognitive consistency theories. It includes twenty-one chapters organized in six parts: mental representations, fluency and fit, implicit social cognition, thinking and reasoning, decision making and choice, and interpersonal processes.

  • Greenwald, Anthony G., and David L. Ronis. 1978. Twenty years of cognitive dissonance: Case study of the evolution of a theory. Psychological Review 85.1: 53–57.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.85.1.53

    This thorough review of the literature compares and contrasts Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theories with the multiple theories that flowed from it.

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