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Leon Festinger's Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

Updated on September 20, 2011

Have you heard the folk story of the blind men and the Elephant?

Five blind men lived in a village. One day, they heard that there was an elephant in the village. Since they had never seen an elephant, they were excited to go and discover what this creature was.
"Hey, the elephant is a pillar," said the first man who touched its leg. "Oh, no! It is like a rope," said the second man who touched the tail.
"Oh, no! It is like a big sharp needle," said the third man who touched the elephant’s trunk and tusks of the elephant.
"It is like a big hand fan" said the fourth man who touched the elephant’s ear.
"It is like a huge wall," said the fifth man who touched the elephant’s belly.
They began to argue, each one insisting they were right. This persisted until a wise man was stopped and interrupted them.
"What is the matter?" He asked. “We cannot agree to what the elephant is like." They said. Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly remarked, "You are all right. The elephant is so much bigger than you; each of you have touched different parts. So, actually the elephant has all those features what you all said."


If we peek into the minds of the blind men, they must probably have felt confusion when they were arguing over the elephant. This feeling is what we call cognitive dissonance. When the blind men were faced with views of the elephant that opposed their own, it must have felt uncomfortable. In fact, they probably felt greater aversion when their argument escalated – as touch – one of the 4 senses they heavily relied on seemed to be tricking them.

In 1957, Leon Festinger published a paper – A Theory of Cognitvie Dissonance - which is, today, one of the most influential theories in social psychology.

Let’s take a look at cognitive dissonance.

Definition of Cognition
Festinger defined Cognition to be “any knowledge, opinion, or belief about the environment, about oneself, or about one’s behavior.” (1957)
Our attitudes, knowledge, feelings, beliefs and actions interact throughout, and Festinger classified different kinds of relationships that are produced.

3 kinds of Cognitive Relationships
1. Consonant relationships are when a person engages in a particular set of actions or behaviors that match his corresponding thoughts and beliefs towards this behavior.
2. Dissonant relationships occur when a person engages in a particular set of actions or behaviors that do not match his thoughts and beliefs towards this behavior.
3. Irrelevant relationships occur when a person engages in actions or behaviors that are unrelated to a particular set of thoughts or beliefs.

Introducing Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

In a nutshell, Festinger was fascinated by how people reconciled these psychological cognitive dissonant states that they experienced.

Let’s take a look at the Chinese traditions surrounding eating.

The Chinese people are famous for eating exotic animals and herbs. To them, bear’s claws, bird’s nest and turtle soup, tiger’s penis…. All these are regarded as delicacies, and are also consumed for their medicinal value. If Festinger were not Asian, he would probably experience cognitive dissonance when first confronted with these peculiar or even outrageous Chinese customs and traditions.

Sounds familiar? Perhaps so, especially if you’ve heard tourists tell you similar stories. Or maybe you are guilty yourself of not fancying such delicacies. So lets use this illustration to explore the concept of cognitive dissonance.

Festinger observed these patterns of behavior and thought occurring in himself and other people, and he devised two hypotheses about the cognitive aspects of our attitudes.

Festinger’s Two Hypotheses

1. Cognitive dissonance produces discomfort in people. This drives people to act in ways to restore themselves to a consonant state.

For many non-Chinese, little birds like swallows are not considered food, much less their nests! If Festinger was experiencing fatigue, and was offered bird’s nest soup to help him regain his energy, he would have probably experienced dissonance, as someone who was unfamiliar with such practices.

Another example could be how in Asia, people like to serve fish, poultry, meat… will the head on (think of Indian Fish Head Curry, Beijing Peking Duck, Suckling Pig). In the West, such practices could be unthinkable as people are culturally more familiar with filleted or boneless fish. Serving up a bishop’s nose (a Singaporean or Malaysian euphemism for Chicken’s backside) or a roasted duck head would be unthinkable in many western households or restaurants.

2. Some cognitions are more important than others – the greater the dissonance, the greater the discomfort experienced by the person, which will lead to a greater motivation to reduce the dissonance.

If Festinger were an animal activist who actively campaigned to protect the rights of endangered animals like the sea turtles or sharks, this issue of eating exotic animals would be of great importance to him. He would very likely experience violent objections towards the consumption of such precious meat. The probability that he would refuse to consume these will be very high, so much so that it would take much persuasion to convince him to reduce this dissonance so that he would participate in such a custom

If we were in the shoes of Festinger, we would probably experience similar attitudes. In fact in our daily routines, these dissonances may even catch us unaware as we act instinctively to reduce them.

How do we reduce cognitive dissonance?

Festinger proposed 2 ways to reduce dissonance. There can be many ways, but in his paper A Theory Of Cognitive Dissonance (1957) he proposed these 2 main suggestions:

We could change one of the dissonant cognitions. Typically, we would change the cognition that is easier to change.

To begin with, Festinger would have had the cognition “I am hungry!” His dissonant cognitions when confronted with the exotic foods, could have been “Tigers/bears/scorpions are endangered/poisonous, I cannot eat such food” or perhaps “It is not right for me to enjoy shark’s fin soup while the sharks are dying in the sea.”

To reduce dissonance by changing dissonant cognitions, he would identify the easier cognition – “I am hungry.” Then he would change to “I am not that hungry afterall – besides I just had breakfast a few hours ago.” to reduce the dissonance.

Add consonant cognitions to our thinking

Festinger could have created new cognitions such as “I should accept their food, since showing rejection is rude since they are trying to show hospitality to tourists like me” or “It’s my only trip to China, I should not reject their culture.”

Next: Applying the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.


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    • Charlotte B Plum profile image

      Charlotte B Plum 6 years ago

      thanks emichael, I'm thrilled you find it interesting!

    • emichael profile image

      emichael 6 years ago from New Orleans

      Very interesting, indeed. On to read the next part...

    • KevinTimothy profile image

      Kevin J Timothy 6 years ago from Tampa Bay, FL

      Wow! Very good hub. You know, for a while I understood this concept but never realized that it had a name (or a theory). At times I watch Nat Geo or History with my kids and I'm ready to jump into defense of another culture's mannerisms.

      Food choices, customs, etc. I would usually say, "Hey, don't be so quick to find it odd because they may think some American habits are odd." Based on what I've just read I'm thinking this is where you're going with this. If so, again, I never knew that there was an actual term for this.

      Such an interesting hub I'm willing to give it a thumb up and share/bookmark it on the web. Cool, author!