Cognitive Dissonance Theory

10 Strategies to Manage Cognitive Dissonance Theory in Mass Communication

Synopsis of Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive dissonance theory, formulated by social psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957, is a cornerstone in the field of psychology. It posits that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance). 

Essentially, cognitive dissonance happens when a person holds inconsistent beliefs, attitudes, or values about behavioral decisions and attitude change. People tend to seek consistency in their beliefs and perceptions. So, when there is inconsistency (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. The discomfort can be so strong that people will go to great lengths to avoid situations and information that might challenge their beliefs.

Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory is based on three basic hypotheses:

  1. The presence of dissonance, being psychologically uncomfortable, will motivate the person to reduce the dissonance and achieve consonance.
  2. When dissonance is present, in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information that would likely increase the dissonance.
  3. Dissonance is reduced either by changing one’s beliefs, acquiring new ones, or reducing the importance of the ones causing dissonance.

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The Crucial Role of Cognitive Dissonance in Mass Communication

Cognitive dissonance plays a pivotal role in mass communication, especially in the era of digital communication, where information overload is a common phenomenon. Media outlets and social media platforms often present us with conflicting viewpoints and information that may challenge our existing beliefs and attitudes. 

This is where cognitive dissonance comes into play. According to the theory, people try to reduce or avoid cognitive dissonance by seeking information that aligns with their views and ignoring information that creates dissonance. This is a phenomenon known as ‘selective exposure’, where one subconsciously gravitates towards messages that confirm their existing beliefs, hence avoiding the discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance. 

For instance, in political communication, people often exhibit selective exposure by consuming news and content that are in line with their political beliefs. They avoid content that contradicts their views, leading to a filter bubble or echo chamber effect. 

In advertising and consumer behavior, cognitive dissonance can be observed post-purchase, when a consumer might feel discomfort if they find a discrepancy between their purchase decision and information they encounter later. This is often referred to as ‘buyer’s remorse’.

Mass communication tools can both induce and alleviate cognitive dissonance. They have the power to shape public opinion, persuade audiences, and even contribute to societal division by increasing the polarization of attitudes and beliefs.

The Genesis of Cognitive Dissonance Theory

The Cognitive Dissonance Theory was first introduced by Festinger in 1957 in his book “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.” He proposed that individuals strive for consistency within their cognitions. When there is an inconsistency, or ‘dissonance,’ it leads to psychological discomfort. To reduce this discomfort, individuals are motivated to decrease this dissonance and achieve consonance. 

Festinger’s formula for cognitive dissonance is as follows:

    D = s(P1 – P2)

Where D is the amount of dissonance, P1 and P2 are the two elements being compared, and s is a constant. The greater the difference between P1 and P2, the higher the dissonance.

Festinger’s pioneering research on Cognitive Dissonance Theory was primarily based on his observation of a UFO cult in the 1950s. When their prophecy of an impending apocalypse did not come to pass, members of the cult experienced cognitive dissonance – they had to reconcile their deeply held beliefs with the reality that their predictions were wrong.

Festinger and his colleagues infiltrated the cult and observed their behavior and responses when the apocalypse didn’t occur. He noted that instead of admitting their beliefs were wrong, many members chose to alter their beliefs to help reduce their cognitive dissonance. Some members even became more deeply convinced of their beliefs, insisting that their faith had saved the world from the predicted disaster.

This study was later published in the book “When Prophecy Fails,” and it provided a significant empirical backbone to the Cognitive Dissonance Theory.

Since then, the Cognitive Dissonance Theory has been the subject of much research and numerous experiments. It has been used to explain a wide range of behaviors and phenomena, including decision-making, problem-solving, attitudes, and social behavior.

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In-Depth Analysis of the Theory

Key Elements of Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance Theory in Mass Communication
Cognitive Dissonance Theory in Mass Communication

Belief Conflicts: The core of cognitive dissonance lies in conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or values. For example, if a person believes in leading a healthy lifestyle but smokes, a conflict arises.

Discomfort: The presence of conflicting beliefs causes psychological discomfort, prompting the individual to seek resolution.

Desire for Consistency: People naturally desire to have consistency in their beliefs and behavior. Therefore, experiencing cognitive dissonance disrupts this harmony.

Dissonance Reduction: To alleviate discomfort, individuals have to reduce the dissonance either by changing one or both beliefs, acquiring new information to outweigh the dissonant belief, or reducing the importance of the conflict.

Practical Examples and Implementation

Smoking and Health Awareness: An individual who smokes but is aware of the associated health risks will experience cognitive dissonance. They may reduce this by quitting smoking (changing behavior), denying the ill effects of smoking (changing belief), or considering smoking as a stress reliever (adding new consonant belief).

Environmentalism and Personal Consumption: A person who identifies as an environmentalist but uses non-reusable plastics may experience cognitive dissonance. They might address this by switching to reusable materials (changing behavior), convincing themselves that their plastic use is minimal compared to others (changing belief), or justifying that they are recycling properly (adding new consonant belief).

Cognitive dissonance theory is not only significant in understanding personal psychology but also in advertising, sales, and social marketing strategies to influence consumer behavior. For instance, organizations can induce cognitive dissonance in consumers by highlighting the discrepancy between their current behaviors and preferred self-image, thus encouraging the adoption of new products or behaviors.

The Intersection of Cognitive Dissonance and Mass Communication

Cognitive dissonance, a term coined by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957, is a mental discomfort that arises when one holds two or more contradictory beliefs, values, or perceptions simultaneously. This discomfort often prompts individuals to modify their beliefs or perceptions to reduce the inconsistency.

In the context of mass communication, cognitive dissonance plays a pivotal role. Mass communication – through mediums like television, radio, newspapers, and the internet – can present varying viewpoints, claims, or news events that can potentially clash with an individual’s existing beliefs or perceptions, thus triggering cognitive dissonance.

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Cognitive Dissonance’s Impact on Mass Communication

Influence on Perception: Cognitive dissonance can shape the way individuals perceive and interpret information from various media sources. For example, a person who strongly believes in climate change may disregard or reinterpret information from a news outlet that denies its existence to reduce dissonance.

Selective Exposure: To avoid dissonance, individuals might selectively expose themselves to media that aligns with their existing beliefs. This can lead to a homogeneous exposure to news and might potentially encourage polarization within society.

Impact on Media Credibility: Dissonance can affect how audiences perceive the credibility of various media sources. If a source consistently triggers dissonance, audiences may start to view it as less credible or reliable.

The Exploitation of Cognitive Dissonance by Mass Media

Agenda-Setting: Media outlets might exploit cognitive dissonance to control public discourse. By selectively presenting or emphasizing certain news stories, they can provoke dissonance, thereby shaping public opinion.

Manipulation of Public Sentiment: Media can exploit cognitive dissonance to sway public sentiment. By presenting information in a way that clashes with popular belief, they can stir unrest or dissatisfaction.

Advertising and Marketing: Advertisers and marketers often exploit cognitive dissonance to influence consumer behavior. They might create a sense of discomfort about a product or lifestyle, and then present their product as a solution to relieve that discomfort.

Remember, while mass media can exploit cognitive dissonance to shape public opinion, individuals can counteract this by critically analyzing the information they consume, diversifying their media sources, and being aware of how dissonance might be influencing their perceptions and behaviors.

Cognitive Dissonance’s Influence on Audience Reception

Influence on Attitude: Cognitive dissonance can significantly affect the audience’s attitudes. A study by Cooper and Fazio (1984) indicated that people tend to change their attitudes to align with their actions to reduce dissonance. This can be seen in scenarios ranging from consumer choices, and political opinions, to social issues.

Influence on Action: The discomfort from cognitive dissonance can also drive people to change their behavior or actions. For instance, a smoker (behavior) who knows smoking is harmful (cognition) may quit smoking (behavior change) to reduce dissonance.

Case Studies: The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in Advertising and Political Communication

Case Study – Cognitive Dissonance in Advertising

A classic example is the marketing strategy employed by Apple Inc. In the late 1990s, Apple launched an ad campaign with the slogan “Think Different,” which created dissonance by making consumers question their preference for mainstream PC products. This strategy was successful, with Apple’s sales increasing significantly during this period.

Case Study – Cognitive Dissonance in Political Communication

Cognitive dissonance plays a significant role in shaping political attitudes and beliefs. One example is the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Many voters experienced cognitive dissonance when faced with choosing between two candidates they may have had negative opinions about. This dissonance might have resulted in third-party voting, abstaining from voting, or even changing their political beliefs to reconcile their dissonance.

Navigating Cognitive Dissonance in Mass Communication

Cognitive dissonance refers to the mental discomfort experienced when holding two or more contradictory beliefs, values, or attitudes. In mass communication, the audience often encounters information that contradicts their pre-existing beliefs or values, leading to cognitive dissonance. The key to navigating cognitive dissonance in mass communication is to understand its causes and impacts and devise strategies to alleviate or leverage it.

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Proactive Methods to Alleviate Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance Theory in Mass Communication
Cognitive Dissonance Theory in Mass Communication

Encouraging Critical Thinking: Foster an environment where audience members are encouraged to critically evaluate the information they consume. This could be achieved through the inclusion of different perspectives, promoting open dialogue, and emphasizing the importance of independent fact-checking.

Providing Clear and Concise Information: Simplify complex information into digestible bits. Clear, concise, and accurate information reduces the potential for misunderstanding and cognitive dissonance.

Using Persuasive Communication: Persuasive communication is a technique whereby the communicator strategically presents their message to change the audience’s attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors, thus reducing cognitive dissonance. Techniques can include the use of credible sources, logical arguments, and emotional appeals.

Incorporating Feedback Mechanisms: Feedback mechanisms allow the audience to voice their concerns, disagreements, or questions regarding the communicated information. This helps identify areas of cognitive dissonance and provides opportunities to address them.

The Pros and Cons of Manipulating Cognitive Dissonance

Manipulating cognitive dissonance can be a powerful tool in mass communication, but it comes with its advantages and disadvantages:


Influencing Attitudes and Behaviors: Manipulating cognitive dissonance can be used to influence the audience’s attitudes and behaviors, as they strive to achieve consistency in their beliefs and actions.

Promoting Positive Change: If used ethically, it can be instrumental in promoting positive societal change, such as encouraging individuals to adopt healthier lifestyles or more sustainable practices.


Potential for Misuse: There’s a risk of misuse, particularly in influencing public opinion based on misinformation or biased information.

Increased Skepticism: Overuse of cognitive dissonance manipulation can lead to increased skepticism among the audience, potentially reducing the effectiveness of future communication efforts.

Forecasting the Evolution of Cognitive Dissonance in Mass Communication

Changes in Mass Communication Platforms

The past decade has seen a dramatic shift in mass communication from traditional print media towards digital platforms such as social media, blogs, and podcasts. As per data from Pew Research Center, as of 2019, roughly 93% of American adults get at least some of their news online.

This shift has profound implications for cognitive dissonance. With information more readily available and diverse viewpoints more accessible, audiences are now more likely to encounter information that contradicts their preexisting beliefs. This increase in exposure to conflicting information is likely to lead to an increased experience of cognitive dissonance.

The Spread of Misinformation

The rise of digital communication platforms has also been accompanied by a rise in misinformation. Researchers at MIT found that false information on Twitter spreads six times faster than true information. This rapid spread of misinformation could increase cognitive dissonance as individuals struggle to reconcile false information they believe to be true with factual information that contradicts it.

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Proposals for Future Cognitive Dissonance Research

Cognitive Dissonance Theory
Cognitive Dissonance Theory in Mass Communication

Exploring the Impact of Social Media

Given the increasing prevalence of social media in mass communication, future research should focus on understanding how social media contributes to cognitive dissonance. This could involve examining how the algorithms that control what content users see on their feeds might contribute to the creation or resolution of cognitive dissonance. 

Investigating the Role of Misinformation

Future research should also investigate how misinformation contributes to cognitive dissonance. This could involve studies examining how individuals handle cognitive dissonance when they encounter factual information that contradicts misinformation they believe to be true.

The Effect of Cognitive Dissonance on Behavior

Further research is needed to understand how cognitive dissonance influences behavior, particularly about consuming and sharing news. For example, does high cognitive dissonance drive individuals to seek out more balanced news sources, or does it push them further into echo chambers that confirm their preexisting beliefs?

In summary, the dynamic environment of mass communication has significant implications for cognitive dissonance theory. Future research in this area will be invaluable in helping us understand how these changes impact our cognition and behavior.

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