Cognitive Dissonance Theory

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A discussion of Cognitive Dissonance Theory and how it relates to communication skills.

This article will be a discussion of Cognitive Dissonance Theory (CDT). To explain this, I will have to research exactly what CDT is and look at ways that it can be applied to everyday communication. I believe this article can be of great significance and it could potentially help a lot of people. I want it to be the best article I can produce. I need to remain focused and work diligently to produce a clear and concise article discussing the various aspects of CDT. The trouble is that I keep getting side tracked by various household chores, social networking, you name it. This has caused me to become quite aggravated with myself as I know I have to get down to the business of writing my article.

   Luckily for me this is exactly what CDT is all about. Cognitive Dissonance Theory takes a look at the conflict that occurs when the beliefs of a person do not match up with their actions. My belief that writing a comprehensive article is of great importance is in direct conflict with my actions which have been to do everything but write. This creates what Leon Festinger has termed “dissonance” (West & Turner, 2010). Dissonance is a feeling of imbalance. When our actions conflict with our beliefs it creates an imbalance between our thoughts or cognitions and things that we do. Festinger went on to identify different ways that people go about getting rid of this feeling of dissonance. “There are three ways to eliminate dissonance: (1) reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs, (2) add more consonant beliefs that outweigh the dissonant beliefs, or (3) change the dissonant beliefs so that they are no longer inconsistent” (Kearsley). Let’s look at these strategies and how they apply to everyday communication.

   How do you reduce the importance of the dissonant beliefs? In the case of my article, I could simply choose to say that this particular article isn’t really that important. It doesn’t really have to be that long, and I can justify my procrastination. This brings my actions and my beliefs into a state of consonance in that they agree with each other. CDT is based partly on the assumption that people naturally try to achieve agreement in their thoughts and deeds. Reducing the importance of the dissonance allows me to reassure myself that all is well and I do not need to take further actions to rectify the situation.

   The second method of relieving dissonance is to add more consonant beliefs. Again, I use the example of writing this article. I can say that my need to mow the lawn today outweighs my need to write this article. I am adding the fact that I believe that keeping my lawn looking good is consistent with my action of mowing the grass. This consonant belief and behavior can be stronger than my dissonant belief and behavior in regard to my article. I may also add that keeping in touch with my friends on the internet is important to my being a loyal and helpful friend. This belief is in complete agreement with my action of social networking. If I can add enough of these consonant beliefs and behaviors, I can eliminate my feeling of dissonance.

   The more drastic of the possible solutions to dissonance is to actually change the dissonant belief. This would require me to change how I look at my article. I would say that this article is not important and that I don’t really benefit from writing it. My personal experience has shown me that this type of solution is most difficult as it usually asks a person to mess with their core values. If it is possible to change the way you feel about something then I question how strong the belief was in the first place. I cannot help but think that the dissonance wasn’t that great to begin with.

The next aspect to CDT that I would like to look at is how dissonance can affect our perceptions. In our attempt to avoid dissonance we seek out information in certain ways. We can practice selective exposure, selective attention, and selective interpretation. I believe that this will explain a great deal about our society and how people act. Let’s look at each of these ideas.

   Selective exposure can be best summed up by the old saying “Birds of a feather flock together”. We naturally seek to be around people who will be in agreement with our thoughts and actions. We avoid dissonance by making sure that the information that we receive is the same as our own. This could explain why we see the formation of radical groups such as the Branch Davidian movement in Waco Texas. To an outward observer, they seemed to be radical; while to the members of the group they were consistent and working together toward a common cause. They selectively exposed themselves to only those who agreed with them in order to avoid the dissonance caused by getting all of the information.

Selective attention could be described as tunnel vision. When we find ideas that are consistent with our own, we focus in on them and block out everything else. The case of the Davidians is at work here as well. By secluding themselves in their compound in Waco, they narrowed the information to only that which agreed with their own beliefs.

   Selective interpretation deals with what we do with the information that we get that we may not be quite sure about. This relates back to the fundamental principle of communication that we use our beliefs as a lens to interpret the messages that we receive from others. We can avoid dissonance by interpreting the information that we get as agreeing with our fundamental beliefs.

   The principle of minimal justification seems, to me, to be the Achilles heel of this theory. This states that we need to offer the least amount of incentive to a person in order to get them to change. The idea is that if you offer someone a lot to get them to change it makes the issue of greater importance. Offering the person less makes it of lesser importance and therefore will not create as much dissonance if you are asking them to do something that is in disagreement with one of their fundamental beliefs. I question the experiment used to establish this line of thinking as not being very scientific or replicable.

   In conclusion, I find CDT to be a very interesting theory that can be used to understand a great deal about human behavior and how we communicate with each other based on our desire to avoid dissonance. Fortunately for myself I chose to deal with my dissonance by eliminating the dissonant behavior of not writing my article.


Kearsley, G. (4/30/10). The Theory Into Practice Database. Retrieved from

West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2010). Introducing Communication Theory Analysis and plication Fourth Edition. NY: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.


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