How To Reduce Cognitive Dissonance And Why You Must

Do you often feel conflicted within yourself? Then learn how to reduce cognitive dissonance and resolve the negative effects it has on your peace and balance.

When two opposing ideas collide, it clouds your judgment and makes you unjust.

At some point in our lives, we have all experienced an inner conflict called cognitive dissonance.

It is a psychological condition that causes mental unrest and stress, and even makes us behave weirdly or irrationally at times. Scientists have been studying it for more than 60 years.

Cognitive dissonance appears when what we see or hear challenges our beliefs and opinions, resulting in a fight between two thoughts.

However, we can resolve the potentially damaging thoughts, feelings, and actions.

We explore those methods and practical tips for reducing cognitive dissonance in daily life.

What Is Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance occurs when you try to hold two opposing thoughts at once, creating stress, anxiety, and indecision.

  • “The grass is greener on the other side of the fence” but “Home is where your heart is.”
  • “Birds of a feather flock together” but “Opposites attract.”
  • “Look before you leap” but “He who hesitates is lost.”

Cognitive dissonance also refers to the mental conflict that occurs when your actions and beliefs do not match. It explains why you feel uneasy when you must act against your values or convictions.

Leon Festinger, an American social psychologist, first presented it in his 1957 book, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.

how to reduce cognitive dissonance

How To Reduce Cognitive Dissonance

Here are some effective ways to reduce cognitive dissonance:

1. Denying, Rejecting, or Avoiding Information

The simplest way to reduce cognitive dissonance is to avoid or reject new information that contradicts your pre-existing ideas.

Here’s another tip to make your dissonance less painful – do the activity more often. It is easier to stop getting conflicted and stressed when the dissonant activity is repeated frequently.

For example, eating meat while on a vegan diet causes cognitive dissonance, but the more often you do so, the easier it gets to remain unaffected by the conflict.

“People will avoid information and situations that could increase that specific dissonance.”

– Leon Festinger

In a worse way, you may reduce your dissonance by belittling or dismissing information that contradicts your beliefs.

Start to tell yourself that people who disagree with you must be ignorant, uninformed, or biased. In fact, this is what some obstinate people like grandiose narcissists do.

  • The narcissistic person may believe that they are always right and refuse to accept any information that contradicts their beliefs.
  • When someone presents evidence that challenges their opinion on a particular topic, the narcissist may belittle or dismiss the information rather than consider it.
  • This reduces their cognitive dissonance by maintaining their belief that they are always right, even in the face of contradictory evidence.

However, rejecting, denying, or avoiding dissonant information can lead to an inability to learn from new information and may block your critical thinking acumen.

This may lead to another bias, called “confirmation bias,” where you only welcome the data that supports your beliefs and opinions.

2. Convincing Yourself (or Others) Otherwise

Another fairly easy way o reduce your cognitive dissonance is to convince yourself that there is no conflict.

And tell that to others too. In time, you will start believing in the idea that there is actually no dissonance since there is no contradiction.

“You are saying that my idea and your idea do not match. But allow me to explain why there is no contradiction there.”

And then serve them a “word salad” that leaves them utterly confused to sort out the threads of the argument.

As a cognitively dissonant person, you may also reach out to and find support from other people who hold similar opinions or matching ideologies as you, and join their group.

Then all of you might try persuading all outside the group that all fresh information is agenda-driven and fallacious.

3. Rationalizing The Irrational Behavior

Rationalizing is the process of applying logic to a situation.

Rationalizing is good when done the right way, as it allows you to make informed decisions based on logic and evidence. Seeking different options and evaluating the pros and cons can help you take calculated risks and get better results.

However, rationalizing is bad when it takes the shape of excuses.

You may apply this to reduce your cognitive dissonance. Try to rationalize your irreverent and irrational actions by inventing implausible (and sometimes ridiculous) excuses.

Despite knowing that smoking causes cancer, a smoker may rationalize the habit by claiming they only smoke once or twice a day and only when they are stressed at work.

Weick (1968) suggested that when we act in a way that goes against our beliefs or values in front of our friends and family, we may feel the need to justify or defend our behavior to avoid feeling embarrassed.

This is because changing our behavior to align with our beliefs may make us feel like we were wrong or hypocritical, which can be uncomfortable. So, instead, we may try to rationalize or justify our behavior to avoid feeling embarrassed or ashamed.

On the flip side, when you do a cognitively dissonant activity in front of strangers, you do not give a hoot (unless you are a celebrity).

This is because you know they have no idea of what beliefs you have regarding that activity.

4. Reconciling The Differences

It means resolving the differences between your conflicting beliefs or behaviors and making peace with those that cause mental distress.

  • You may shift your beliefs or behaviors to align with each other.
  • You could find a way to see your beliefs or behaviors as compatible or complementary.
  • You may accept the validity of pre-existing beliefs and change your behavior to match your views.

By reconciling the differences, you can reduce the pain and stress of cognitive dissonance.

Sometimes people are simply too exhausted to deal with dissonant situations and might try to find the easy way out of dissonance. They often resort to ways that are less cognitively taxing.

You could do that – distract yourself into another activity or escape the situation.

If you want to remove the discomfort of dissonance in the long run, you may need to use more complex strategies

Like changing your attitudes. Or finding a way to transcend your conflicting beliefs.

These are better strategies and require effort and time, but they can help you achieve a greater sense of consistency in your thoughts and actions.

For best results, you could do a total rehaul of your opinions stack and abandon your pre-existing ideas to build new ones.

In summary, here are five ways to reduce your cognitive dissonance:

  1. Change your behavior to align with your beliefs.
  2. Change your beliefs to align with your behavior.
  3. Seek out information that supports your beliefs.
  4. Minimize the importance of conflicting beliefs.
  5. View the beliefs as compatible or complementary.

Festinger’s Model for Reducing Cognitive Dissonance

Festinger hypothesized three main ways in which a person could reduce dissonance:

  1. Changing one’s attitude;
  2. Adding consistent information; and
  3. Diminishing the importance of cognition.

Here is how we may work to diminish the importance of cognition:

  • we tend to forget about the unimportant cognitions,
  • we change our attitudes to moderately important cognitions,
  • we adopt a mental restructuring for highly important cognitions.

Cognitive Dissonance Examples

Example of Cognitive Dissonance In Marketing

A person who values environmental sustainability buys a product that is marketed as eco-friendly. The product is good and fulfills their needs. But he later discovers that the product is not actually so.

This creates a conflict between his values and his purchasing behavior, leading to feelings of remorse, discomfort, and stress.

To reduce cognitive dissonance, the person may either stop using the product or rationalize their behavior by minimizing the negative impact of the product on the environment.

“I’ll never buy from them again, but since I bought it, I might use it, though only rarely.”

Example of Cognitive Dissonance In A Group of Friends

A group of friends may hold that being honest with each other is critical to being part of the group.

Then they discover that one member of their group has recently been fabricating facts, telling white lies, and hiding crucial information. However, this member is a vital part of the group’s popularity.

This creates a conflict between the group’s shared belief and the behavior of the individual, leading to feelings of discomfort and stress.

To reduce cognitive dissonance, the group may either confront the individual about their behavior or rationalize their behavior by minimizing the harm caused by the lies or withholding of information.

“Okay, we’ll keep pointing out he should be honest with us, and we wouldn’t bother what he says to whom outside our group.”

For instance, suppose you’re given to hold a real-looking yet fake snake in your hands.

You know it’s harmless, yet it causes cognitive dissonance because you’ve been taught that snakes are dangerous.

So, your first instinct would be to toss it away as soon as you hold it.

For example, if you recently began drinking soda daily after years of lecturing others about how unhealthy it is, you may start to feel bad about it.

The tug-of-war between your beliefs and behaviors is the source of your bad feelings.

Another instance of cognitive conflict may arise when a person makes it a point to drive far from home to have Doner Kebabs or Shawarma Rolls so that no one recognizes him/her—despite harboring strong anti-meat sentiments.

If the practice continues, the person will likely keep adding guilt, stress, and shame to their actions, and might stop eventually. But if they learn to override their guilt, their behavior gets labeled as hypocrisy. Surprisingly, often the person themselves recognizes their hypocrisy.

Why You Suffer From Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance evokes stress, anxiety, guilt, and shame.

We suffer cognitive dissonance because our brain finds it difficult to accept that what is happening is not what we have always assumed to be true based on our experiences.

The discomfort comes from our present reality fighting the judgments we have drawn from our past.

With conflicting data, your mind will do all in its power to influence your behavior so that it is consistent with past information.

So, you can lie about or hide your incongruent behavior, rationalize your actions when caught, and resist absorbing new information from trustworthy sources.

But it can also cause you to eventually change your behavior when you see your justifying ways getting outdated and constantly rejected, and the weight of your guilt becomes too much to bear.

Why Must You Reduce Cognitive Dissonance

When we know things that are not consistent with one another, we will try to make them more consistent in some ways. This attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance is a natural human tendency, “just as hunger impels a person to eat,” as Festinger wrote.

Reducing dissonance is actually achieving consonance in your thoughts and actions. You do so because you want less mental burden and fewer negative thoughts.

  • The original theory, by Festinger (1957) suggests that, since cognitive dissonance comes with negative emotional reactions, the need to lessen those emotions drives the urge to reduce the dissonance.
  • According to Beauvois and Joule (1996, 1999), the dissonance reduction process is more about rationalizing a prior commitment to a behavior rather than restoring consonance.
  • From a self-affirmation perspective (Steele and Liu, 1983; Aronson et al., 2019), dissonance reduction serves as a means of repairing one’s self-image.
  • The self-consistency model (Aronson, 1992, 1999) suggests that people seek consonance when cognitive conflicts threaten their self-integrity.

However, while most of us experience cognitive dissonance, not everyone feels the same strong desire to reduce it.

We now know that people who are more tolerant of uncertainty and inconsistency suffer less dissonance compared to those who need consistency.

Festinger defined the magnitude of dissonance as the proportion of dissonant to consonant cognitions.

Despite a large body of research on dissonance theory, no general model of dissonance reduction exists.

Further study:

A General Model of Dissonance Reduction: Unifying Past Accounts via an Emotion Regulation Perspective by Sebastian Cancino-Montecinos, Fredrik Björklund, Torun Lindholm (Frontiers in Psychology, Nov 2020).

Final Words

The good thing about your cognitive dissonance is that it is temporary. The dissonance goes away when you change your opinion or behavior.

The problem is for those pig-heads who refuse to change their attitudes, actions, or opinions. These people remain inflexible in the face of our world’s constant change with new information.

If you are in the habit of being dogmatic about your beliefs and resist changing your deeply held beliefs, then it’s time you stop thinking too much about the past and start moving forward.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.

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