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Cognitive dissonance: the theory that explains self-deception

Cognitive dissonance: the theory that explains self-deception

July 19, 2024

The psychologist Leon Festinger proposed the cognitive dissonance theory , which explains how people try to maintain their internal consistency. He suggested that individuals have a strong inner need that pushes them to make sure that their beliefs, attitudes and behavior are consistent with each other . When there is inconsistency between them, the conflict leads to a lack of harmony, something that people strive to avoid.

This theory has been widely studied in the field of psychology and can be defined as the discomfort, tension or anxiety that individuals experience when their beliefs or attitudes conflict with what they do. This displeasure can lead to an attempt to change behavior or defend their beliefs or attitudes (even reaching the self-deception) to reduce the discomfort they produce.


Festinger was the author of "Theory of Cognitive Dissonance" (1957), a work that revolutionized the field of social psychology, and that has been used in different areas, such as motivation, group dynamics, the study of attitude change and decision making.

The relationship between lying and cognitive dissonance

The relationship between lie and the cognitive dissonance it is one of the topics that has most attracted the attention of researchers. Leon Festinger himself, along with his colleague James Merrill Carlsmith, conducted a study that showed that the mind of the liars solved the cognitive dissonance "Accepting the lie as a truth".


The experiment of Festinger and Carlsmith

Both designed an experiment to prove that if we have little extrinsic motivation to justify behavior that goes against our attitudes or beliefs, we tend to change our mind to rationalize our actions.

To do this, they asked some students from Stanford University, divided into three groups, to perform a task that they evaluated as very boring. Subsequently, the subjects were asked to lie, since they had to tell a new group that they were going to perform the task, that it had been fun. Group 1 was allowed to leave without saying anything to the new group, group 2 was paid 1 dollar before lying and group 3 was paid 20 dollars.

A week later, Festinger called the subjects of the study to ask what they thought of the task. Group 1 and 3 replied that the task had been boring, while group 2 responded that it had seemed fun . Why did the members of the group who had received only 1 dollar claim that the task had been fun?


The researchers concluded that people experience a dissonance between conflicting cognitions. When receiving only 1 dollar, the students were forced to change their thinking, because they had no other justification (1 dollar was insufficient and produced cognitive dissonance). Those who had received $ 20, however, had external justification for their behavior, and therefore experienced less dissonance . This seems to indicate that if there is no external cause that justifies the behavior, it is easier to change beliefs or attitudes.

Increase cognitive dissonance to catch a liar

Another famous study in this line of research was carried out Anastasio Ovejero , and concluded that, regarding the lie, "It is necessary to understand that subjects usually live in cognitive consonance between their thinking and acting and if for some reason they can not be congruent, they will try not to talk about the facts that generate the dissonance, thus avoiding increasing it and seeking to rearrange their ideas, values ​​and / or principles to be able to self-justify, achieved in this way that their set of ideas fit together and the tension is reduced ".

When cognitive dissonance occurs, in addition to making active attempts to reduce it, the individual usually avoids situations and information that could cause discomfort .

An example of the use of cognitive dissonance to detect a liar

One of the ways to catch a liar is causing an increase in cognitive dissonance, in order to detect the signals that give him away. For example, an individual named Carlos, who had been unemployed for two years, starts working as a salesman for an electric company. Carlos is an honest person with values, but he has no choice but to take money home at the end of the month .

When Carlos goes to visit his clients, he has to sell them a product that he knows will eventually cause a loss of money for the buyer, so this conflicts with his beliefs and values, causing cognitive dissonance. Carlos will have to justify himself internally and generate new ideas aimed at reducing the discomfort he can feel .

The client, for his part, could observe a series of contradictory signals if he presses Carlos enough to get cognitive dissonance to increase, since this situation would have an effect on his gestures, his tone of voice or his affirmations. In the words of Festinger himself, "People feel uncomfortable when we simultaneously maintain contradictory beliefs or when our beliefs are not in harmony with what we do".

The psychologist, author of the book "Expressed emotions, emotions overcome", adds that due to cognitive dissonance, "Discomfort is usually accompanied by feelings of guilt, anger, frustration or shame".

The classic example of smokers

A classic example when talking about cognitive dissonance is that of smokers. We all know that smoking can cause cancer, respiratory problems, chronic fatigue and even death. But, Why do people, knowing all these pernicious effects caused by smoke, still smoke?

Knowing that smoking is so harmful to health but continuing to smoke, produces a state of dissonance between two cognitions: "I must be healthy" Y "Smoking hurts my health". But instead of quitting or feeling bad because they smoke, smokers can look for self-justifications like "What is the use of living a lot if you can not enjoy life" .

This example shows that we often reduce cognitive dissonance by distorting the information we receive. If we are smokers, we do not pay as much attention to the evidence about the relationship tobacco-cancer. People do not want to hear things that conflict with their deepest beliefs and desires, even though in the same package of tobacco there is a warning about the seriousness of the subject.

Infidelity and cognitive dissonance

Another clear example of cognitive dissonance is what happens to a person who has been unfaithful. The majority of individuals affirm that they would not be infidels and they know that they would not like to suffer it in their flesh, even though, in many occasions, they may become so. When committing the act of infidelity they usually justify themselves by telling themselves that the fault lies with the other member of the couple (he no longer treats him the same way, spends more time with his friends, etc.), since bearing the weight of having been unfaithful (thinking that infidelity is of bad people) can cause a lot of suffering.

In fact, after a while, cognitive dissonance may get worse, and constantly seeing your partner may force you to confess, because each time you may feel worse. The internal struggle can become so desperate that attempts to justify this situation can cause serious emotional health problems. Cognitive dissonance, in these cases, It can affect different areas of life, such as work, friendships in common, etc. Confess can become the only way to get rid of suffering.

When cognitive dissonance occurs due to infidelity, the subject is motivated to reduce it, because it produces a great discomfort or anxiety. But when for different reasons, it is not possible to change the situation (for example, by not being able to act on the past), then the individual will try to change their cognitions or the assessment of what they have done. The problem arises because when you live with that person (your partner) and see her daily, the feeling of guilt can end up "killing you inside" .


Social Thinking: Crash Course Psychology #37 (July 2024).


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