The theory developed by famous American psychologist Leon Festinger, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort experienced by a person who has conflicts or contradictions between ideas, values, behavior and/or information at the same time. An example of this dissonance is if after deciding to go on a diet you eat a fried chicken and ice cream– there’s a contradiction between your idea and behavior that will be obvious to you. Another is if you have a blind loyalty to a public figure and news comes out that he did something bad and against his professed views.
This conflict between expectations and reality is unconformable and the person has a strong ingrained drive to try to reduce the dissonance. Humans psychologically want constancy between their expectations and reality.
There are countless ways to try to reduce dissonance– healthy and unhealthy, rational and irrational, adaptive and maladaptive, honest and dishonest. Some will deal reasonably with the conflict– such as accepting that it was a mistake to eat that bad food and vowing to get back on the straight an narrow, or making one’s views about a public figure more realistic. Others will act poorly such as trying to delude themselves that fried chicken and ice cream for breakfast really is good for you, deny or dubiously justify the facts about the public figure or, as is often the case, ‘shoot the messenger.’ Denying facts, lying to oneself and dubious justifications are common maladaptive ways to try to regain cognitive consistency.
How we deal with dissonance says a lot about us and our maturity and is a major part of our personality. We admire people who admit to their mistakes, handle well unexpected setbacks and can change their viewpoints when given new information, and we express frustration with people who stubbornly cling to false notions and who react angrily to anyone who doesn’t agree with them.
The desire to reduce cognitive dissonance explains why we all often automatically deny facts or theories that go against our ideas or beliefs, even when we later accept them.