Principles of Design #47 – Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a feeling of discomfort on holding conflicting ideas, values, opinions, beliefs or emotions at the same time. This leads to a tendency to seek consistency by changing the importance or quality of one or more of the ideas, values, opinions, beliefs or emotions.The phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’ was first coined by Leon Festinger in 1956, inspired by his work studying a UFO cult, and which he later developed into a full theory in his book A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. This is one of the most influential theories in social psychology, and one of the most extensively researched.

We all strive to have consistency in our thoughts, beliefs and behaviours. When our behaviours and beliefs agree we experience consonance, and when they disagree we have dissonance. When there is dissonance, we experience mental discomfort and seek to alleviate the dissonance, returning to a state of equilibrium. Cognitive dissonance is linked to other mental biases such as confirmation bias, where we avoid situations and information that is likely to conflict with our existing beliefs, thus avoiding potential dissonance.

We are all motivated to alleviate cognitive dissonance, and there are three different strategies for doing this. We can reduce the importance of the dissonant information, we can seek to add more consonant information or we can change one of the dissonant factors. For example, consider a woman who values financial security. She gets into a relationship with a man who is financially irresponsible and experiences mental discomfort because although it is important to her to be financially secure but she is dating a man who is financially irresponsible. Cognitive dissonance might lead her to leave the relationship, reduce her emphasis on financial security or emphasise the positive aspects of her relationship and of her partner, and ignore his flaws.

Cognitive dissonance is a common component of post-purchase behaviour. we all want to belief that we make good choices, and even when a purchase turns out badly, we will tend to downplay this, focus on the good aspects of the purchase and reaffirm our belief in our own decision-making abilities. The theory plays a part in the power of free trial periods for products from internet services to cars. The greater the time and effort we invest in engaging with a product or service, the less likely we are to give it up when the trial period expires, because cognitive dissonance will lead us to have more positive feelings about it and to reduce the importance of the financial investment required to continue with it. Studies have shown that post-purchase consumers are biased in the information that they seek and remember about a category towards the information which supports their purchase and increases consonance.

There are interesting effects of cognitive dissonance when incentives are involved in a situation, as different incentive levels can lead to different results.When incentives for an (unpleasant) task are small, cognitive dissonance is reduced by changing beliefs about the task to feel more positive about it, whereas when the incentives are large cognitive dissonance is reduced by adding a consonant belief that the payment justifies the task. Therefore, those who are paid less feel more positive about the task than those who are paid more! Therefore, increasing incentives often reduces the probability of changing someone’s beliefs and attitudes about a situation.

Cognitive dissonance is important in the design of advertising and marketing campaigns and any context where persuasion is important. Consonant and dissonant information can be used to help change beliefs. For example, engaging people to spend time, attention, participation and support to create dissonance, which can then be alleviated with simple and immediate mechanisms which provide consonance. If you are using incentives to create behaviour change, always use the minimum compensation possible to achieve long-term changes in behaviour.


Universal Principles of Design by Lidwell, Holden & Butler

A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance by Leon Festinger

Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) by Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson

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