cognitive dissonanceWhat is cognitive dissonance (something taught in psychology and organizational behavior courses) and why should it matter to you? Well, understanding cognitive dissonance clearly helps to explain quite a number of things about why people behave the way they do. It is also an insight that can help you to persuade those around you more effectively…

It was Leon Festinger of Stanford University who formulated the cognitive dissonance theory in 1957. He suggested that when people confront something including their own behavior that is inconsistent with their cognition (attitudes, beliefs, values), they find themselves in a state of discomfort. Their reaction to this discomfort is to create adjustment so they can get back to their mental and emotional balance.

This need to regain emotional balance and control is extremely, like a self-preservation instinct to reduce psychological tension.

The human mind uses a number of tools to help us regain emotional balance. Here are some common ones:


You are trying to lose weight and  eating healthy food then in a moment of weakness, you go for a high-fat fast food meal. You feel guilty so you say to yourself  “I’ll get back to my diet tomorrow again – once in a while this is OK”


“Yes I know I backed him for this job and he is not performing up to standard. But at least he is someone we can rely on to stay loyal to us”


“He has not been getting good grades but what did you expect? He has not been feeling well lately and on top of that, his teacher seems disinterested”

Here is another example of dissonance. We purchase something – maybe a car – and then either experience a problem with it or someone questions this decision. But having invested in a significant decision, our natural tendency is to then find evidence that supports our decision. This could be other people who bought the same product and are happy with it, an article perhaps that compares this car favorably with other competing products, and so on. This will continue until we have satisfied ourselves (regained emotional balance) that this was indeed the right decision.

You may find people at work, colleagues or bosses, who have made a wrong decision but will stick with it obstinately even when they have realized themselves that this is not going to work. This is cognitive dissonance at work.

Ok, so we have some idea now why people behave this way but how can we use this information about dissonance to perduade others more effectively?

Well, once you get someone to mentally commit to a product or a decision, he/she is likely to remain committed even after the terms and conditions change. When such a commitment is made in public or in writing, then the cognitive dissonance that results if this commitment is not honored is very strong so rather than canceling the commitment, the person decides to go ahead.

The “foot in the door” approach takes advantage of cognitive dissonance. Once a client has made a small commitment, say just to try out your service for free, they are much more likely to make a larger commitment because they feel somewhat obliged to you.