Problem summary

When we do something that is not in line with our beliefs, we change our beliefs


Dissonance theory applies to all situations involving attitude formation and change. It is especially relevant to decision-making and problem-solving.

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As humans, we subconsciously strive for internal consistency. Experiencing the inconsistency of cognitive dissonance leads to psychological discomfort. In turn, this leads to the higher motivation to avoid information that can contradict our own beliefs and values. So that we can stay in balance and be happy.

Most of the time, we try to reduce our cognitive dissonance in several ways:

  • Add positive belief to reduce discomfort. “Avoid backpain, by exercising twice a week”
  • Change the behavior or cognition. “I don’t eat meat anymore.”
  • Reducing the importance of discomfort to justify the conflicting behavior. “Exercising twice a week will make it ok” – will reduce the importance of the conflict. Here the conflict whose importance is reduced being: sitting for too long can cause back pain.
  • Justify the behavior or the cognition, by altering the conflicting cognition. “I can have a cheat day with meat once a week.”
  • Justify the behavior or the cognition by adding new ones. “I’ll go for a run to burn out the extra calories, I will eat now”
  • Ignore or deny information that conflicts with existing beliefs. “This meat is organic, so the animal must have had a good life.”


  • Highlight discomfort. Users might not consciously know about a discomfort or might not be able to articulate a particular problem. Help them by highlighting how they are currently in pain and how you can help them get out of it.
  • Alleviate discomfort. Frame your product or service in a way that will remove or reduce the dissonance and feelings of discomfort from a particular topic. E.g. filing taxes, working out, or staying smart.
  • Change beliefs. Cognitive dissonance can be used to change one or more of the attitudes, behavior, beliefs, etc., to make the relationship between the two elements a consonant one (in harmony).


Our actions influence subsequent beliefs and attitudes – they aren’t the result of them. The presence of cognitive dissonance, of being psychologically uncomfortable, motivates us to resolve the conflict in order to reduce the dissonance. Provoke cognitive dissonance and let users resolve the conflict by taking action.


1 William Lidwell (2003), “Universal Principles of Design”

2 Brehm, J. & Cohen, A. (1962). Explorations in Cognitive Dissonance. New York: Wiley.

3 Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

4 Festinger, L. & Carlsmith, J.M. (1959). Cognitive Consquences of Forced Compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-210. [available at]

5 Wickland, R. & Brehm, J. (1976). Perspectives on Cognitive Dissonance. NY: Halsted Press.

6 Cognitive Dissonance at Instructional Design

7 An Introduction to Cognitive Dissonance Theory and an Overview of Current Perspectives on the Theory by Eddie Harmon-Jones and Judson Mills

User Interface Design Patterns