Cognitive Dissonance

… a core concept used in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107

Aesop’s fox & “sour grapes”

Concept description

Wikipedia (reference below) describes cognitive dissonance as the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.

Wikipedia goes on to say:

“The occurrence of cognitive dissonance is a consequence of a person’s performing an action that contradicts personal beliefs, ideals, and values; and also occurs when confronted with new information that contradicts said beliefs, ideals, and values.

“In A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), Leon Festinger proposed that human beings strive for internal psychological consistency in order to mentally function in the real world. That a person who experiences internal inconsistency tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and so is motivated to reduce the cognitive dissonance: either by changing parts of the cognition, to justify the stressful behavior; or by adding new parts to the cognition that causes the psychological dissonance; and by actively avoiding social situations and contradictory information that are likely to increase the magnitude of the cognitive dissonance.

“… In the fable of “The Fox and the Grapes”, by Aesop, on failing to reach the desired bunch of grapes, the fox then decides he does not truly want the fruit, because it is sour. The fox’s act of rationalization (justification) reduced his anxiety about the cognitive dissonance occurred because of a desire he cannot realise.”

Cognitive dissonance and political attitudes

Writing in the Harvard Gazette, Christina Pazzenese (reference below) describes recent research by Avidit Acharya, Mathew Blackwell, and Maya Sen (2015, reference below) suggesting that cognitive dissonance helps to engrain political attitudes:

“In the fields of economics and political science, conventional wisdom has long held that people generally will act in ways that support their fundamental views and preferences. … The idea behind the “rational actor” theory – that people seek to act in their own self-interest – sounds perfectly logical. But it fails to explain what causes some voters to change their political views or preferences over time.

“Now, political scientists at Harvard and Stanford universities, drawing from longstanding social psychology research, have concluded that a person’s political attitudes are actually a consequence of the actions he or she has taken – and not their cause.

“In a new working paper, the researchers say changing political attitudes can be understood in the context of “cognitive dissonance,” a theory of behavioral psychology that asserts that people experience uneasiness after acting in a way that appears to conflict with their beliefs and preferences about themselves or others. To minimize that mental discomfort, the theory posits, a person will adapt his or her attitude to better fit with or justify previous actions. … The research also suggests that if political parties can get young people to vote for their candidates at an early age, that could “lock in benefits” over the long term.”

Writing in How Stuff Works, Yves Jeffcoat (2017) says:

“In politics, our need to justify our choice leads to the so-called ‘honeymoon period,’ in which a new president is afforded a great deal of good will following his election,” says Joel Cooper, professor of psychology at Princeton University and cognitive dissonance expert, via email. Yet this year, Cooper says, dissonance has led to anger and protest from those who feel President Trump’s election “was not the result of a legitimate collective choice of the American voters.” Think of the “Never Trump” and “not my president” sentiments that many have adopted. The adherents of these movements create consonance (harmony among their beliefs) by rejecting Trump’s legitimacy, because to them, his presidency is fraudulent or undeserved.

“Voting citizens have long been combating cognitive dissonance during elections, though. We’re bound to disagree with our preferred candidates on some policies or issues, but we still justify voting for them. In fact, a 2015 study out of Stanford and Harvard universities found that though voters have varied and complex policy preferences, they change those preferences to align with their chosen party’s platform. That minimizes that icky feeling they might get because they’re supporting a party with conflicting values or positions.

“This could explain some people’s zealous support of the U.S. president, despite their disapproval of his disparaging tweets or prejudiced statements. “The dilemma for voters is that they chose this candidate to be president with full knowledge and expectation that he behaved this way,” says Cooper about Trump’s controversial tweets. “The more he engages in it, the more dissonance they will have, and the more voters will reduce their dissonance by becoming even more positive about Trump.””

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Consulting and Communicating on Policy (core topic) in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107.


Wikipedia, Cognitive dissonance, at, accessed 15 September 2017.

Christina Pazzanese (2015), Harvard Gazette, The art of political persuasion, at, accessed 15 February 2017.

Avidit Acharya, Mathew Blackwell, and Maya Sen (2015), Explaining Attitudes from Behavior: A Cognitive Dissonance Approach, Faculty Research Working Paper Series, at, accessed 15 February 2017.

Yves Jeffcoat (2017), How Cognitive Dissonance Affects Us in Crazy Political Times, how Stuff Works, at, accessed 15 February 2017.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 15 September 2017.

Image: Anton Nikolov, Design Principle – Cognitive dissonance, at, accessed 15 September 2017.