Cognitive Dissonance Theory


Cognitive Conflict
Cognitive Disequilibrium
Dissonance Reduction Theory


Mental discomfort when faced with contradictory information

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … coherent set of beliefs and values
  • Knowing is … comfort with beliefs and values
  • Learner is … discomfort avoider (brain or individual)
  • Learning is … adapting beliefs and values (to alleviate discomfort)
  • Teaching is … provoking and managing cognitive discomfort




Cognitive Dissonance Theory addresses the mental discomfort one feels when one’s beliefs, ideas, or values are inconsistent or contradictory. Discomfort or psychological dissonance is triggered when new evidence does not align with previously held notions. To ameliorate discomfort, people either adjust to, argue against, or remain indifferent to the contradiction. In education, cognitive dissonance is used to reorient students’ awareness and their ability to defend their beliefs and values. Cognitive Dissonance Theory is an example of a Cognitive Consistency Theory – of which there are many types, each developing a different metaphor (e.g., consistency, harmony, balance, congruence):
  • Cognitive Consistency Theory – a theory that positions a desire to maintain coherence among elements of a cognitive system is a key motivator for learning or action
  • Balance Theory (Fritz Heider, 1940s) – the perspective that people like to feel balanced and are motivated to restore balance if feeling unbalanced mental, physiological, social, and other domains
  • Congruity Theory (Charles Osgood & Percy Tannenbaum, 1970s) – focused on communications, the perspective that people desire congruity (consistency) between their impressions of the content and the source of a message – and so, are motived to revise one or both to restore contiguity
  • Self-Affirmation Theory (Claude Steele, 1980s) – a theory that suggests a strategy for reducing discomfort with challenges to self-view is to directly resolve an inconsistency, affirming a different aspect of self, or both.
  • Control Theory (Charles Carver & Michael Scheier, 1980s) – the suggestion that one regulates one’s activity through iterative cycles of comparing to a standard, identifying discrepancies, and reducing those discrepancies. (Note: This version of Control Theory comes out of psychology, and it should not be confused with Control Theories out of sociology. See Personal Agency Discourses.)


Critiques of Cognitive Dissonance Theory tend to be focused on methodological issues related to experimental design, operationalization, and/or measurement. Cognitive Dissonance Theory is often used for analyzing consumer behavior and for marketing strategy. The notion is sometimes critiqued as an uncritical modernization of:
  • Aporia – a Greek word having to do with puzzlement, being perplexed, at an impasse, or raising doubts, in the context of teaching, Aporia typically refers to modes of engagement that prompt the learner to question assumptions and conclusions.
  • Socratic Method – a form of dialogue/argument in which one participant asks strategic questions in an attempt to draw out the other’s assumptions and ideas, aiming to reveal inconsistencies, gaps, and/or contradictions

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Leon Festinger

Status as a Theory of Learning

Cognitive Dissonance Theory is a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Cognitive Dissonance Theory is not a theory of teaching, but it has immediate, practical advice for teachers.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Cognitive Dissonance Theory is supported by studies and mappings from Neuroscience, which confirm there is a neural basis for the theory. As well, research meta-analyses indicate that invoking Cognitive Dissonance Theory can be used effectively to affect students’ reading and science skills.


  • Aporia
  • Balance Theory
  • Cognitive Consistency Theory
  • Congruity Theory
  • Control Theory (in Psychology)
  • Self-Affirmation Theory

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Cognitive Dissonance Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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