Currie Journal of Knowledge
Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance
How to cite: McLaughlin, C (2020). Festinger's Cognitive Dissonance. Cascade Journal of Knowledge, volume 1 (1), 8:31.
Abstract: This module introduces the fundamental concept of Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance and discusses its uses in the area of consumer behaviour. Specifically, the module discusses the fundamental experiment that led to the concept of cognitive dissonance before discussing how marketers utilize this understanding in order to reduce negative emotions after consumers purchase our products.
Keywords: Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance; Consumer Behaviour; Marketing; Post-Purchase Regret

Learning outcomes:

Transcribed copy of screencast

Hi everyone, welcome to my online module, which is all about Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance, one of the fundamental theories that we use in consumer behavior in the field of marketing.

So by the end of this module, you should be able to first of all define Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance, what exactly it is. You should also be able to understand how it relates to marketers, why we’re so interested in this idea of cognitive dissonance. You should also be able to understand why you feel the way that you do after making certain purchases. And you should be able to understand how we as marketers use cognitive dissonance in order to facilitate better interactions with our customers.

So, what exactly is cognitive dissonance? Well, it’s an uncomfortable state that’s a result of holding two contradicting beliefs or attitudes, or that comes from behaving in a way that does not match a belief or attitude that we hold. So basically what this means is that if I understand that smoking is bad for me, but I do it, then I am in a state of cognitive dissonance- my attitudes don’t match my actions. Or if I trust my friend’s judgment, and she likes a brand, and I don’t, then I am in a state of cognitive dissonance because she knows what she’s talking about when she tells me things and I trust her. And yet, I still don’t like this brand that she’s recommending. So my two beliefs are in opposition to one another, and this creates a state of cognitive dissonance.

So let’s start off with a little bit of background on where Cognitive Dissonance came from. Now you might be wondering why exactly I chose to show you a picture of pegs on a peg board – pegs in holes. Well, that’s a reference to the original experiment that demonstrated cognitive dissonance. So Festinger got the idea that cognitive dissonance might be a real thing and designed an experiment where he had students come in and, you know, put pegs in holes or turn pegs in holes for, you know, 15-20 minutes.

Now, once they were done putting pegs in holes, they had to fill out a survey but that was done in a different room. So the experimenter came in thanked them and said ‘You just have to fill out a survey.’ And then they said ‘Now we have a person sitting outside ready to be doing this experiment. They’re coming in after you, but they’re not quite sure that they want to, they’re not quite sure that they want to spend the time. So would you mind just telling them that you had fun? It would really help us out.’ Now, half of the students were told that they will be paid $1 to lie and say that they had had fun putting pegs in holes for 15 minutes. And half of the group was told that they would be paid $20 to do the same thing.

So they went outside, they said, ‘Oh, yeah, I had fun, don’t worry about it.’ And then they went and they filled out their survey. And in that survey, they answered a question of how much fun they had putting pegs in holes. Now, one group had a very, very different response to that question about how much fun they had had than the other. The groups that had been paid $1 to say that they had had fun reported that they had enjoyed the experience more than the group that had been paid $20 to say that they had had fun. And that’s because of cognitive dissonance.
So essentially, cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable mental state when we realize that either we have two conflicting beliefs or when we realize that our actions and our attitudes are not in alignment. In this instance, these people had not had fun. Their attitude was that they had not had fun putting pegs in holes for 15 minutes. But their actions were that they had told somebody that they had enjoyed it, and roped them into having the exact same experience. And so this was a state of cognitive dissonance- their actions and their attitudes did not match.
Now the group that had been paid $20 knew exactly why, you know, they had lied. So they had a reason, they had a reason why their actions and their attitudes did not match. So they were able to, you know, experience less or no cognitive dissonance because they knew why they had done this. However, the other group that had only been paid $1. Well, that’s not a good enough reason, that’s not a good enough reason to lie to somebody and to pull them into the same experiment that just bored you for 15 minutes. And so for that group, they, they had much more difficulty. And so they convinced themselves that they had enjoyed it, you know, through a process of rationalization. My process if I had been one of these people would have been something along the lines of ‘Oh, you know, it was fun, it was kind of Zen you know, just a meditative state, putting pegs in holes, etc, etc.’ And so Because of the cognitive dissonance, they, you know, it was uncomfortable and they had to convince themselves that they had enjoyed it more than they did. And so this is where cognitive dissonance came from.

And it’s something that we’ve talked about in the literature, for marketing, for psychology, for all sorts of different different areas for many, many years since.

As marketers, we use it in lots of different ways. But most commonly we purchase or we worry about post purchase cognitive dissonance, also known as post purchase regret. So if you purchase something like a car or a house, that’s a big deal, you know, you all of a sudden look at your account balance and your down payment is gone and you don’t have your savings anymore. And you have a whole lot of debt that you now have to pay off. And that can cause people to wonder, ‘did I do the right thing? Do I actually like this house or this car enough to be experiencing this debt, current state finances, etc, etc.?’

And so post purchase cognitive dissonance is very, very real. And it’s something that marketers want to prevent. Because if people keep on with this feeling of cognitive dissonance, then they’re not going to enjoy this purchase and they’re much less likely to come back. And so a marketer is always concerned with how do we reduce this?

And so that’s why when I bought my most recent car, I suddenly started getting emails and magazines talking about ‘this many million other people believe that this car is the right one too’ and you know, talking about all of these great features. I’d already been sold, but they wanted to make sure that I was resold so that anytime I started to doubt, I had this information sent to me that made me feel like ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, I did make a good decision. I did make a good choice. There’s many other people also think that this is the best car for them.’ And so I feel a lot better about my experience and other customers do too.

And that is something that when customers make a large purchase, you often want to be doing things, calling, following up, answering questions, providing these reassuring statistics so that they don’t experience that post purchase cognitive dissonance because it can negatively impact your brand.

So that concludes our discussion of cognitive dissonance. I hope you enjoyed it. Thank you very much.

Caitlin McLaughlin, Ph.D.

Thompson Rivers University, Canada

Caitlin is a marketing instructor at Thompson Rivers University. She has taught Integrated Marketing Communications, Consumer Behaviour, Introduction to Marketing, Marketing Research, Services Marketing, and Brand Management (among others). Her research focuses on the use of brand communities in marketing.


Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.


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