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Cognitive Dissonance definition


Cognitive dissonance refers to a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. Studied notably by Festinger (1957), this theory implies that when there is an inconsistency between attitudes, beliefs or behaviour, we are motivated to change something in order to eliminate this dissonance. This dissonance produces a feeling of discomfort that we automatically strive to reduce by restoring the balance. In other words, when we feel like our thoughts, feelings or actions are in conflict, Cognitive Dissonance sets in and gives you the uncomfortable feeling that something isn’t quite right. Dissonance can be resolved in one of three basic ways: change of beliefs, change of actions or change of perception.

For example, people who smoke are aware of the dangers smoking presents to their health and this presents a cognitive dissonance. In order to reduce this dissonance they can either change their behaviour (stop smoking), change their beliefs (trying to find stories about how many smokers live to an old age to challenge their conceptions), or change their perception of smoking (by telling themselves that it doesn’t matter if it damages their health as “we’ve all got to die of something” and “smoking makes me happy so it’s worth the risks”, etc.).

Cognitive dissonance principle has consequences for marketing strategies. For example, how well consumer satisfaction aligns with consumer expectation will affect how likely they are to be loyal to a product or service. When they don’t meet, it is called “post-purchase dissonance”. It is therefore important to understand and effectively handle the expectations and grievances of both your current and future customers.

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