The Cognitive Dissonance Theory and its Function in Public Relations


This paper discusses the aspects of the cognitive dissonance theory. Cognitive dissonance was first introduced through social psychology, but still plays a fundamental role in public relations. Cognitive dissonance explains why people change their attitudes or behaviors when they are introduced to new and contradicting information. The main components of cognitive dissonance will be analyzed in this paper, and the importance of this theory in the field of public relations will also be discussed.

Keywords: cognitive dissonance, beliefs, behaviors, change


The theory of cognitive dissonance is nothing foreign to the public relations world. Cognitive dissonance is the reason people react to new cognitions in a certain way, and change their behaviors or attitudes. People enjoy living in stability and when they are exposed to contradicting cognitions of their own preexisting beliefs or actions, they become distressed. This level of discomfort is known as cognitive dissonance, and individuals react to this in several different ways in an attempt to return to consistency. In public relations, the responsibility of the professional is to get a target audience to change their established attitudes or behaviors. One of the main ways a public relations expert can get an audience to do something is through cognitive dissonance. This paper goes into depth explaining how the components of the cognitive dissonance theory also play a fundamental role in the field of public relations. Before understanding how this theory relates to public relations, it is important to get a well-rounded understanding of what cognitive dissonance is.

Description of the Theory

Leon Festinger first developed the theory of cognitive dissonance through social psychology in 1957. According to cognitive dissonance, if a person holds two beliefs that are relevant to one another but are inconsistent, dissonance will arise. According to Marcia Gruber (2003), “Dissonance refers to the personal tension or stress experienced when an individual’s actions contradict or are inconsistent with his or her values or beliefs” (p. 242). In Festinger’s research he refers to inconsistency as “dissonance” and consistency as “consonance”. The theory of cognitive dissonance is composed of two parts. First, the presence of dissonance will cause a person to try to eliminate it and achieve consonance. Second, when dissonance is present, a person will avoid situations and stimuli that would add to their distress. Dissonance arises everyday through interactions with other people and information constantly being exchanged. According to Festinger (1962), “Since a person does not have complete and perfect control over the information that reaches him and over events that happen in his environment, such dissonances may easily arise“ (p. 4). How badly a person wants to get back to stability in their cognitions depends on the magnitude of the dissonance they are feeling. If an opinion or decision is made, dissonance is typically created. Many of these situations cause only minor dissonance and most people can go on with their days, but it is the situations where the inconsistency remains that motivate people to change cognitions and behaviors, or to add new beliefs. It is clear now that when a person feels inconsistency they will most likely change either their beliefs or actions. For example, if a young woman is an active smoker and watches a commercial about the millions of deaths that are caused from lung cancer each year she will react in a particular way. She might change her behaviors and quit smoking. By quitting smoking she will return to consistency with the cognition that smoking is bad for you. Or this woman can provide herself with new beliefs about smoking, by researching the positives of smoking and analyzing other habits that are much worse than hers. By doing this, her beliefs are now consistent with her smoking behavior. Finally, this woman can change her perception of the act of smoking. To do this, she could tell herself “Yes I smoke, but it calms my nerves and helps with my anxiety,” or “Yes I smoke, but I do not smoke enough to get lung cancer; I do not have to worry about that”. By doing this, she has changed her perception of smoking and she will return to consonance. As stated earlier, people will actively avoid an increase in dissonance as a way to maintain stability. While avoiding dissonance a person will look for other people or information that will support their preexisting beliefs rather than what is causing them to feel dissonance. According to Festinger (1962), “A person would expose himself to sources of information which he expected would add new elements which would increase consonance but would certainly avoid sources which would increase dissonance” (p. 30). Essentially, people will only pay attention to the information or speak to people who support what they already believe, and ignore any other facts that contradict this. When the cognitive dissonance theory was introduced to the psychology world, it caused a lot of theories to be reviewed particularly the reinforcement theory. The reinforcement theory stated that a person eventually changes their behaviors through consistent reinforcement of positive or negative stimuli they are given immediately following a completed action. According to an in-depth review done by Elliot Aronson (1997), “Dissonance theory allowed researchers to discover and specify some of reinforcement theory’s limiting conditions and, on occasion, led us to the realization that, when it came to predicting human behavior, simply hypotheses derived from reinforcement could be flat out wrong” (p. 129). The introduction of the cognitive dissonance theory shows that a person is much more complex than what the reinforcement theory portrayed, and people cannot simply change beliefs or attitudes by being positively reinforced. There is plenty of research supporting the theory of cognitive dissonance in a variety of fields. Although it was first introduced through social psychology, cognitive dissonance is also seen in communications, marketing and even nursing. A case study done by Marcia Gruber was done in a clinic where the nurses did not get along with each other. Much of the staff and even patients complained about the negativity and lack of cooperation between the eight nurses who worked here. The question related to cognitive dissonance that Gruber (2003) wanted to answer was, “Does recognition of attitude-behavior inconsistency act as a motivator for change in the workplace,” (p. 243). Six nurses participated in the study and completed a survey assessing the relationships among the nurses that was graded on a Likert scale. Following the survey, the nurse manager and vice president interviewed each nurse. The interview started by asking each nurse why they wanted to be a nurse, and whether their job paralleled their personal values. Then they were asked what their personal values were; many responses included compassion, caring, patient and many other things that would better describe what it means to be a nurse. Following this, the vice president then read off the list of complaints that each nurse had against them, and asked them if this matched the values and beliefs they had. Each nurse said their actions stated in these complaints did not reflect what they said their beliefs and values were. A second meeting was held that asked the nurses their opinions on the interview, and many of them said they had felt uncomfortable during it. The discomfort these nurses felt is a perfect example of cognitive dissonance. The nurses became aware of new information that contradicted a preexisting belief or behavior leading them to feel dissonance. Cognitive dissonance has been applied to a variety of fields, but in public relations it is extremely useful and must be understood by any professional in this industry.

Cognitive Dissonance Figure

Application to Public Relations

Although it was first introduced through psychology, the theory of cognitive dissonance has become very important in the communications world. In public relations getting the audience to change their behaviors or attitudes is arguably the most important part of the job. As a public relations person, it is his or her responsibility to provide the target audience with information. Oftentimes this information is contradicting to the person’s preconceived believes or behaviors. When this happens, the public relations person must provide the audience with enough persuasion to get them to do what they want them to. For example, if a public relations agency is running a campaign targeting female women to buy a certain brand of deodorant because it does not contain toxins that other brands do, many women will face cognitive dissonance from this. This will happen because for some women they use or like a different type of deodorant, or did not know that certain deodorants even had toxins in them. Some women might change brands to get back to stability, and others might research the brand they usually buy to make them feel better about buying it. The job of the public relations person with this type of campaign is to change the behaviors and beliefs of these women and get them to buy their deodorant over the ones they usually do. Another job of a public relations person is to understand their target audience completely. When running any type of campaign, a public relations person is trying to cause a change in behavior, but before they can even do that they must know whom they are selling to. If a public relations person is good at their job, then they should be able to get their audience to choose their product over another one and will use cognitive dissonance to do this. By providing the audience with persuasive and extensive information that the public relations professional researched in-depth, then the change in behavior should be easy for whatever target audience they are selling to. The Free Killer Tan campaign done by the Mollie Biggane Fund used cognitive dissonance to get its audience to stop using tanning beds. Mollie was a college sophomore that died from skin cancer at the age of 20, and this organization was created in memory of her. This campaign was done in New York City during the last week of November, when more people participate in tanning because of the cold weather. The people involved in the campaign stood on street corners handing out flyers promoting “free tans”. A fake tanning salon was set up for the people who came to get their free tan. When they finished “tanning” however, they walked out to a funeral with their picture sitting on the coffin at the front of the room. These people were obviously surprised and upset walking out to this. When the camera crew asked them how they felt seeing this, many of them said they felt horrible and would never tan again. This footage is now a commercial that also visually shows the frightening statistics and immediate dangers from using tanning beds. This campaign definitely makes people feel dissonance, especially if they use tanning beds themselves. After these people walked out to a funeral that was supposed to be their own, it is clear they all regretted going and many of them pledged to never tan again. Although this is a very morbid campaign, the use of cognitive dissonance is evident and the organization got the change in behavior and attitude that they wanted to.


Cognitive dissonance is when a person has two contradicting beliefs leading them to become distressed and motivated to reach consonance again. In order to reach stability a person will either change their beliefs, behaviors or add new beliefs. According to cognitive dissonance, people will avoid anything that increases dissonance for them. People are most comfortable at a stable state and anything that disrupts this causes a great deal of stress, so avoidance or changes are made to get back to consonance. Although cognitive dissonance was first introduced through psychology, it has a big impact in public relations. One of the most important parts of working in public relations is being able to change an audience’s beliefs and behaviors, which goes hand-in-hand with cognitive dissonance. Public relations experts face challenges with persuading an audience to do or feel things, so it is essential for them to have a grasp on cognitive dissonance in order to be successful in this industry.


Aronson, E. (1997). Back to the future: Retrospective review of leon festinger’s–A theory of cognitive dissonance. The American Journal of Psychology, 110(1), 127-137. Retrieved from

Festinger, L. (1962). Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Gruber, M. (2003). Cognitive dissonance theory and motivation for change: A case study. Gastroenterology Nursing, 26(6), 242-245. doi:10.1097/00001610-200311000-00005