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Cognitive Dissonance and Conflict

Cognitive Dissonance and Conflict

Author: Sophia Tutorial

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand the idea of cognitive dissonance and its potential role in creating and resolving conflict

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what's covered
In this lesson, we’ll discuss what happens when what you do doesn’t match what you believe. Two areas of focus include:
  1. Cognitive Dissonance
  2. How Cognitive Dissonance Affects Conflict

1. Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a state in which the mind holds two or more incompatible thoughts or beliefs. These thoughts or beliefs are referred to as cognitions, which is a general term for evaluating, integrating, and interpreting thoughts or beliefs.

We want our beliefs and our thoughts to be consistent, and we want the way we behave to be consistent with how we feel we should behave.

When that doesn't happen, we find ourselves in the unpleasant state of being out of sync. We then try alter to that unpleasant state by integrating, justifying, or in some cases rejecting one of these thoughts or beliefs because it is incompatible with the others.


You work at an office, and you've been going into the supply room to take some office supplies that you need; you brought these supplies home. You haven't taken very many things, but you keep going back every week to take a little bit more.

You view honesty as very important, and you think of yourself as a person of integrity. You would never go into a store and steal, so the fact that you've been taking things from the office each week bothers you a little bit because it's in conflict with the belief that you are an honest person. You now have some choices on how you're going to deal with this internal conflict.

One option is to integrate what you're doing here to make it fit with your beliefs: "I worked overtime, and I didn't get paid extra for it; I’m just taking my due here," or "They get paid a lot more at the top levels, and I don't get paid that much. This is my way of rectifying that inequality."

You could also justify your actions: "I didn't take that much, so it’s not really stealing." Or you could change your behavior: "This is stealing, and I don’t believe in stealing, so I need to stop."


You believe that health is very important, so you want to have a good diet. You pride yourself on eating healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, grains. However, you have a bad habit of eating chips and chocolate on cold winter nights.

You can try to justify this habit: "I got these chocolates as a gift, so I have to eat them," or "I had a hard day, and I have to relax somehow. This is better than sitting here and drinking a bottle of wine."

You can also try to integrate it into your belief system: "I don’t do this all the time, only during January when it's really cold." If you've ever tried to justify or integrate an inconsistency this way, then you’ve experienced cognitive dissonance.

terms to know
Cognitive Dissonance
A state in which the mind holds two or more incompatible thoughts or beliefs.

A general term for evaluating, integrating, interpreting, etc. thoughts or beliefs.

2. How Cognitive Dissonance Affects Conflict

When we choose to express this dissonance, whether by justifying it, rejecting it, or in some way trying to integrate it, we can either escalate or de-escalate a conflict.


You have some immigrant neighbors that moved in next door. They're from a culture that's different than that of everybody else who lives on the block, and there are a few prejudices. You notice that people are shunning the neighbors, calling them lazy, or labeling them in other ways that are not very flattering.

You begin to participate in this talk with your neighbors about these people that you don't even really know. You've always considered yourself a fair-minded person, someone who's not prejudiced. Yet here you are, sitting around talking about them in a way that's not flattering. All of this has lead to tensions in the neighborhood.

You can try to integrate your behavior by saying, "I know that a lot of those people are dishonest. There’s some truth in it, so maybe they deserve what I said. I feel a little unsafe, so my neighbors are probably right." Either of these attempts at integration can escalate the conflict and the feelings of tension in the neighborhood.

You also have the option to reject this behavior because it does not fit your core belief of being an open and fair-minded person who doesn't engage in rumors and gossip. You could say, "This is wrong; I don't know those people, so I have no right to judge them." If you take that stance, then you have a better chance of de-escalating the conflict because you're standing firm with what you believe instead of participating in the behavior that you find objectionable.


You find yourself competing with a coworker for a promotion; it's just between the two of you. You know that there's a very important project this coworker is involved with.

You actually have some information that would be helpful to that project. When he asked about the information, you lied and said you didn’t have it. You know that without this information, he's not going to be able to do his best work on the project.

Now you may try to justify this with your belief that you are a person of integrity by saying, "It’s not my responsibility to get this stuff for him; he could find it on his own. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, so why should I give him this information?" Yet you know you've lied, which is not the right thing to do according to your beliefs. You have the information, so you should be giving it to him. If you continue to justify your behavior, there’s a good chance that you could escalate this potential conflict with your coworker.

Or you could decide to reject this cognition, this belief which is in dissonance with your core value, and decide that you have to give him the information. You might say, "He could look better than me, and get the promotion; however, I can’t continue to lie about the fact that I have this information."

big idea
Whenever you have a belief, or cognition, that’s in conflict with one of your core values, you have the choice to:

  • Integrate the belief
  • Justify the belief
  • Reject the belief
Integrating or justifying can potentially escalate a conflict, while rejecting the belief that's in disagreement with a core value would likely de-escalate the conflict. This can occur in both minor and major conflicts.

In this lesson, you learned about cognitive dissonance, or what happens when we have thoughts and beliefs that don’t match up with our core values. You now understand how cognitive dissonance affects conflict. Every time we feel cognitive dissonance, whether it's for small things or larger issues, how we choose to respond will either escalate or de-escalate the conflict.

Source: Adapted from Sophia tutorial by Marlene Johnson.

Terms to Know

A general term for evaluating, integrating, interpreting, etc. thoughts or beliefs.

Cognitive Dissonance

A state in which the mind holds two or more incompatible thoughts or beliefs.