Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias

Some people identify the heart with emotion and the brain with the rational. It’s a mistake. As many studies indicate, irrationality is perfectly integrated into the functioning of our nervous system, which includes the human brain.

One of the aspects of our behavior in which this irrational component is most noticeable are cognitive biases, that is, deformations in the way of reasoning that tend to be unconscious and involuntary. One of the most frequent is the confirmation bias, very frequent both in our daily life and in our professional life. 

Today in this article we will talk about cognitive dissonance and the role of confirmation bias. Let’s see what it consists of!

Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias

Cognitive dissonance is the psychological discomfort we feel when our minds have two contradictory concepts at the same time, while confirmation bias is the tendency to give more importance to information that confirms our beliefs. In turn, this cognitive process makes alternative information to our way of seeing the world have less weight.

The social psychologist Leon Festinger suggested that individuals have a strong need for their beliefs, attitudes and behavior to be consistent with each other, avoiding contradictions between these elements. 

When there is an inconsistency between them, the conflict leads to the lack of harmony of the ideas held by the person, something that often generates discomfort.

This theory has been widely studied in the field of psychology and can be defined as the discomfort, tension or anxiety that individuals experience when their beliefs or attitudes conflict with what they do. This displeasure can lead to an attempt to change behavior or to defend their beliefs or attitudes (even reaching self-deception) to reduce the discomfort they produce.

Festinger was the author of “Theory of Cognitive Dissonance” (1957), a work that revolutionized the field of social psychology, and that has been used in different areas, such as motivation, group dynamics, the study of change of mind. attitudes and decision making.

The relationship between lying and cognitive dissonance

The relationship between lying and cognitive dissonance is one of the issues that has attracted the most attention from researchers. Leon Festinger himself, along with his colleague James Merrill Carlsmith, carried out a study that showed that the minds of those who deceive themselves resolve cognitive dissonance by “accepting the lie as a truth.”

While cognitive dissonance can be resolved in a number of ways, many times we choose to “cheat” to make it go away.

That happens by manipulating our own ideas and beliefs to make them fit together in an apparent way, creating the fiction that the onset of cognitive dissonance discomfort was not right in the first place. However, that makes us vulnerable to running into the consequences of that disguised contradiction over and over again that we haven’t really resolved.

The Festinger and Carlsmith experiment

They both designed an experiment to test that if we have little extrinsic motivation to justify behavior that goes against our attitudes or beliefs, we tend to change our minds to rationalize our actions.

To do this, they asked some students from Stanford University, divided into three groups, to carry out a task that they assessed as very boring.

Subsequently, the subjects were asked to lie, as they had to tell a new group that they were going to do the task, that it had been fun. Group 1 was let go without saying anything to the new group, Group 2 was paid $ 1 before lying, and Group 3 was paid $ 20.

A week later, Festinger called the study subjects to ask what they thought of the task. Groups 1 and 3 responded that the task had been boring, while Group 2 responded that they found it fun. Why did group members who received only $ 1 say the task was fun?

The researchers concluded that people experience dissonance between conflicting cognitions. By receiving only $ 1, the students were forced to change their thinking, because they had no other justification ($ 1 was insufficient and produced cognitive dissonance).

Those who had received $ 20, however, had an external justification for their behavior, and therefore experienced less dissonance. This seems to indicate that if there is no external cause that justifies the behavior, it is easier to change beliefs or attitudes.

Increase cognitive dissonance to catch a liar

Another famous study in this line of research was carried out by Anastasio Ovejero, and concluded that, regarding lying.

“It is necessary to understand that subjects generally live in cognitive consonance between their thinking and acting and if for some reason they cannot be congruent, they will try not to talk about the facts that generate the dissonance, thus avoiding increasing it and will seek to rearrange their ideas, values ​​and / or principles in order to be able to justify themselves, thus achieving that their set of ideas fit together and reduce the tension”.

When cognitive dissonance occurs, in addition to making active attempts to reduce it, the individual usually avoids situations and information that could cause discomfort.

The classic example of smokers

A classic example of cognitive dissonance is that of smokers. We all know that smoking can lead to cancer, respiratory problems, chronic fatigue, and even death. But why do people, knowing all these harmful effects that smoke causes, still smoke?

Knowing that smoking is so harmful to health but continuing to smoke produces a state of dissonance between two cognitions: “I must be healthy” and “smoking harms my health”. But instead of quitting tobacco or feeling bad about smoking, smokers can look to self-justifications like “what’s the use of living long if you can’t enjoy life.”

This example shows that we often reduce cognitive dissonance by distorting the information we receive.

If we are smokers, we do not pay as much attention to the evidence on the tobacco-cancer relationship. People do not want to hear things that conflict with their deepest beliefs and desires, even though there is a warning about the seriousness of the issue on the same tobacco package.

Confirmation bias: when we only see what we want to see

In short, the confirmation bias is a propensity to give more importance and credibility to the data that fit our beliefs than to those that contradict them, although initially both information is equally well founded.

This bias is not only negative because it contributes to our ideas not changing. Furthermore, under its effect, we run the risk of believing that totally debatable and debatable ideas are almost revealed truths, a purely objective knowledge that it would be unwise to put under suspicion.

In other words, the confirmation bias is the worst enemy of philosophy, since it constantly reinforces the ideas that we have automatically decided to believe at all costs.

The role of cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a well-known concept in the field of psychology, and it consists of the feeling of discomfort that we experience when an idea conflicts with one of our beliefs.

Sometimes we learn to manage this discomfort in a constructive way by modifying our explanations about reality, and sometimes we do not succeed and we limit ourselves to manipulating those ideas in any way so that the importance of what we have been believing before prevails.

Confirmation bias is one of those elements that lead us to discard provocative ideas simply because they are.

To better understand what a confirmation bias is and how cognitive dissonance can be mismanaged, let’s look at some examples based on a fictional case.

Examples of confirmation bias

Imagine that, after visiting some web pages belonging to far-right parties, a person begins to have the idea that the black population originating from various African countries is less intelligent than Europeans and Asians.

According to this point of view, poverty and the little technological development experienced in these regions is due to a lower cognitive ability in the average of the inhabitants of this region.

This is a seductive idea because it offers us a simple explanation of a phenomenon that we previously believed to be more complex, and thanks to this, and although they may not realize it, that person begins to attribute the poverty and misfortunes suffered in these areas to the downside intelligence of these people.

However, as his ideas mesh badly with the mindset of many of his neighbors, this person’s beliefs are soon confronted.

Some say that assuming the intellectual inferiority of the black population is very gratuitous, especially considering that very little is still known about what makes some people more or less intelligent.

Given this, the person realizes that whoever replies in this way is known to be a left-wing activist, and therefore assumes that his vision of reality has been distorted by progressive propaganda. This causes him to disregard what he is saying.

Another person points out that, even though slavery practically no longer exists in Western countries, the poverty of past generations of blacks still affects the education of new generations, and that is why the development of many children is complicated by the poor quality schooling, poor nutrition, and other factors that have been shown to contribute to IQ decline.

But this explanation, in the eyes of the other, is too convoluted, and for that reason, he rejects it: the simplest explanation has to be that this tendency to low intelligence is in people’s own biology.

Finally, a neighbor objects that even for middle-class black people, the stigma placed on black people in general by racism has the power to make their life expectancies much more modest, so they don’t give as much importance to education from a young age and that, consequently, they arrive with more insecurity and less experience to intelligence tests, batteries of exercises that are very reminiscent of everything that is done in an academic context.

But this explanation is still not as simple and “hermetic” as the idea that black people are less intelligent, so it is also taken as deformation of reality to make it fit the ideology itself.

In the future, this person will notice all the representations of black people that appear on television and other media, and each time he sees a murder case by an African American citizen, for example, he will attribute it to the disability of this to earn a living in a civilized way.

On the other hand, when he sees a black person who has been successful in life and has excellent training and education, he will attribute it to the influence that “white culture” has had on him.

FAQS: Cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias

What is an example of confirmation bias?

The best example of confirmation bias is the news you read, blogs you go to, and forums you interact with.

Is confirmation bias a heuristic?

Cognitive explanations for confirmation bias are based on shortcomings in the ability of individuals to perform difficult problems, called heuristics, and shortcuts.

What are examples of cognitive dissonance?

The intellectual frustration that we feel when our minds have two conflicting ideas at the same moment is cognitive dissonance. I should smoke because I love smoking, for instance, and I shouldn’t smoke because it causes cancer.

How does cognitive dissonance affect decision making?

Cognitive dissonance could be to blame. Making bad decisions and telling lies are more related than you think, thanks to cognitive dissonance.

What are the 3 types of bias?

Confirmation bias.

Anchoring bias.

Observational Selectional Bias.

Today in this article we talked about cognitive dissonance and the role of confirmation bias.

If you have any questions or comments please let us know!


Beasley, R.K.; Joslyn, M.R. (2001). Cognitive Dissonance and Post-Decision Attitude Change in Six Presidential Elections. Political Psychology. 22(3): pp. 521 – 540.

Chen, M. Keith; Risen, Jane L. (2010). “How choice affects and reflects preferences: Revisiting the free-choice paradigm”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 99 (4): pp. 573 – 594.

Festinger, L. (1962). Cognitive Dissonance. Scientific American. 207(4): pp. 93 – 106.