Cognitive Consistency

Cognitive Consistency Definition

  1. Cognitive ConsistencyYou have a friend named Jeff who likes to smoke cigarettes regularly. After attending a lecture on the grave cause-effect relationship between smoking and cancer, he quits. Why?
  2. This evening, you will be meeting with two people, Chris and Jean. You really like Chris, but you don’t like Jean. However, Chris really likes Jean. Over the course of the evening, do you think that your attitude toward Jean will change?
  3. About 50 years ago, a small group of people were told by a spaceman that the world was going to end. They were also told that at an appointed date and time (December 21, at midnight), a “visitor” would come and take them to a spaceship to be saved from the pending cataclysm. The small group prepared for their departure for many weeks. When midnight struck on the December 21, nothing happened. Nobody came, nor did the world come to an end. Do you think these outcomes changed their beliefs?

In these three situations, the concept of cognitive consistency may be used to predict and explain the various outcomes. Given the assumption that pleasant psychological states (i.e., balanced states) are preferred over those that are unpleasant,

cognitive consistency can be defined as the concept that individuals have a preference for their thoughts, beliefs, knowledges, opinions, attitudes, and intents to be congruent, which is to say that they don’t contradict each other. Further, these facets should be congruent with how individuals see themselves and their subsequent behaviors. Incongruency or asymmetry leads to tension and unpleasant psychological states, and individuals will seek change in order to reach congruency, reduce tension, and achieve psychological balance.

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Within this definition, the term cognitive refers to “thoughts, beliefs, knowledges, opinions, attitudes, and intents.” (The word cognitive is roughly equivalent to the word mental.) Thus, the term is defined rather broadly and encompasses almost anything that humans hold consciously. The term consistency refers to consistency across cognitions, meaning that cognitions should be in agreement, symmetrical, balanced, or congruent. Cognitions that are conflicting (asymmetrical) place individuals in an unpleasant psychological state. Since pleasant states are preferred, individuals experience a pressure to have these conflicting cognitions resolved, and they take action to reduce tension and reach psychological balance.

Cognitive consistency is one of the earliest concepts associated with social psychology. Fritz Heider is typically credited with first noting, in 1946, the concept within social psychological theory. However, in the 1950s, a flurry of psychological theory incorporated the term, with various applications and improvisations. Pioneering social psychology figures such as Leon Festinger, Fritz Heider, Theodore Newcomb, and Charles Osgood all produced theories incorporating cognitive consistency and supportive research. It is these theorists and their work which form the core group of cognitive consistency theories, including cognitive dissonance (Festinger), balance or p-o-x theory (Heider), the A-B-X system (Newcomb), and the principle of congruity (Osgood). Beyond this core group, a host of other theorists have continued to incorporate the concept. Over the years, cognitive consistency, especially Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, has produced a wide body of research in both laboratory and applied settings, and has been shown to be valid and robust. It is a key concept within all social psychology textbooks, especially regarding attitude change, and continues to be a studied commodity within social psychology and related fields.

To help illustrate the concept, take a look at the examples from the beginning of this section. Scenario 1 is one of the simplest applications of cognitive consistency. Your friend Jeff likes to smoke, and prior to attending the health lecture, this attitude was not in conflict. However, after attending a lecture on the health consequences of smoking, his enjoyment of smoking and knowledge about the negative health effects of smoking are now in conflict. Holding these two contradictory beliefs creates tension, which leads Jeff to want to reduce the tension. To do this, he quits smoking, thereby regaining balance. You may be asking, “Can’t Jeff choose to smoke anyway, and ignore the health consequences?” That is indeed an option—to reduce the tension between the conflicting cognitions, Jeff could deny the validity of the health consequences of smoking to reach balance.

Scenario 2 is an application of Heider’s balance theory. Balance theory suggests that cognitive consistency or balance is expected across the three entities (viewed as a unit): the person (p), another person (o), and an attitude object (x). Within Scenario 2, there is a lack of consistency (i.e., the “unit” is out of balance). You like Chris but dislike Jean. However, Chris likes Jean. This tension must be resolved. You can either (a) decide to dislike Chris, or (b) decide to like Jean. Either choice will lead to balancing the system. Ultimately, if Chris is a good friend, you may decide to take a liking toward Jean at the end of the evening.

Scenario 3 is loosely based on a true story described in the book When Prophecy Fails (by Leon Festinger and colleagues). After the visitor fails to arrive at midnight, the group does not abandon their beliefs. Instead, they adopt various reasons for the person not showing, and hence their beliefs stay intact. From a cognitive consistency standpoint, this makes sense. The reality of the visitor failing to arrive conflicts with what they had vehemently believed. The cognitive discomfort (called dissonance, according to Festinger) resulting from this conflict subsequently led to various explanations being adopted by members of the group to bolster their earlier beliefs. Even days afterward, some members refused to accept the reality that there was never going to be a visitor and that the world was not going to end.


  1. Festinger, L., Rieken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When prophecy fails: A social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
  2. Oskamp, S. (1991). Attitudes and opinions (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  3. Shaw, M. E., & Constanzo, P. R. (1982). Theories of social psychology (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  4. Simon, D., Snow, C. J., Read, S. J. (2004). The redux of cognitive consistency theories: Evidence judgments by constraint satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 814-837.