Cognitive Dissonance


Cognitive Dissonance Essay, Research Paper


On June 17th, 1963 school prayer was taken out of public schools because of a Supreme Court ruling that all students shouldn’t be subjected to prayer. As a result of this ruling, the teaching of the character and belief of the founding fathers, which played a large part in our country’s history, quickly decreased. Although never mentioned, the Supreme Court’s ruling suggested to the public that prayer in public schools was incongruent with the beliefs and attitudes upon which this country was founded? In the following report, I will attempt to present information concerning cognitive dissonance that will assist you in answering the aforementioned question.

Purpose and Significance

Cognitive dissonance occurs when inconsistencies with behaviors and attitudes/beliefs exist either within an individual or between two parties. More expressly, cognitive dissonance is when actions and values are different. The purpose of researching cognitive dissonance is to answer the following questions:

1. Is cognitive dissonance a good thing or a bad thing? What makes it good or bad?

2. How should we act, when faced with feelings of cognitive dissonance?

I have used the experiences and views of modern people to collect information concerning cognitive dissonance. Also, I have researched the experiences of historical figures to learn more about how they successfully dealt with cognitive dissonance. We all experience some sort of cognitive dissonance in our lives; therefore, when we learn how to deal with it in a good way, we will come to new understandings and will be able to add value to organizations and to society as a whole.

Cognitive Dissonance within the Individual

Have you ever done something contrary to what you believe? If you answered no, then you’ve just lied to yourself. Actually, you changed your attitude or belief to match your action. The theory of cognitive dissonance is that people seek to minimize dissonance because of the discomfort it causes. Leon Festinger stated that, “[Cognitive Dissonance] induces a ‘drive state’—need to avoid or reduce dissonance by changing our beliefs, attitudes or behaviors so they are perceived as consistent (” This decision to reduce dissonance within one’s self is often done subconsciously; however, we all will be faced with the opportunity to make that decision consciously, if we haven’t been already.

Individual Examples

The CEO of XYZ Corporation is a person of high morals and values. This CEO recognizes the critical role that each individual worker plays in the overall success of the company—believing that everyone is a crucial, inseparable part of the whole company. Recently, the board of directors instructed this CEO to lay off 10,000 workers—saying that the company needs to increase profits so stock prices will continue to go up and that they would give him a 15% bonus on his already hefty $750,000/year salary to do it. The board of directors also added that if he couldn’t lay the workers off, then they would find someone who could. This CEO is feeling the discomfort of cognitive dissonance—does he change or twist his beliefs to match the actions it would take to keep his job, or does he continue allowing his beliefs to direct his actions? Either way it appears the workers will be laid off.

Cognitive Dissonance between Two Parties

When party A does one thing and party B believes something that is not congruent with the action of party A, then you have cognitive dissonance between two parties. Of course, you can’t control the actions of another person, but is there a point where you should share your belief even though it may be contrary to the other person’s actions? And is this a good or a bad thing? It can be a good thing if approach appropriately. For instance, your boss is conducting business operations in a certain way, but you have the attitude or belief that if the business was run just a little different, profits would increase and workers would be happier. In this situation, it is obvious that by sharing your thoughts with boss, you will be adding to his or her understanding and to the value of the company.

Historical Example of Dealing with Cognitive Dissonance

Thomas Jefferson (writer of the Declaration of Independence) was a good example of a man who didn’t let his actions control his beliefs – even if they were incongruous with some during his day. He was confronted and persecuted by clergymen because of what he believed. However, the things Jefferson valued most in life were independence, religious freedom, and education. He was a man who stood out for his beliefs and lived what he believed to be true. In the following paragraphs, I will recount some examples of how he advocated his beliefs.

Jefferson recognized the injustice that the connection of Church and State causes; therefore, he was one of the most out-spoken advocates of the separation of Church and State. Jefferson considered the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, which he wrote in 1779 and the state later passed in 1786, to be one of his greatest accomplishments. This bill established religious freedom in Virginia and served as a model for the country. In the bill Jefferson writes the following words:

Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by…civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy…, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either… (Padover, 232).

Jefferson was not satisfied to have the separation of Church and State sustained and defended only in Virginia; therefore, he wrote a letter concerning the Constitution to James Madison in 1787. In the letter he expressed his concerns about the omission of a bill of rights that would protect certain unalienable rights. Although Jefferson did not become President until years later, his words influenced the actions of many people.

The first ten amendments to the Constitution came in 1789–two years after Jefferson wrote the letter concerning the Constitution to Madison. The amendments were prepared by Madison but influenced by Jefferson. The first amendment satisfied Jefferson very much because it stated the following: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… (Stewart, 8).”

Jefferson was bitterly persecuted by the press and the religious leaders of the day for his beliefs. Although persecuted for his various beliefs, he continued to stand up for what he believed to be true. He expressed his beliefs in private letters to various people and in occasional speeches; sharing his beliefs through private letters helped avoid the scrutiny of the press and influence others for good. The year he was first elected president he wrote a letter to Benjamin Rush, out of which comes the words inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC; Jefferson wrote the following in the letter:

They (the clergy) believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough too in their opinion (Padover, 263).

Many religious leaders of the day viewed Jefferson as an atheist, but in actuality, Jefferson centered his life and his character on the doctrines of Jesus. He explained the following in another letter to Benjamin Rush:

To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other (Padover, 266).

In 1820, Thomas Jefferson continued to say that which was contrary to the clergymen, when he declared the following in a letter to Mr. F.A. Van Der Kemp:

The genuine and simple religion of Jesus will one day be restored, such as it was preached and practiced by Himself. Very soon after His (Christ’s) death it became muffled up in mysteries, and has ever since kept in concealment from the vulgar eye… (Stewart, 19).

Because Thomas Jefferson acted on his beliefs and didn’t let the discomfort of cognitive dissonance between parties affect his actions, we enjoy many liberties today. Today, we can follow his example, by not being passive concerning the structures of organizations in society but by standing up for what we believe to be true.


Ask yourself, again, “Is prayer in public schools incongruent with the beliefs and attitudes upon which this country was founded?” If you force a student to pray a certain way, then yes, it is incongruent. But also, by not taking time to recognize and be grateful for the establishment of this country, it is incongruent. So what’s the answer; should the Supreme Court have done what it did in changing the actions of the public schools to form to the beliefs of a few because of the discomforts of cognitive dissonance? Or, was there a way to maintain the attitudes and values by just altering the behavior slightly? I submit that by keeping a time where gratitude was paid (whether to God or in general), many of the beliefs upon which this country was founded wouldn’t be forgotten.

Cognitive Dissonance can be a good thing or a bad thing; it will be a good thing, if the individual(s) involved let their correct attitudes and beliefs guide their actions, and not the other way around.


Padover, Saul Kussiel. The World of the Founding Fathers. South Brunswick, New Jersey: A.S. Barns, 1977

Stewart, John J. The Glory of Mormonism. Salt Lake City, Utah: Mercury Publishing Company, 1963.

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