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You’re Not Using Cognitive Dissonance Right

Written by Tyler Wetzel on Monday, January 06, 2014


Photo by Adam Przewoski

Were you offended by that sub title above? If so then you’ve already had your first taste of cognitive dissonance. This feeling of annoyance is only natural, and it’s purposefully being used to get your attention. Understanding cognitive dissonance can help advertisers market their brand more intelligently. 

Cognitive dissonance is a term used in psychology and commonly used when discussing human behavior. It is used to describe the feeling of discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs. When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and behaviors, something must change in order to reduce the dissonance. If you reduce dissonance then you create consonance, which describes the feeling of harmony between one’s beliefs.

Cognitive Dissonance in Action

Cognitive dissonance is most likely to occur after a consumer makes a purchase. Products or services that involve a high level of commitment contain a greater risk for dissonance. Examples of products with high levels of commitment include homes, vehicles and luxury vacations. Small business owners should be aware of how cognitive dissonance affects buyers’ decisions.

Decisions of Dissonance

This is better understood with an example. Let’s say that someone is buying a car and they are generally concerned about the environment. Instead of buying a fuel efficient car, they decide to purchase a gas guzzling truck. This purchase is in itself cognitive dissonance. The buyer is fighting their belief of a cleaner environment with their purchasing behavior of heavily polluting car. This happens all the time and despite the inherit wrong, we are usually oblivious to it.

Understanding cognitive dissonance is key to understanding any decision, be it good or bad. We’re all human and we don’t like being wrong. We try to justify our decisions, even when they don’t make sense. Be it buying a car or choosing what university to attend, we are always running into our own conflicting ideals, which in turn cause dissonance. Although, for the rest of this blog I want to focus on how this concept as it applies to design.

Conflicts of Design

Design is constantly bombarding us on the internet. Whether its websites, advertisements, or on the television. It’s everywhere, and we’re overwhelmed. The traditional ads of the 1960’s that used to appeal to our emotions are not nearly as effective as they once were. In the age of information you have to come up with clever ways to break through the noise. Often the biggest hurdle is trying to find the right message that gives you the largest reach. Recently, cognitive dissonance has become an effective tactic to engage clients and users.

When used correctly, writing with dissonance can have a huge impact on the user. By irritating the reader, you actually draw them in, rather then running them off. Moreover, people tend to thrive on conflict, especially on the internet. Therefore, an article or advert that has personality and perhaps a flair of dissonance will generate a big response. Some brave souls have already ventured into this realm, and it has yielded some interesting results.

An Article by Whitney Hess

In her article “You’re Not a User Experience Designer If…,” Whitney Hess demonstrates wonderful writing with dissonance. She could have taken the easy way out and written it as the “Top 10 Ways to Be a Better User Experience Designer,” but I doubt it would have had the same impact as the real article had on that glorious day when user experience designers shared it with their peers to defend their work.

Dissonance was possibly created when designers read the title of the article. I’m sure many designers must have thought, “How dare she say what I am and am not. I must read on to refute this nonsense!” But as they read the article, they would have found Hess offering a list of things that do not make them user experience designers. The list might have made them psychologically uncomfortable (dissonant), but they may have decided to act on the list items to make themselves feel more comfortable and to bring back consonance. The article challenged reader’s beliefs, and thus fostered some great discussions.

In Advertising

Sales executives use cognitive dissonance as a strategy when selling their products. If they can’t ‘convince’ their customers to buy their product, then they try to ‘confuse’ them instead. When a brand promises the same/extra features, or they explain how their product is better than the competitors’ brand then they are creating cognitive dissonance. For example, if Sony decides to place televisions near Samsung’s showroom, promising better benefits, so that they can attract the potential buyers of Sony televisions then that would be cognitive dissonance. They are fighting with your emotions to convince you to think a particular way.

In the post purchase stage, it is difficult to reduce the cognitive dissonance of a buyer. Advertisements and the advertisers have the responsibility to confirm their purchase decision and reduce the dissonance. This will happen when visuals in the advertisements depict satisfied customers, some whom seem a little too happy. This subtle, often overlooked, tactic is used in every aspect of stock photography, and can be seen on most promotional material.

Cognitive dissonance may also cause the customer to rationalize her decision. One of the ways she might accomplish this is through research. A customer who has remorse will gather more information about the product. Some customers will gather information that reaffirms their decisions. Other customers will gravitate towards information that confirms they made a mistake. Either way, the customer becomes more comfortable with keeping the product or making the decision to return it. Customers may come back to your company for more information.

Reducing Dissonance

Business owners can reduce dissonance within their brand and advertisements by using tactics that create consonance. Building a loyal base, and using client testimonials will reinforce a buyer’s confidence in you. There are many tactics to reduce dissonance but I will only highlight a few effective ones below.


Testimonials and reviews are methods you can use to reduce cognitive dissonance. Advertising messages that highlight other customers’ satisfaction and positive experiences reiterate that your product is a good choice. Reviews and testimonials are especially helpful for customers who do not have prior experience with your product or company. Intangible services and high-risk products benefit from reviews as well. This is the reason why many consumers look at reviews for appliances, hotels, and investment services. They want the added reassurance that your product has weight and is well established.

Selective Exposure

Most people avoid information that is likely to increase dissonance. Not only do individuals tend to select reading material and television programs that are consistent with their existing beliefs, they usually choose to be with people who are like them. By taking care to ‘‘stick with their own kind,” they can maintain the relative comfort of the status quo. Therefore, targeting smaller more selective groups can be easier to convert then going for a broad audience.

Additional Information

Want to learn more about cognitive dissonance and it’s effects on our buying behavior then check out Cognitive Dissonance by Saul McLeod.

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