cognitive dissonance


In the course of collecting information prior to making a purchase, a consumer will confront many conflicting product claims. When a final choice is made, these conflicting claims and beliefs are not immediately forgotten.

Cognitive dissonance is a condition that exists when an individual holds two contradictory beliefs or cognitions. It can be a problem for the business from which the individual has purchased the product or it can be an opportunity to cement a firm-customer relationship.

The cognitive dissonance effect was described a number of years ago by experimental psychologists and has been used to explain conditions that some¬times lead to customer dissatisfaction. Understanding the effect of cognitive dissonance can provide clues for managers trying to design effective policies for dealing with customer complaints.

Additionally, cognitive dissonance theory suggests ways to stimulate positive word-of-mouth advertising for a product by recent purchasers.


Cognitive dissonance can occur at any time during the purchase process, during the gathering of information concerning alternatives, during the evaluation of alternatives, at the time of choice, or after purchase has been completed.

It is a natural and integral part of the pre-choice decision process. Marketing strategies generally focus on the post-purchase dissonance because it is that cognitive state that will most likely affect the next purchase cycle.

If a consumer purchases an automobile from a dealer after a rather involved search, post-purchase dissonance may be rather high. If the dealer helps the buyer work out dissonant feelings about the purchase, he is less likely to have costly complaints or to go into the next purchase of a car by the consumer with negative feelings held toward his dealership.

A second fairly common example of cognitive dissonance playing a major role in the buyer/seller interaction process is that which occurs when a buyer is confronted by a salesperson with a product claim that directly conflicts with one of the buyer’s previously held beliefs.

Understanding the nature of cognitive dissonance may en¬able the salesperson to maintain credibility with the buyer.

Fairly common buying situations that yield high levels of cognitive dissonance might include the following:

  1. A consumer discovers a dead battery and shops at six retail outlets for a new battery and buys the most expensive battery he can find, even though three of the batteries seen were at least as good as the one purchased.
  2. A man buys a new suit that fits him well but was not the color he wanted.
  3. A family buys a new mobile phone, understanding that the price reduction they received was because of an impending technological improvement in such devices.
  4. A husband and wife spend more money than they had agreed to spend on a new car, when several models were available in their budget range.


Despite the fact that cognitive dissonance is usually associated with post-purchase problems, there can be some tangible benefits to the seller of a product when a buyer experiences cognitive dissonance. The major benefit is that while working out one’s dissonance, the buyer is usually quite vocal in discussing his purchase.

One of the most credible sources of information for a potential buyer of a product is someone who has recently purchased the same product. Thus, the dissonant buyer becomes an initiator of word-of-mouth advertising while trying to rationalize his own mixed feelings.

A secondary benefit is that the buyer occasionally buys up to a better unit of a product in an effort to reduce dissonance. A final benefit is that in working through the dissonant state, the buyer frequently gives the salesperson an opportunity to build a stronger personal relationship and trust that will result in the buyer returning during the next purchase cycle.


Not recognizing or dealing with cognitive dissonance in the purchase process can create very tangible and costly problems for the marketing management of a firm. Customers who experience cognitive dissonance after a purchase tend to find ways to work out their dissonance.

Sometimes that happens very quietly and without incident and results in little or no negative consequence for the firm that sold the product. If, however, there is a minor problem with the item purchased during the time that the customer is still dealing with dissonance, the degree of dissatisfaction can be greatly blown out of proportion.

Also, if dissonant feelings persist for any period of time, the customer may carry negative feelings toward the product purchased or the firm from which it was purchased into the beginning of the next product purchase cycle.

One way of working out dissonant feelings is to make a mental note that the recently purchased brand will be avoided in the next purchase opportunity. Such a problem may be shared by both the manufacturer of the purchased product and the retail outlet that sold the product.

It is, therefore, important to address possible dissonance so that these two problems will not become a reality. Such residual feelings and beliefs can increase over time and become a problem that might remove a brand or a store from the set of evoked choices for the customers.

To gain insight into possible strategies that can be used by businesses to help the customer reduce dissonance, the “natural” strategies that are used by customers to gain their own equilibrium should be examined.

Each strategy that is commonly used by customers is a form of rationalization but can in some way be facilitated by providing the buyer with certain types of information or support for a belief.

  1. First, buyers can change the cognitive elements that were associated with purchase choice. They can upgrade their evaluation of the product by stressing attributes that may not have been as important in the actual buying process. Also, they can rationalize that they had no real choice but to buy the product they selected.
  2. Second, dissonance can be reduced by denying, distorting, or simply forgetting negative information. Sometimes this is done by attributing low creditability to the source from which they obtained that information.
  3. Third, dissonance can be reduced by minimizing the importance of the decision that led to the dissonance. Even though buyers sometimes spend hours making a buying choice, they later dismiss the decision as unimportant or trivial.
  4. Fourth, buyers sometimes reduce dissonance by adding new cognitive elements into the evaluation process. This typically happens after the purchase of a new car when, while reading technical manuals, a buyer will “discover” new reasons for his prior purchase which will later be given as reasons that actually led him to buy. This effect has been documented in research studies.

Marketers can use these natural dissonance-reducing strategies to facilitate the process of dissonance minimization. The major ways that the firm can help the dissonant consumer through this state is by:

  1. providing him with positive information about the choice he made and reassure him that he made a good choice,
  2. providing him with comparative information about his brand and competing brands that supports the choice he made,
  3. providing him with information that shows that many other people have made the same purchase choice that he has made,
  4. providing him with positive information or opinions of others that may be about attributes that were not a part of his initial evaluation process.


  1. Dissonance tends to be high when
  2. all purchase alternatives seem to be attractive,
  3. the product or service selected for purchase has some negative factors,
  4. the number of purchase alternatives is large,
  5. the alternative choices are very similar,
  6. the purchase must have very specific attributes,
  7. the purchaser is unsure that the selected alternative will be appropriate,
  8. the price or other attribute of the purchase is discrepant with previously held purchase norms,
  9. the buyer has little or no prior purchase experience with the item being purchased,
  10. the purchase is expected to yield a dissonant situation, or
  11. the purchase is made without much forethought, although it is a fairly major item.

Also, cognitive dissonance is more likely to arise when the item being purchased is a highly involving product. Highly involving products tend to be those that are more costly, alter one’s lifestyle in a major way or are something in which the purchaser is very interested.

The major factors contributing to a state of cognitive dissonance can be collapsed into cases of logical inconsistency, violation of cultural mores, inconsistency between a belief and a more encompassing belief, and inconsistency with past experiences.

Cognitive dissonance is most likely to arise after a purchase, when a large amount of effort has been expended in search, and when the purchaser feels insufficient justification for the decision made.

In short, virtually any inconsistency in beliefs that may be encountered during the purchase can create a state of cognitive dissonance.


Regardless of whether the selling firm sees cognitive dissonance as a threat or as an opportunity, the effect is real. The outcome of the problem can be a lost customer or a customer who tirelessly “advertises” the product to other potential buyers.

The outcome is largely up to the seller, as to how the customer will be fed positive information after the sale. At the minimum, dissatisfaction will be avoided or minimized. At the maximum, word-of-mouth advertising will be facilitated and a good customer will be made better.

This comparison encourages strategies that would provide the buyer with much positive information immediately after the sale.

Applications to Small Business

Because of the close contact with purchasers, small businesses have a unique opportunity to engage in dissonance reduction strategies and, as a result, prevent some of the unfavorable reactions which can occur in dissonance filled customers.

Assuring customers that they purchased an excellent product and offering guarantees often head off later dissatisfaction with the purchase. Helpful sales people and responsive management also build confidence in customers and help alleviate dissonance.

The concept of a “complaint” department was more to reduce dissonance than to process returned merchandise.

Small business owners are particularly susceptible to the negative aspects of dissonance. Because dissonance is usually a temporary psychological condition arising from insecurity, the correct way to handle it is through a positive, confident response to problems, but often the small business owner who must confront the customer directly rather than through a complaint chain, responds negatively.

For this reason, small businesses should establish set procedures for dealing with dissonant customers. The most important lesson to learn is that dissonance can be converted into a positive experience for the customer, which will result in store loyalty and word-of-mouth publicity.


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