What is cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance “refers to the mental conflict that occurs when your beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information.

The unease or tension that the conflict arouses in people is relieved by one of the several defensive manoeuvres: they reject, explain away, or avoid the new information; persuade themselves that no conflict really exists; reconcile the differences; or resort to any other defensive means of preserving stability or order in their conceptions of the world and of themselves.”1

Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist and philosopher, explains that

“because it is so important to protect a core belief, people will rationalise, ignore or even deny anything that doesn’t fit with the core belief.”

The power of cognitive dissonance

The concept of cognitive dissonance—where you feel out of alignment with yourself—is one of the first steps in questioning your beliefs and learning more about yourself. Most of the time, people tend to uphold their preconceived notions—those formed unconsciously during childhood; beliefs shaped by family, friends, educational institutions, the dominant religion and the general culture within which each person grows. Without even thinking about it, we all have a very ingrained set of beliefs as our starting points.

It may only be when cognitive dissonance takes place that our belief system is brought to our attention. It’s at that moment that we may want to explain away or reject new information or even persuade ourselves that no conflict exists. 

A simple real-life example

Let me give you an example. Consider a Mum who holds the belief that computer games are a waste of time and that they are not good for the development of children. Not surprisingly, her pre-teen boys hold the opposite view.

The boys fight their cause well by putting forward their point of view—all their friends play computer games, it gives them something to talk about at school, it improves dexterity, they learn to try until they succeed, and they learn complex problem-solving skills. (They know exactly which buttons to push!) 

Dad comes along with a well-researched book. It details the recovery journey of a woman who was involved in an accident and essentially re-wired her brain through computer games. What’s more, the science points to how the brains of those who play two-player games synchronise through solving puzzles and working together. Now, which parent doesn’t want their children to work together better? Cognitive dissonance? Indeed! That said, Mum is still not fully convinced, holding onto her personal view.

Is there some space to re-think?

When you notice that you’re experiencing cognitive dissonance, dissonance, pause for a moment. Ask yourself, is there space for some flexibility? It is, of course, possible that no one is wrong, that no one belief is always right. Our world at the moment is divided by polarised views—those pro-vaccination vs anti-vaxxers, climate change believers vs climate change deniers. The word ‘versus’ is deliberate. At some point we need to ask ourselves if this is useful, and find a better way to engage in difficult conversations. We may not be convinced otherwise as per the example, but the importance is to engage and allow the other space.

The greatest opportunity

Young people often present us with the greatest opportunity for cognitive dissonance and for us to grow, learn and adapt: may you thoroughly enjoy grappling with complex issues and polarising topics with those in your class. Let’s create a safe space where scholars can debate, share their ideas, re-shape their ideas, change their minds, expand their minds, listen to others and simply experience cognitive dissonance. 

May they be confident enough to articulate their ideas, humble enough to know that they don’t know everything, and courageous enough to change their opinions if that’s what they choose to do. 

After all, the teenage years are all about shaping one’s own views. How wonderful if we can give young people the tools to hear others and see others too. How fortunate Achieve Careers is to be a part of this journey with you.

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

If you are using the Achieve Careers LO Programme, the following information is recommended to support the facilitation of this topic:

  • GR 11 LO Manual, Section 2
  • GR 10 LO Manual, Section 3, pp. 46–49

Teacher Flash Drive – LO Resources – Controversial Topics – PowerPoint 



South African Book Development Council Site

United Nations International Literacy Day

Important Dates:

  • 6th –12th September – National Book Week
  • 8th September – International Literacy Day
  • 24th September – Heritage Day

1 Britannica. Cognitive Dissonance, [Online], Available: [17 Aug 2020]

Share This Post
This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Please accept to continue or refer to Terms of Use here.