Cognitive conflict is the discomfort one feels when his beliefs, values or behaviors contradict one another. For instance, if a person believes that honesty is the best policy in maintaining relationships, but then holds back the truth from a good friend, he might feel cognitive conflict. As a psychological theory, it originates from Leon Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory, which proposes that humans need internal consistency as surely as we need food and water. Because of this, Festinger says, we become psychologically distressed when we experience discord in our thoughts.

Conflict When Beliefs are Proved Wrong

When an individual believes very strongly in something that proves to be false, he will experience conflict. In his book "When Prophecy Fails," Festinger gives an example of a group of people who believed the claims of a woman, fictitiously labeled “Mrs. Keech,” who said she was being contacted by aliens who had informed her that the earth would be destroyed by a flood. These aliens, dubbed The Guardians, would send a spaceship to save those who believed in the messages they were sending through Mrs. Keech. When the UFO failed to appear, the cult members lessened their conflict, not by admitting they were wrong, but by deciding that the aliens had mercy on the human race and gave them a second chance.

Conflict in Decision Making

People experience cognitive conflict when they are in the process of making a decision. The conflict comes when someone realizes that one decision will eliminate the positive elements of the rejected decision. For instance, suppose an individual is deciding which college to attend and has to choose between one that is closer to home and one that has a program better suited to career goals. He realizes that if he chooses the one with the better program, he will be away from his family. If he chooses to stay close to home, he may not have as good a chance to advance in his field.

Conflict in Justifying Effort and Compliance

People experience conflict when they examine the amount of effort they put into a project and realize that the outcome was not as profitable as intended. Investing a great deal of time and effort into something only to have it fail creates inner turmoil. For instance, if a student spends countless hours on a research paper only to receive a failing grade, he most likely will experience cognitive conflict. Likewise, when someone is forced to comply with an activity he would prefer not to take part in, he is faced with internal conflict.

Conflict When Responsible for Bad Consequences

Psychologists Joel Cooper and Russell Fazio added to Festinger’s causes of cognitive dissonance. They believed that cognitive conflict occurs when a person considers himself responsible for unfavorable outcomes. In other words, people experience conflict when they feel they are to blame. Cooper and Fazio noted that in cases where an individual did not feel responsible for negative consequences, no conflict existed. They concluded that it wasn’t the need to achieve consistency that created dissonance, but responsibility for an unfavorable event.

Conflict When Behaviors Aren't in Harmony with Self-concept

In addition to Festinger’s opposing cognitions, Elliot Aaronson believed conflict was created by behavior that opposed one’s self-concept. Aaronson suggested that people feel conflict when their behaviors do not line up with their perceptions of themselves. If an individual feels he is a decent and reasonable person and then behaves in a way that is indecent or unreasonable, cognitive conflict will occur. This self-analysis requires a person to assess himself objectively. It assumes a person is not motivated by internal, intrinsic forces, but rather attitudes he has formulated by rationally observing his own behavior.

Conflict When Outcomes Don't Measure Up

A more recent study by Joel Cooper and Jeff Stone suggests a person feels cognitive conflict when the results of a behavior don’t measure up to a standard to which they are measured. When a person performs a task he expects a certain outcome. When the outcome doesn’t measure up, the person can experience cognitive conflict. This standard of measure can come from personal specifications, or it can come from accepted cultural norms. For instance, if a child is expected to bring home a report card with good grades and instead receives bad grades, he will experience cognitive conflict.