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Med Educ. 2019 Dec;53(12):1178-1186. doi: 10.1111/medu.13938. Epub 2019 Aug 8.

Cognitive dissonance: how self-protective distortions can undermine clinical judgement.

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Department of Medical Education, Melbourne Medical School, University of Melbourne, Carlton, Victoria, Australia.
Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne, Carlton, Victoria, Australia.
Faculty of Medicine, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.



When errors occur in clinical settings, it is important that they are recognised without defensiveness so that prompt corrective action can be taken and learning can occur. Cognitive dissonance - the uncomfortable tension we experience when we hold two or more inconsistent beliefs - can hinder our ability to respond optimally to error.


The aim of this paper is to describe the effects of cognitive dissonance, a construct developed and tested in social psychology. We discuss the circumstances under which dissonance is most likely to occur, provide examples of how it may influence clinical practice, discuss potential remedies and suggest future research to test these remedies in the clinical context.


We apply research on cognitive dissonance from social psychology to clinical settings. We examine the factors that make dissonance most likely to occur. We illustrate the power of cognitive dissonance through two medical examples: one from history and one that is ongoing. Finally, we explore moderators at various stages of the dissonance process to identify potential remedies.


We show that there is great opportunity for cognitive dissonance to distort judgements, delay optimal responses and hinder learning in clinical settings. We present a model of the phases of cognitive dissonance, and suggestions for preventing dissonance, reducing the distortions that can arise from dissonance and inhibiting dissonance-induced escalation of commitment.


Cognitive dissonance has been studied for decades in social psychology but has not had much influence on medical education research. We argue that the construct of cognitive dissonance is very relevant to the clinical context and to medical education. Dissonance has the potential to interfere with learning, to hinder the process of coping effectively with error, and to make the accepting of change difficult. Fortunately, there is the potential to reduce the negative impact of cognitive dissonance in clinical practice.


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