Attribution Theory vs Cognitive Dissonance - Michelle Canto

Attribution Theory

  • A student's feeling about abilities and how well he/she can do or understand something
  • Internal or external locus of control (One's own decisions or the environment)
  • Stable vs unstable (Can things change over time?)
  • Controllability (Skill or effort vs luck)

Cognitive Dissonance

  • Conflicting ideas in one's mind
  • Understanding vs understanding (Learning something new that contradicts what one previously thought was correct)
  • Understanding vs behavior (Knowing something is reliable but acting like it's not)

Similarities in Definitions

  • Both affect motivation.
  • Both reflect self-perception.
  • Both are internal disconnects between reality and self perception.
  • Both are defense mechanisms protecting self concept.
  • Both can either be productive or unproductive.
  • Both can turn into a serious impediment to learning.

Differences in Definitions

  • Attribution Theory has more factors than Cognitive Dissonance.
  • Cognitive Dissonance has more of a social aspect in terms of social justice.


Attribution Theory

  • Education (Often in reading and math but can appear in any subject)
  • Law
  • Mental health

Cognitive Dissonance

  • Decision-making situations
  • Problem-solving situations
  • Social justice

Similarities in Application

  • When unproductive, correction needs external supports.
  • Teach explicitly for change so students can learn to think differently.

Differences in Application

  • Attribution Theory is more content specific while Cognitive Dissonance crosses content.

Implications for ID

  • Be aware of students' attribution of ability.
  • Use attitude surveys to determine what they understand about their abilities.
  • Know that cognitive dissonance can be OK especially in the area of social justice and can help new understandings take hold. Students need time to grapple with conflicting ideas.
  • Teaching growth and fixed mindsets helps students open their minds to learning.


Attribution Theory

High Achievers

  • High test score
  • Proud and confident
  • Success = ability

Low Achievers

  • High test score
  • Not proud and confident
  • Success = luck

Cognitive Dissonance

Smoking Nurse

  • Cancer ward
  • Knows dangers
  • Obesity rationale
  • Attitude vs behavior

Dallas ER Doctor

  • African American
  • Distrusts/dislikes cops
  • Sad he couldn’t save them all
  • Attitude vs attitude


Cullata, R. (2015). Attribution theory (B. Weiner). Retrieved from
Cullata, R. (2015) Cognitive dissonance (Leon Festinger). Retrieved from
Gorski, P. (2009). Cognitive dissonance as a strategy in social justice teaching. Multicultural Education. 17, (1). 54-57. Retrieved from
Riley, R. (2016, July). Doctor who treated officers of Dallas shooting impeccably sums up cognitive dissonance some black men experience in America. Atlanta Black Star. Retrieved from
TEDxCanberra (producer). (2010) Ash Donaldson: Cognitive dissonance. Retrieved from
Weiner, B. (2010). The development of an attribution-based theory of motivation: a history of ideas. Educational Psychologist. 45, (1). 28-36. Retrieved from