Cognitive dissonace theory, also known as the self-perception or self-concept theory, refers to our tendency to prefer having consistent beliefs. Consequently, when something arises which demonstrates an inconsistency in our beliefs, we seek to rid ourselves of that inconsistency immediately. This most commonly occurs when our behaviors do not align with our attitudes – we believe one thing, but act against those beliefs. The strength of cognitive dissonance (the pain it causes) depends on the number and relative weight of conflicting beliefs. In order to alleviate the inconsistencies, people are usually presented with a choice: either change their behavior, or justify their behavior by changing their beliefs and cognitions. In other words, people are constantly choosing between either acting in accordance with their beliefs, or rationalizing inconsistent actions.
An easily recognizable example of cognitive dissonance is found in recycling habits. Most individuals claim to value recycling and understand its positive impacts on the environment; yet, many still do not recycle as much as they should. The pain caused by this conflicting belief-action complex commonly leads people to rationalize their actions by adopting the belief that, for example, their individual lack of recycling has a minimal negative effect on the environment.