The principle of consistency and the cause and function of behaviour

Behav Processes. 2019 Feb:159:42-54. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2018.12.013. Epub 2018 Dec 15.


At all levels of information processing in the brain, neural and cognitive structures tend towards a state of consistency. When two or more simultaneously active cognitive structures are logically inconsistent, arousal is increased, which activates processes with the expected consequence of increasing consistency and decreasing arousal. Increased arousal is experienced as aversive, while the expected or actual decrease in arousal as a result of increased consistency is experienced as rewarding. Modes of resolution of inconsistency can be divided into purely cognitive solutions, such as changing an attitude or an associated motor plan, and behavioural solutions, such as exploration, aggression, fear, and feeding. Models and theories consistent with the principle of consistency are numerous, have a long and continuing history, and come from many different scientific fields, such as social psychology, perception, neurocognition, learning, motor control, system control, ethology, and stress. The present paper presents a brief overview of relevant information from these fields of research, while focusing mainly on the implications of the principle of consistency for the understanding of the cause and function of behaviour. Based on this overview, it is proposed that all behaviour involving cognitive processing is caused by the activation of inconsistent cognitions and functions to increase perceived consistency.

Keywords: Arousal; Cognitive consistency; Cognitive dissonance; Expectancy; Prediction error.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cognition*
  • Humans
  • Psychological Theory*