Sunday, October 16, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance- Why we lie to ourselves.

The social psychological experiment of Festinger and Carlsmith done in 1959 provides insight into why we do things that are contrary to our normal beliefs.

In the study experimenters tell the participants that they are doing a study in which they will see how your expectations affect the experience of the task. They are told that there are two groups, one that has been told what to expect from the experience, but that they are part of the group that has not been given an expectation.

The task that they are given is extremely boring, for half an hour they are to move spoons around in a box, and for another half hour they are to move pegs around a board. After they have completed the task the experimenter tells them that other participants have found the task quite interesting. Then the experimenter explains that there has been a mistake, that the next participant was supposed to have been given an expectation of the task and had not been. They offer the participant either $1 or $20 to tell the next person that the task was interesting.

Afterwords, the participant is to fill out a survey ranking how interesting the task was to them. The results discovered that those who were paid $1 ranked the task as interesting, and those who were paid $20 ranked the task as boring.

This result is called the power of cognitive dissonance. It's the way we deal with two thoughts that contradict each other. In this case, how we rationalize telling someone something was interesting that we actually found boring. For those paid $20 dollars it was easy to lie (in 1959 $20 was much more money). The money, in their mind, was worth lying to the next person and so they felt little guilt doing it. For the person paid only $1, however, their brain needed to rationalize a reason for lying and the person therefore convinced themselves that the task was more interesting then it actually was.

This theory applies to many situations in which people can convince themselves to believe something they would have otherwise found false; to think something unimportant is important, or something boring is interesting.

This experiment is a simplification of how people resolve cognitive dissonance through rationalizations. What are some other situations in which people might do this? How much does money play a roll in the outcome? Could there have been another "reward" such as a feeling of inclusion and would that make the experiment more valid? Are we more likely to rationalize because of monetary gain or social pressures?


  1. The Economic Consequences of Cognitive Dissonance

    Within this article in Section III, the experimenter sets up a model of the dangers of cognitive dissonance. People who work in an unsafe work environment are told that they are safe. Slowly they begin to believe this, thus when cost effective safety machinery is allowed, they won't buy it because they already believe it is a safe environment.

    Though this is an extreme instance of cognitive dissonance, it is still relevant to the social psychological experiment of Festinger and Carlsmit. Though being conditioned to think an event is more interesting than boring, it does prove how easily manipulated the human mind can be. This could also explain why citizen's trust their government, even if they don't agree with what the government may be doing. If a citizen is told by it's government and media that it is doing a good job and the country is acting justly and we will benefit from this, the citizen is much more likely to agree. This is especially true if others are experiencing the same cognitive dissonance.

  2. Even though Festinger’s experiment believed that people changed their attitudes when they received one dollars researcher M. B. Smith(1973) in his article called the Handbook of Political Psychology claimed that the dissonance reduction was made in a laboratory context and it did not reflect real life decision making situations. (Optimism about Elections: Dissonance Reduction at the Ballot Box Dennis T. Regan and Martin Kilduff Page 102 of 101-107). Knox and Inkster’s experiment (1968) was based on more real life situations where two gamblers were asked to bet on two Canadian horses for 2 dollars each and they were asked if how good a change did their horse had immediately before and after placing their bets. It turned out that immediately after committing themselves to a certain situation people believed more that their choices are more favorable. This situation also mimics political decision making. In 1984 U. S. presidential election the same methodology was used and it turned out that people right after their vote would be more committed to their choices and believed that their candidate had more change of winning. Also the act of voting was taken into consideration, where it gave people a more optimistic and a positive feeling which made them believe that their responses were the most accurate ones.
    Both experiments show that certain conditions that people are in effects their decision making choices and their attitudes towards a certain situation. I don’t think that we can give a fact on which experiment is more accurate since they are done in different environments with different situations but we can say that many cases effects people decision making and how much they are committed to it.


  3. I think an example of cognitive dissonance that many people fall for is smoking cigarettes. Usually, people who are daily smokers have started smoking at a young age, the average being 17-25. There are many reasons why many young people start smoking, but the fundamental excuses are peer pressure, friends are doing it, it looks cool, curiosity, and it relieves stress. People are smoking daily and ignore how dangerous it actually is to the body. I for example am a smoker and used to tell myself that one cigarette won’t kill me every time I smoke, but I’ve bought cartons and am trying to quit. My downfall is when I start worrying about a project I make an excuse and tell myself that I need a cigarette. I honestly believe that it does relieve stress, but it might just be me telling myself that so I don't feel so guilty about it. Money does play a strong role in this because I do have to pay $12 for a pack, which is the main reason why I’m trying to quit.

  4. It wasn't until last class that I truly understood that we as human beings exercise cognitive dissonance all the time. This experiment by Festinger was particularly interesting because it truly and concretely described this term. I believe that in a way, when a lot of effort is put into something and the result is disappointing or not as expected, we try to justify it with a positive to convince ourselves that the effort really was worth it even if it truly was not. In a way, it is a sort of motivation for ourselves. In an experiment by Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills, they led an experiment in which female students were asked to be in group discussions about sex, a particularly touchy subject. Even more funny, there existed an initiation process to get to the group discussions in which one group had to read embarassing material in front of male subjects, another group had a milder initiation, and the last group had no initiation. The subjects who had undergone the embarassing test described the discussion to be interesting, even though it had been particularly boring. On the other hand, the girls that had not undergone an initiation listed the group discussion as boring.

  5. Cognitive dissonance can also play a role in advertising, classification of products, and economics- people have been shown to rationalize and make judgments/evaluations about products after they buy and use them, based on the cognitive dissonance theory. When consumers are exposed to marketing and advertising of a product before buying it, they will have preconceived notions of how a product is supposed to function, its quality, and other factors that sway them to purchase the product. In a study with students involving radios and a case of soda, they were asked to read descriptions of the products and make an unchangeable choice as to which they preferred to acquire in a lottery (Korgaonkar and Moschis, 1982). The results indicated that for high-involving products (the radio, in this study), cognitive dissonance was an important factor in influencing how the subjects evaluated its performance after making their decision. Interestingly, it had the opposite effect on low-involving products (the soda).

    It seems like companies can use different approaches to marketing products based off of the cognitive dissonance theory and whether the product is considered “high-involving” or “low-involving”, which to me is rather intriguing. Advertising is apparently much more than making pretty, witty ads for people to enjoy (or hate), I suppose.