You’ve just seen a movie and it was awful. You don’t just want your money back; you want your two hours of time-you-could-have-been-spending-doing-something-more-interesting-like-watching-paint-dry back – and another two hours as compensation for pain and suffering. If you had a choice between seeing it again and being kneecapped, you’d be out buying crutches. It was that bad.
I’m with you (don’t worry, I paid my own way) and as we leave the early show, I see some people I know heading for the late show – and I ask you to tell them the movie was pretty good.
And (after giving me a look of appalled horror), you do. Introductions are made and you tell my friends that the movie wasn’t bad, kind of an interesting plot, and the actors were pretty good overall… yada yada. We leave; they head into the cinema to see the show.
An hour later, I ask you what you really think of the movie.
And you think about it, and really, it wasn’t that bad. You figure you kind of overreacted back when you were thinking about storming the manager’s office with torches and hostile villagers.
What the #$%@!? What happened?
Congratulations, you just resolved cognitive dissonance!*
In last Monday’s post, I said that cognitive dissonance occurs when we do or think something that clashes with our self-image, and it’s uncomfortable enough that our minds try to resolve the discrepancy. In this case, you had to resolve “I lied about the movie” with “I don’t lie without a good reason.” You could resolve this by thinking, “Actually, I like lying,” or “I lied because Carol asked me to and Carol is just that awesome,” but the easiest way is to think “I didn’t really lie.” So, the movie couldn’t have been that horrible.
The principle is called “insufficient justification” and it’s led to some really interesting research. A classic example is a 1959 study by Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith, who asked university students to convince another student that a boring, repetitive task they had just completed was really interesting. They were paid either a dollar (less than $10 by current standards) or 20 dollars (about $150 by current standards) to do so.
You wouldn’t think this would affect the students’ attitudes about the task, but it did. At the end of the study, the students paid a dollar rated the boring task as much more enjoyable than did those paid more. Somewhere in their minds was the thought “I wouldn’t lie that much for a measly dollar, so the task can’t have been that bad.”
There have also been a number of studies showing that writing an essay that argues for a position with which the writer actually disagrees has the same effect, although only when the essay will be supposedly used to convince others. So does role-playing.
At first glance, this doesn’t seem to be a principle with many useful applications. It’s true that most situations don’t lend themselves to it, but a few do. For example, asking volunteers to write or speak positively about the concept you’re trying to promote will frequently move their attitudes closer to what they’re saying, especially if they’re in a position to persuade others. (It won’t work if they’re not volunteers, since “I’m being forced to do this” is a perfectly good reason for most people to do something and doesn’t cause any cognitive dissonance.)
And the gains can be worthwhile. The essay study mentioned above changed white students’ attitudes about black students by having them write essays – even when what they wrote wasn’t as positive as the researcher had requested.
There’s got to be some world-changing potential in this, although it might take some setting up. If you have any ideas, I’d love to discuss this further in the comments.
* Okay, some psychologists believe you resolved cognitive dissonance and some believe you adjusted your public attitude to avoid looking inconsistent (an effect called “impression management”) and some believe you observed your own behaviour and decided you must have liked the movie (“self-perception theory”) but everyone agrees that the effect occurs, so let’s move along.