Tools for Changing the World

Social psychology for social good

I did it – I must have enjoyed it

October 7th, 2010

Bad Movie Warning LabelYou’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.

4 comments on 'I did it – I must have enjoyed it'

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  1. Rob

    7 Oct 10 at 12:54 pm

    How this is a tool for social Good? So often, one sees this employed as a tool for social Bad, as in: “Farnsworth, write this memo about how someone in Accounting is stealing toilet paper, then fire half the custodial staff for letting it happen.” And Farnsworth does it, because by the time that memo’s hit the company email, Farnsworth has lined up his mental ducks in an order that suggests the custodial staff is eeeeevil.

    That happens every day in corporate life and it’s too many directions for my one-way mind. Isn’t telling my friends, “The movie blew, but let’s go get a beer and since I saved you $30 you’re buying!” a better way to go?


    Carol Reply:

    I suppose this is one of the techniques that we should be aware of in order to avoid its use against us… which is true for a lot of them, really. (And I don’t actually encourage people to lie about movies.) But it can have positive uses — see the essay study mentioned above.

    I’d love to see an attempt to get a group of moderate supporters to become more enthusiastic by having them speak out. Can you get eco-friendly but non-activist friends to canvass for the Green Party or a local pro-environment bylaw? Would explaining its benefits to others make them perceive it differently? I don’t know, but I think it’s worth trying.


  2. Jacquie

    16 May 11 at 2:53 pm

    Hi, came here from Pace and Kyeli’s World Changing Writing Workshop. Really like what you’re doing and I have a suggestion for the way this tool could be used.

    I vaguely remember reading that in some WWII prisoner camps this was used to turn prisoners into sympathisers – get them to contradict themselves in writing and they started to change their minds about who were “the good guys”. Still not a force for good, but bear with me.

    Lets take an example where you want to change someone’s mind about which side they’re on – drink drivers, say. If they are MADE to say it’s a bad idea, that probably won’t work.

    But if you can get them into a discussion or scenario in which they are trying to talk someone else out of doing it, maybe listing the possible impacts, or why it was something they wouldn’t do now, then it’s possible cognitive dissonance would do the trick. In your example the subject wasn’t only saying the film was good, but trying to persuade someone else of this “fact”.

    I think it comes down to the fact no-one wants to think they’re actually not the “good guy”. World-changers can definately use that!


    Carol Reply:

    Hey, Jacquie! Sorry I didn’t respond before; the blog hadn’t told me about your comment. But you’re absolutely right: any situation in which a person tries to persuade others in a specific direction has the potential to change their own attitudes in that direction. I hadn’t thought about the “which side you’re on” approach, but it makes perfect sense, as does the drunk driving example. Thank you!

    (And welcome to the blog! Isn’t the WCWW awesome?)


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