In December 1954, a doomsday cult was awaiting the arrival of a UFO which would rescue the faithful. Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, had infiltrated the cult to see how they would respond when the UFO failed to appear and the world didn’t end. Remarkably, the cult emerged from their failed prediction with renewed strength, convinced that they had “spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”. Cognitive dissonance is a phrase coined by Festinger in 1956 to explain this sort of response. It refers to the discomfort we feel when trying to simultaneously hold two contradictory ideas in our mind; we reflexively try to resolve this discomfort, often pre-consciously. It’s a striking and elegant idea which can explain aspects of a wide range of seemingly strange human behaviours, from doomsday cults and initiation ceremonies to post-purchase rationalizations.
An early example is a study from the 1960s in which a group of women were invited to join a discussion group on the psychology of sex. They were told that they would have to read an excerpt of text aloud before they could join in order to demonstrate that they weren’t embarassed to discuss sex. The women were randomly divided into two groups, one of which received a much more humiliating text for their audition. The “audition” was staged and all of the women were allowed to join the discussion group, regardless of how they read; upon joining, they discovered that it was going to be about the role of bird plumage in courtship (instead of something exciting and racy). Afterward, the women who had been through the more humiliating audition rated the group more highly than those who had been through the easy audition. The explanation for this has to do with the dissonance between the two ideas: (1) I am a decent, reasonable person who makes good decisions; (2) I have made a large sacrifice to join a group that I find uninteresting. Since people tend to cling to their self-image, this dissonance is often resolved by giving up the second idea and thinking that the group is, in fact, interesting.
The same logic can be applied to doomsday cults. Festinger observed that when the promised apocalypse fails to materialize, core members of a doomsday cult will emerge with their faith redoubled rather than shattered; they may believe that it was their sacrifice and strength of faith that averted the disaster. A similar example is initiation ceremonies and other “group bonding” ceremonies in which prospective members undergo some kind of humiliation (often public and shared); the more severe or humiliating the initiation ceremony, the more strongly initiates tend to feel about the group. Again, this is the result of an attempt to reconcile a dissonance between self-image and behaviour.
If someone has invested a great deal or endured significant loss or humiliation for something and then discovers it to be uninteresting or false, they are faced with a dilemma. The conflict between their image of themselves as a reasonable, intelligent person and their decision to make sacrifices for something undesirable must be resolved. A simple solution is convince themselves that whatever they sacrified for is worthwhile, regardless of any evidence to contrary. The thing for which they have sacrificed doesn’t have to be a cause or membership in a group; it can also be a concrete object. When someone buys something expensive and then refuses to recognize its flaws (or that they could have gotten a better deal), that’s cognitive dissonance at work.
Finally, a classic example from Bejamin Franklin. When he was in the Pennsylvania legislature he came up with an innovative way of dealing with a rival. From his autobiography:
Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
The effectiveness of this approach is based on cognitive dissonance. Having loaned a valuable book to Franklin, the other legislator reconciles this with his image of himself (as a clever, reasonable person) by starting to think more highly of Franklin.
Of course, our behaviour is influenced by a wide range of factors, so it’s not usually as simple and straightforward as the examples given above. Nevertheless, cognitive dissonance does seem to be able to account for some of the odd ways in which we seem to behave. Understanding what motivates those behaviour patterns is both useful and enlightening. It can also be fun to start noticing this kind of thing in yourself and the people around you!
Very Interesting! I like it.
miles ellis said:
i find things like this to be rather remarkable… it is interesting to note that things you work harder for are the ones that you look upon more favorably… i think that it must be much harder to have a happy life when everything is easy to obtain….
i would write more, but i have food on the brain, and think it may be high time that i addressed the issue…
Miles, do you mean that it would be harder to have a happy life because things which are easy to obtain don’t end up being a source of happiness or satisfaction (while things that are difficult to obtain do)? While there may be some truth to that, it’s not necessarily because of cognitive dissonance. I think we often value things that are hard-won simply because we appreciate the effort we’ve put into them; it becomes cognitive dissonance when we insist on valuing something not because we appreciate the value of the effort, but because putting in that much effort for something worthless would be at odds with our self-image — that’s the dissonance part. I guess your point is that the two scenarios I just described aren’t necessarily that different — in some cases, they may even just be different descriptions of the same thing. I would agree with you that the two things — genuinely liking something vs. fooling one’s self into liking something — can be hard to distinguish.
Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts!
Miles Ellis said:
i suppose that i wasn’t so much attributing it to the same effect, as noting that regardless of the value of a thing, effort seems to hold a value all it’s own… i think that is the key to nearly all forms of satisfaction… take for example these lottery winners http://www.businesspundit.com/10-people-who-won-the-lottery-then-lost-it-all/ … and those stories don’t seem to be any sort of a rarity… ruined lives and the lottery seem to go together… it is quite strange to me that the fantasies of a life of ease that many associate with a windfall of this magnitude are so often quite distant from reality…
returning to the subject of cognitive dissonance we find that with great effort people are able to make even the worst results not only palatable, but are able to interpret them in ways that people on the outside can not fathom… as if by some form of mental alchemy, effort turns everything it touches into gold…
*thinks* this may turn the focus even more “sideways” than what i have all ready said, but it is on my mind also… while i may seem to be presenting a (slightly) anti-materialist viewpoint, that is not my intent… i think that casting oneself into difficulty intentionally wouldn’t bring about happiness… is the man that thinks constantly of asceticism any less enslaved than the one that is chasing wealth? i would argue that he is not…
anyhow, sorry that i have dragged this far from the scope of your initial thoughts… =)
No need to be sorry; it’s great to see my writing inspire reflection and discussion! I agree with you about asceticism — giving up one set of shackles for another provides only an illusion of freedom.
I think it’s quite important to try to understand how our brains construct the world we perceive. We are born with an incredibly powerful general purpose pattern matcher and then stumble through the world trying to make sense of a range of social cues and random observations. It’s quite striking to what lengths our mind will go to maintain consistency in our internal representation of the world. While we can never be able to escape our perceptual sieve, being aware of it may help us appreciate our limitations and failings, as well as our strengths.
Are any of these examples by any chance taken from the book “Mistakes were made (but not by me)”? Because I recently read the book and it uses the same two first examples that you use, in the same order and equally closely followed by each other as you put them here and it even talks about them with very similar turns of phrases.
No, I’ve never read the book you mentioned. I’m not at all surprised to hear that it would use the same two examples, since they are seminal studies in cognitive dissonance, specifically “When Prophecy Fails” by Leon Festinger and “The Effect of Severity of Initiation on Liking for a Group” by Elliot Aronson (who, it turns out, is co-author of the book you mentioned).
Your thinly veiled accusation is both rude and presumptuous. I write this blog in my free time and of my own volition, with no expectation of any kind of remuneration. I try to communicate ideas from the world of science because I think it’s important that we all understand and discuss them. I choose to do so through writing becuase I love language — the shape and texture of words, the cadence that carries a phrase home. I find your decision to publicly accuse me of palgiarism to be not only rash, but deeply offensive.
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Reneta Scian said:
I think you’d really like a book called “Predictable Irrationality” by Dr. Dan Ariely. It has a bit of insight which I feel is connected to this topic. You can also look up his speech on Ted Talks, or YouTube. It really is a fascinating insight into human nature.
Thanks, that looks like it might be interesting. 🙂