We tend to change our beliefs or attitudes to be consistent with our behavior as motivated by this drive referred to as "dissonance," or holding two conflicting cognitions.
In 1959, 71 students in an introductory course at Stanford University participated in an experiment that was advertised as dealing with "Measures of Performance." The subjects were told that they may be asked to give feedback on the experiment since the department is looking to improve the experiments in the future.
Phase 1: The subject arrived for the experiment which consisted of tasks. He or she was told that since there would be some extra time after the tasks, the subject could use that time to give feedback on the tasks. The tasks were the most tedious the researchers could devise—putting spools on a tray then taking them off again then turning pegs a quarter turn clockwise. The purpose, not known to the subject, was to create a task so boring that it is almost guaranteed that the subject would form a negative opinion about it.
Phase 2: The researcher tells the subject that the experiment consists of two groups. In the other groups, a student confederate prepares the subject by telling them how fun and exciting the tasks are. This is where the real experiment diverges into three groups. In the control group, the subjects are simply sent to another room to complete a questionnaire with four questions on an 11 point scale asking about their level of enjoyment of the tasks in the experiment. The other two groups, however, are asked a "favor" before filling out the task evaluation. The researcher told the remaining subjects that he needed their help. The researcher said that the student confederate who tells some of the subjects that the task is fun and exciting did not show up and asked the subject if he or she would be willing to play that role. The truth is, there was no student confederate. The remaining subjects (outside of the control group) were told this and divided into two other groups or conditions: (a) one dollar, and (b) twenty dollar. They were offered either one dollar or twenty dollars essentially to lie about how much they enjoyed the tasks to what they believed was another student.
The subjects were then paired with a real confederate student who asked the subject about the experiment. The subject said how great and enjoyable it was as instructed by the researcher. After, the subjects filled out the same task evaluation form as the control group. Which group would report enjoying the tasks more and why?
In the control condition, the subjects were offered no money and were not asked to tell anyone how fun the tasks were; therefore, it could be reasoned that they would give their attitude toward the tasks which would be authentic and not manipulated. On a scale from -5 (sucked big time) to +5 (better than sex)* subjects in the control group rated the tasks an average of -.45.
In the twenty dollar condition, the subjects who were paid twenty dollars (about $156 in 2013 dollars) rated the tasks an average of -.05 in terms of enjoyment—slightly more than the control group, but not significantly different.
In the one dollar condition, the subjects who were paid one lousy dollar (about 7.81 lousy dollars in 2013 dollars) rated the tasks an average of +1.35 in terms of enjoyment—significantly more than both the other conditions. What is going on? Why would they enjoy the task more if they were actually paid less?
The explanation is that the subjects were experiencing what Festinger called cognitive dissonance, a state in which one holds two contrasting cognitions. In this case, the subject's behavior gave the impression that they enjoyed the tasks as demonstrated by their telling the other student how fun they were. In the twenty dollar condition, the subjects reasoned that they were well compensated for this little white lie; therefore, experienced no dissonance. The subjects who received only one dollar could not make the same justification; therefore, experienced the dissonance created by their behavior and their attitude of finding the tasks boring. To resolve this dissonance, the subjects change their attitude toward the tasks in a more favorable direction.
* The linguistic descriptors paired with the numeric values are mine and not present in the 1959 experiment. In 1959, I don't think they use the expression "sucked big time" and back then, nobody mentioned sex.
Cognitive dissonance theory has been criticized by those who take a more behaviorist approach than a cognitive approach. They support a competing theory called self-perception theory which basically states that one's attitude is a reflection of one's behavior, and there is no need to hypothesize any motivational drive to reduce dissonance. More recently, scientists have come to understand that both theories have their place, and both are useful (Fazio, Zanna, & Cooper, 1977).
Many people make major life changes based on the media's reports of scientific findings. While some of these changes can be harmless, others might not be. Don't be fooled by fancy images of brains—about the only thing they prove is that color images exist.
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