Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance

It's healthy, methinks, from time to time to blog about that which I learn in Intro to Psychology. Thus, today's lecture (erm, post) relates to cognitive dissonance.

Fraternities have crazy pledge requirements. The army has boot camp. Even theater has an audition process. True, there are benefits to some of these processes, but, on some level, these obstacles cause eventual members (brothers, soldiers, actors) to value their membership in the group (fraternity, army, play), because they had to go through something to get there. They think to themselves, "Why did I go through all that trouble?" and the answer they create is, "Because I must truly have wanted to been accepted into the group." In other words, the ends not only literally justifies the means, but the means reinforces the ends.

In a study by Festinger and Carlsmith, participants had to do really boring tasks for payment, and were then asked to call in the next test subject, and to tell that person that the study was "fun". Those who were paid a substantial sum reported, afterward, that they lied to the next subject in saying the activity was "fun;" in reality, it was boring. Interestingly, those paid little to no money actually believed they were telling the next subjects the truth; they believed they were having fun. How can this be?

Cognitive dissonance explains both phenomena. It says, essentially, that people look at what they did, and if it doesn't make sense, they force it to make sense. If jumping naked into a pool of Jell-O during pledging doesn't make much sense, the inductee reasons, "I did it because I wanted to be in the frat. I must really want to be here." Then, it makes more sense to have acted that way. Similarly, the participants in the experiment who were paid well could reason, "It was boring, but I did it to get paid." The participants who were not paid well could not use this justification, so they had to invent a new one, "I did this because it was fun." Either way, it's justification.

The following comic does a great job driving this point home:

Dilbert comic. Click to enlarge.
So, what does this all mean? It struck me that this means that we are constantly making excuses for our actions in order to believe that we are doing the right thing. If I make a decision, say, to come to Tufts University, and it requires that I move out of my home, spend tens of thousands of dollars, and go to classes each day, I will instantly begin to justify my actions. "I'm here because I love it here!" "I'm here because I need this to succeed in the world!" Are those ideas true? Or are they mere dissonance? I have no way of objectively knowing.

This can be applied to any decision; you chose to say something, or not; wear something, or not; study, or not; you will always justify the action, you will always give yourself a reasonable explanation for your behaviors, so as to maintain your sanity.

Knowing this, do we all live lies? Do we tell ourselves we are doing what's "best," when it's sometimes not? Do we justify wrong choices, and never even realize it? Perhaps.

Of course, knowing all of this doesn't scare me. My cognitive dissonance from learning this concept goes like this: "I am now aware of the possibility that my actions and beliefs are based on exaggerations and distorted rationalizations. Does this idea scare me into insanity? No. Why not? I must like this idea! Yes, that's quite it; I like learning about psychology, in fact, I'm happy that I learned this. I feel better, and smarter, knowing it. And now that I feel smart, I'm going to be more confident in my decisions. And, as I become confident that my decisions are the right ones, I will feel smarter, for having made such correct decisions in life. And this self-feeding cycle will make me feel great, all the time!"

I leave with this note: You just spent a good amount of time reading this post. You could have been doing something else. How will you justify having wasted your time? Simple. You'll say you liked the post. You found it interesting. You enjoy knowing what I think about. But really, do you?  Is that just a justification for the actions you already took?

Another note: Eppie will justify having read this by anonymously posting spelling corrections, thus validating his time spent in improving the work and demonstrating to myself and himself his English abilities.


  1. I read about Cognitive Dissonance Theory a few days ago, and loved it. Today, less than 24 hours after I posted about it here, I came to Psych lecture, and, sure enough and we're learning about it in detail today. =) So excited!

  2. Grandmom & GrandpopOctober 21, 2010 at 12:40 PM

    Brian.....we're so happy for you! It certainly sounds like (from all your blogs) you are really enjoying college! So far, so good, it appears you made the right decision and obviously learning tons!

  3. I justify reading your blogs because you are my son and I learn more about you from your blogs then your e-mails or our calls- please keep them up!
    ♥ MOM

  4. Brian.
    I read this post. I justify this by saying that I:
    1. Found it interesting,
    2. Don't feel like going to bed so what else am I going to do?
    3. Know you clearly enjoy psychology and since you have listened to me rant about astronomy I figured I should return the favor. :)

    And just to answer your are at Tufts because Tufts is awesome.

  5. I justify reading this because I already know what cognitive dissonance is from AP Psych and wanted to see what you had to say about it :)

    In a situation of cognitive dissonance, action and opinion do not correlate. One must either change the action, or change the opinion. Because people are lazy (or perhaps because action cannot be changed...) we much change opinion instead. Yay psychology!


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