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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Counterintuitive Science: Cognitive Dissonance

Have you ever had this thought?

"ARGGGGHHHH! I HATE my job so much that I'd rather take a pay cut to do anything else!"

So what happens if they cut your pay but still force you to do the same frickin' job?

Common sense would predict that you will hate your job much, much more.

But science says - not quite.

In fact, you might even grow to LOVE your job!

This bizarre effect is called Cognitive Dissonance*.

I first read about it as an neuroscience undergrad.

How was this effect discovered?

Back in the 1950s, behaviourism was all the rage in psychology.

Behaviourists believed that the only relevant psychological phenomena were behaviours that could be measured directly.

Stimulus -> Response.

There is no need to use vague concepts such as the "mind" to explain how the response occurs.

Other psychologists suspected otherwise.

In 1956, a UFO doomsday cult predicted that the world would end on 21st December that year.

They expected aliens from the planet Clarion to save them from a global flood.

Psychologist Leon Festinger infiltrated the cult in order to study their behaviour closely.

Minute-by-minute, midnight approached.

Then it came.

And nothing happened.

Even hours after midnight, believers continued to wait for alien visitors to arrive.

Suddenly the cult leader proclaimed that the faith of her cult members had spread so much light that God decided to save the world from doom.

Believers readily accepted the alternative explanation, and by the next morning they were preaching their belief more vigorously than they ever did before.

The failed prophesy did not end their belief - on the contrary, it spurred them to become even more fervent!

Festinger wrote a book about this backwards turn of affairs and proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance to explain it.

He observed that when people are confronted with evidence that clearly refutes their deeply held beliefs, they will feel an uncomfortable tension that results from inner conflict.

However, instead of relieving the tension by changing their belief, many of them will rationalize it - by changing the perception of their actions.

In the case of the doomsday cult, instead of abandoning their core beliefs because of the failed prophesy, members changed the perception of their midnight virgil: from waiting to be rescued by aliens, to convincing God to spare the world.

Festinger decided to design an experiment to test his theory.

Together with James Carlsmith, he recruited undergraduate students to participate in a study.

Students were tasked to perform boring and repetitive activities (such as rotating 48 square pegs one-by-one on a large board) for one whole hour.

They were then split into three groups.

One group was paid one dollar each to tell another student (actually a confederate of the experimenters) that the task was interesting and exciting.

Essentially, they were paid to lie.

Another group was paid 20 dollars to do the same thing.

The control group was not requested to tell the student anything.

Students from all three groups were then interviewed to evaluate their private opinion of the task.

And the results?

If the behaviourists were right, then the students who were paid $20 should like the task more, because they would associate the payment with the task.

Instead, students who were paid $1 said that they enjoyed the task significantly more than the $20 or control groups!

Festinger deduced that these students were experiencing the dissonance of having to lie for a measly buck, so they resolved it by convincing themselves that they really liked the task.

This classic experiment was an elegant demonstration that behaviourist models were incomplete and "mentalistic" concepts were necessary to help explain human psychological experiences.

Since then, many experiments have been done to investigate the details of cognitive dissonance, and so far it appears to transcend gender and culture.

From the way I presented it, you'd think that I consider cognitive dissonance as a totally bad thing.

No, not really.

If not for cognitive dissonance, there would be no graduate students on this planet.

Or science bloggers.

Trust me on this one.

Would you like to know more?
Original research article by Festinger and Carlsmith, 1959

*To A.H.: cognitive dissonance is dissonance within cognition, not dissonance from cognition. I know you hate it, but it's a real term. Heh.


Aftersox said...

I might not be understanding cog-dissonance right, but one of my favorite examples was neurological.

There was a man who was in a car accident and his left arm was paralyzed. But he didn't believe his arm was paralyzed.

The neurologist who was studying him asked him to take his right arm and touch his nose. So he did it. Then the doc asked him to take his left arm and touch his nose.

So, he used his right arm to pick up with left hand and touched his nose with it.

When under fMRI they found that the pre-motor cortex was firing for the left arm, showing that he really was trying to move the arm. At the same time his frontal cortex was firing heavily - he was simultaneously inventing a fiction and believing it wholeheartedly.

Is that another example of cog-diss?

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Not sure - do you have a reference for this case?

John - Evolutionary Middleman said...

Great post Leng Hiong. Cognitive dissonance is a fascinating topic and goes a long way towards explaining fundamentalist religious beliefs and how people hold on to them.

BTW, Aftersox seems to be referring to work done by our old friend Rama.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Thanks John.

You're right, Prof. Ramachandran studies this condition, called anosognosia.

But this condition affects patients who suffer from actual brain injury, so I don't know if it can be considered cognitive dissonance - which refers to the social psychology of healthy people.

There could be a common underlying mechanism.

rasmussenanders said...

Excellent post about an interesting phenomenon!

Lim Leng Hiong said...

Thanks Anders!