Cognitive dissonance – the mental gymnastics that help us rationalise our sloppy thinking Lee Traynor The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 19, Issue 2, from 2006.

In a previous article in this magazine (The Skeptic, 17.4) Mark Pendergrast referred to Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance as the idea that you cannot believe two opposites at once and – in a manner reminiscent of creationists – as “just a theory”:

“The idea is that you cannot have two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. One of them is going to push out the other one like a cuckoo pushing an egg out from the nest.” (Pendergrast, 2004).

This, however, is based on a misunderstanding of Festinger’s work and of what cognitive dissonance actually is. In fact cognitive dissonance is a counter-intuitive concept which goes some way in explaining why people will publicly defend such baloney as pseudoscience commonly is. It is a pity that in an age where the original article is freely available on the Internet, it is apparently not read.

What Festinger was looking for

It is important to realise that Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance was a comprehensive theory about what people do regarding the dissonance that arises when people are confronted by contradictory attitudes or behaviours. He postulated that there were three ways of reducing dissonance: to play down or ignore dissonant cognitions; to focus on additional features that would outweigh the dissonant cognition; or to change one’s behaviour to bring it into line with the dissonant cognition. Festinger proposed that people would rather choose to change their beliefs (the first two options) rather than their behaviour.

To use his own example, what do you do when you buy an expensive car that is unfortunately uncomfortable on longer journeys? Well, you can claim that you use the car mainly for short journeys anyway so that the discomfort on longer journeys does not figure highly (option 1). Or you could emphasise that the car looks nice, is easy to handle or is particularly safe or reliable (option 2). Or you could sell the car (option 3).

Festinger’s theory differs from the Freudian theory of the ego defence mechanism or the commonsense notion of “rationalisation” in that it covers all possible outcomes and it can be tested. Note that if someone rationalises his car’s discomfort on long journeys by claiming that he only uses it for short journeys, it does not tell us anything about the workings of the mind. For all we know more people might be selling their uncomfortable cars than inventing reasons to keep them. But most of us suspect that people are doing the latter.

What Festinger found

But how do you measure the effect? When you read Festinger and Carlsmith’s paper, what is very obvious is the experiment’s almost Byzantine structure and the very small effect size. I won’t dwell on the details but I assume the elaborate structure arose from pilot studies that had to be refined until an effect was discoverable. The smallness of the effect size need not worry us, as Festinger was measuring attitude change taking place in the course of just an hour. A larger effect size might be seen over a longer time period during which the attitude change could be reinforced. What was the gist of the experiment?

Festinger and Carlsmith had male students perform a rather boring task for an hour and then claim to a female student that the “experiment” they were doing really was interesting. After this the male students were asked to continue for another hour doing an equally boring task but this time some of them were offered money for their compliance. A control group was offered nothing; two experimental groups were now offered either $1 or $20 (nearly seven times as much in today’s currency, see inflation calculator at bls.gov). At the end of the hour the students were asked to rate a number of items including how enjoyable the tasks were and how scientifically important they thought the experiment was.

Now the burning question becomes: Did the students who received $20 enjoy the tasks more because they were paid a lot of money for an hour’s work? After all, most of us would enjoy putting the money into our wallets. Or would the students who received only $1 say they enjoyed the tasks more? There was an opportunity for the students to reinterpret their experience by playing down the negative aspects (option 1) – they could claim that they thought the experiment was scientifically important. However if there was no difference on this item, the students must have thought that since the pay was meagre, the task must really have been interesting (option 2). No one broke off performing the additional tasks (option 3).

And the winner is? Yes, it was the One Dollar condition where students were most content; there was no difference in how they viewed the scientific importance of the study.

Sound familiar? Whether it’s a bad car, time-sharing or Microsoft Windows, people will adduce arguments to help them overcome any negative aspects they are confronted with. Or in the words of Murphy’s Law: if it jams, force it; if it breaks, it needed fixing anyway.

Relevance to pseudoscience

It is often remarked that the reason people embrace pseudoscience so fervently is that its practitioners possess so-called soft skills, e.g. the ability to empathise with, and understand, their clients’ needs – skills which cold, hard scientists apparently do not possess. The question is whether this is really the case or whether cognitive dissonance might be at work here, making people’s assessments of pseudo-scientists more positive.

There have been few instances of sceptical investigations of pseudoscience in respect to cognitive dissonance. Occasionally, however, comments do seep through that pseudo-scientist performance is below par and would rationally lead to rejection of their claims. Edwards and Stollznow (1998) visited a number of “alternative” medical practitioners for consultations and their overall conclusion appears to be that patients were not treated with empathy and understanding. As Stollznow remarks with some disgruntlement of an iridologist:

“His diagnosis was the most serious that I’ve ever received, yet it was delivered within five minutes of my appointment on the pretext of spots on my iris”.

Festinger might even argue that paying for treatment would be expected to improve contentedness with it and this is likely to be the case for alternative therapies rather than conventional treatments that are covered by health care schemes. And cognitive dissonance appears to predict that placebos might be more effective when they are perceived as being less effective.

I recently attended an exorcism in Los Angeles (Traynor, 2005) and found that a) nothing much happened; b) possession by spirits to explain personal problems is neither plausible nor helpful in solving such; and c) that the exorcist himself put on a poor showing. No doubt the people who invested a Sunday afternoon in this farce now believe all the more strongly in the validity of exorcism precisely for these reasons.

I do therefore think that there is something to be said for applying the paradigm of cognitive dissonance to aspects of our investigations of the supposedly paranormal. It would strengthen the sceptics’ case if we could make it understood that people do not always accept the best evidence when judging paranormal phenomena.

Acknowledgement

I would like to thank Mahlon Wagner for his helpful comments.

References

bls.gov: http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl, accessed 21/06/05.Edwards, H. & Stollznow, K. (1998). Alternative consultation. The Skeptic (Australia), 18(2), 11.Pendergrast, M. (2004). Motivated distortion of personal memory for trauma. The Skeptic, 17(4), 13-14.psychology.org: http://tip.psychology.org/festinge.html, accessed 21/06/05.Traynor, L. (2005). A skeptic goes to an exorcism. eSkeptic, Newsletter of the Skeptics Society, mirrored at: http://www.fsz.uni-hannover.de/sprachbereiche/englisch/dozenten/traynor/exorcism.htm, accessed on 12/07/05.yorku.ca: http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Festinger/, accessed 21/06/05. Festinger and Carlsmith’s 1959 original paper. First published as “Cognitive consequences of forced compliance” in: Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-210.

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From the archives, Lee Traynor looks at how cognitive dissonance important in understanding pseudoscience
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