Tuesday, April 2, 2019

External and Internal Expressions of Cognitive Dissonance

The last post left us wondering about the results of Leon Festinger's study of forced behavioral compliance. Participants were placed into two separate groups, one of which was well paid, and the other which received a nominal amount to compensate them for their time in the tediously boring hour and the request to lie to the new test subjects on their way out. 

(Note the adjustment in the value of the reward in this blog post to approximate a contemporary value.) Only one group described the test as unpleasant, and the other claimed that they enjoyed performing the study, expressing positive feelings about it. But which group enjoyed themselves?

Let's take a look at Group 2 first – the group whose participants received compensation at the modern day equivalent of $150. They were compliant with the lie that the researches asked them to tell to other study subjects, but they expressed dislike of the study in the exit interview. They did not report a sense of cognitive stress. However, Group 1 – those participants who received a negligible amount of money to compensate them for their time and effort – offered a very different response about the study in their exit interview at the conclusion. 

They made the claim that they enjoyed the study and thought that the study itself had value. But why? 


Group 2 found that the money that they received and the money that they believed that other subjects had been paid were able to place the burden of blame for their actions on an external, mitigating factor. They rationalized that the study was a job, and it was their duty to perform it because they were paid to do so. This rationalization significantly dropped the pain of the cognitive dissonance well enough, but they did not feel obligated to lie to investigators about their lack of enjoyment in the exit interview. However, the amount that they were paid did allow them to choose to comply with the lie that they were asked to tell to the other subjects.

Thought Conversion

Group 1 felt a great deal of cognitive stress. They chose to comply, agreeing to both lie to the other subjects and to completing all of the monotonous tasks. 

Without the incentive of money to assuage their guilt as the other group had done, they had to come up with an alternative means to account for the loss of time for participating and for the lie. 

No external factors justified their behavior, so they turned the dissonance inward to cope with the painful stress. Here, we see the group converting their thoughts about the study to justify and explain their compliance to themselves. 

They adjusted their opinion about the study, telling themselves that the process was enjoyable – a measure that changed both their thoughts about the nature of the study as well as their emotions that flowed from them so that they could reckon their behavior. They redefined the process as something fun and useful. In some ways, this is the same reason why some find volunteer work to be rewarding. It's done for the greater good, and that rationale offers comfort and increases a sense of earned personal worth. For those who desire to be seen as generous and kind, volunteering helps to prop up the ego with evidence that reinforces a positive sense of self. "If you can't beat them, join them." 

The fantasies that we create often become more powerful than the short-acting yet rewarding effects of chemical substance. In comparison with substances, our internally generated neurochemicals of pleasure that result from behavior carry far more strong addictive potential than drugs or alcohol. We change our view about who we are and how the world works to fit and to explain those things that we've done that seem out of character for us. 

As our sense of stress diminishes, we also feel the pleasant 'buzz' of our own neurotransmitters as a well-earned reward. We soon learn how to drop our cognitive pain by pretending that the world around us and how we fit into it creates a place for us where no real conflict exists. How long that lasts depends on how well we can make the fantasy work.

Self-serving logical fallacies and leaps and lapses in logic thus become the first mechanics that anchor us and our identities to systems of high demand religions and other ideological groups. The fantasy provides illusory answers to all of our problems, and we can enjoy it for as long as we can manage to prop up our beliefs by resisting painful reality.

Further Reading: