Monday, April 1, 2019

Studying the Stress of Forced Compliance

Read Part I here.

What evidence exists to support the claim that a person will change their thoughts and even their record of events to assuage the distress of cognitive dissonance? For that, we must travel back to Stanford in the 1950s to examine Festinger's study.

Students at Stanford were recruited with the understanding that they were helping the school to streamline their study design concerning “Measures of Performance.” The students did not realize that they were being observed to determine how they would handle the stress of cognitive dissonance, believing the study to be a measure to improve the research method that the school employed. Each student was paid for their time.

The students were divided into two groups, but one group received a considerably larger reward (which has been adjusted here in this blog post to reflect the disparaging amounts in their contemporary equivalent value). They were then asked to perform two sets of very mundane and meaningless tasks for thirty minutes each, all while a researcher observed them, furiously writing notes which the subjects believed had something to do with how they performed the tasks.

The participants were first asked to organize wooden spools neatly on to a tray, then to dump the tray and repeat the same task again until the first thirty minutes elapsed. They were then asked to turn a series of 48 square pegs that were nested in holes in a table, but to turn them clockwise for a quarter turn only. When finished turning the 48 pegs, they were told to repeat the pointless process until the second set of thirty minutes had elapsed.

Participants were then asked to help the researcher by addressing the next group of subjects by introducing them to the study, making the whole process sound enjoyable. This patently false message can only be considered to be a lie, so this directive increases the level of stress created by the situation. . After all of the steps within the study, a researcher sat with each student and asked them about their feelings about the study itself, whether they believed that they'd helped to elucidate useful information, and if they'd be willing to participate again in the future. 

One group claimed that they enjoyed the study, expressing a very positive feeling about participating and about the value of the investigation. The other group stated in their exit interview that they did not enjoy the tedium of the process or the stress of misleading the new subjects. 

Can you venture a guess about which group said they enjoyed it? Read about the results in the next post.

Further Reading: