Monday, January 07, 2013

The dust in my eyes


In my last blog I wrote about the theory of cognitive dissonance. Say, we expect that the world will be destructed on December 21, 2012. However, the prophecy does not come true and two weeks later the world still exists. We feel quite ill at ease and we try to understand what went wrong. We think: A supreme being has given the world a second chance. Therefore we try to convince the people around us that the world can be saved. According to the theory of cognitive dissonance, we try then to reduce the dissonance between our expectation and what actually happened.
Suppose now that I am waiting for the train of 10.05 a.m. to Utrecht, where I’ll have an interview for a job. However, the train doesn’t come nor does the next one fifteen minutes later. So, I call the Railway Information Service. The telephonist tells me that there is a power breakdown and that there’ll be no trains for some hours. Next I call the selection committee that I’ll be too late, since I have to take my car.
What’s the difference? When you don´t belief in the prophecy, you’ll probably say: In the first case, the facts are adapted to the belief and in the second case the belief is adapted to the facts. Or something like that.
That’s clear, you might think. Is it? Take these examples:
- Many years ago I took part in a 5K track race (running). One of the other participants was a friend of mine. I finished the race in a good time but my friend left the race already after two laps. “I wasn’t in the mood”, he told me, although it took hem three hours of preparation to start, for the race was in another town. Do you believe him? I think that my friend himself believed what he said, but I didn’t, for he would be the first to stop for such a reason.
- You want to buy a new car. You always said: When I buy a new car, it must be a yellow one, because not many people have that colour.” However, the salesman tells you that you have to wait two months for it. Because your old car actually needs repair, you don’t want to wait so long and you choose a grey one of the same type. Later you say to yourself: A grey one fits me much better. Everybody would recognize me from far and say: “There’s John with his yellow car.”
- Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith asked a group of students to perform a boring task. The experiment was in fact more complicated, but the essence is this: After having performed the task, the students were asked to explain it to other people and to tell them that it was very interesting. Half of the students got one dollar for this job and the other half got twenty dollars. When interviewed, the latter told the researchers that the original task was boring, while those who got one dollar said they liked it. Apparently, receiving twenty dollars this was a good excuse for telling a lie. However, the students who received only one dollar had a mental problem: The low payment did not compensate the psychological burden lying. So they got the feeling that the original task was interesting.
Without a doubt, I could have chosen better examples, but what I want to say is this: Often we invent reasons that fit the facts after they have taken place. Moreover, there is no fundamental distinction between reducing a cognitive dissonance and giving a “real” explanation. Or rather, the extreme cases are clearly different and in case of a cognitive dissonance the facts are adapted to the belief whereas in case of “real” explanations the reasons are adapted to the facts. But between these extremes, the reasons can be more a bit of this or more a bit of that. There the difference is actually gradual and reducing a cognitive dissonance is something everybody often does to some extent. Something happens that we did not expect or did not want to happen and we have to act or form an opinion. So we rationalize. However, this doesn’t imply that we throw dust in our own eyes. This may happen but often our reasons are good reasons.
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Since I have heard of the theory of cognitive dissonance I often think: Is this thought of mine a case of cognitive dissonance reduction or do I really mean it?

Note: For the research by Festinger and Carlsmith see http://explorable.com/cognitive-dissonance-experiment.html.

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