When You Don’t Walk Your Talk


Ever had that nagging feeling when you purchased those cool new Nike sneakers launched this week and you realize that you bought a pair from Steve Madden last week and promised to go easy on your pockets, especially after noticing that your credit card statement isn’t dissimilar to Baghdad’s present condition? And when you’re walking out of the outlet, the purchase bag dangling proudly from your hand, your mind is constantly pricking you for your broken promise.

What do you do in this great mental tug-of-war? Do you make another solemn resolution to never fall to this trap again? Or do you decide to sell one of your non-vital organs to redeem your credit limit? Or do you justify to yourself that those sneakers would probably have been taken by somebody else if you didn’t act in time?

Welcome, my friend, to the world of cognitive dissonance.

We all have been there, where we did something foolish or contrary to our opinions and experienced an inner conflict. That itch you get is what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, and it’s an understatement to say that it is an important part of one’s daily life.

First, the obvious why. Simple reason – our brain likes for our thoughts and beliefs to exist in a state of perfect harmony, meaning if
you’re a budding idealistic lawyer starting out in a big firm and you get a case of defending an innocent person, you won’t have a problem. But when you’re handed over the case of someone you find out is guilty, then you’ll be in trouble (and in case the accused turns out to be loony like Robert de Niro from Cape Fear, you’ll be in even bigger trouble). You even consult your firm boss but he sternly insists you carry on with it.

What to do now? There are three ways in which you can tackle this dilemma: first, you can defer the right-or-wrong morality to jury and focus merely on defending your client. Second, you can collect more evidence to persuade your boss that they all point against the client beyond reasonable doubt and the case is a lost cause. Third, you can stick true to your ideals and simply kick down the case (and as a consequence get yourself booted from the firm).

'Resolution' by Randall Munroe, used under CC Attribution Non-commercial license 2.5
Comic courtesy of Randall Munroe, xkcd

The guy who first explained ‘cognitive dissonance’ was Leon Festinger, the luminary psychologist from the previous post. How he became interested in this phenomenon is a riveting tale in itself: Festinger and two of his colleagues once infiltrated an alien worshiping cult, run by a certain Dr. Thomas Armstrong (no relation to the first man on the moon, the disgraced Tour-de-France ex-champion, or even the lead singer of Green Day), and his wife, Marian Keech, who relayed the aliens’ doomsday prophecy of an upcoming flood to their followers and how a mother-ship from outer space would come to rescue the believers (since computers and satellite communication were relatively slower in those days, aliens opted for old-school hippies to transmit their message). Naturally, the cult members gave up their jobs and normal lives and waited for the day of apocalypse. On the prescribed date of flood and ship’s arrival, they all grouped at Dr. Armstrong’s house and waited and waited and waited, but not even a diddly squat came (and to talk about the 2012 scare).

As the time passed by, Festinger observed that the cult members grew more and more apprehensive (who wouldn’t be if they made such a great fool of themselves?), until Marian Keech emerged in an exuberant state and announced that their faith had saved the entire world from a very wet and suffocating death (seems like Pat Robertson took a leaf out of their book to explain his every failed prediction). The cult, which had kept an elitist and low-key profile until then, suddenly opened its gates to media and new recruits.

While the rest of cult members readily swallowed Keech’s ostensible hogwash, Festinger and his colleagues, who had been there just to study cult mentality, found this instant reversal of behavior more intriguing. Their explanation was far more lucid and plausible than the cult leader’s song and dance: because these people had been so strongly committed to their ideas of flood and aliens, their failure to materialize would come at the personal cost of humiliation and disrepute beyond tolerable. This frightening prospect caused them to believe and publicize Keech’s word so zealously, in order to reaffirm their own behavior and choices in public eyes.

So you can see the hold dissonance has over our lives and decisions from the above true story. The weight of this cognitive roadblock depends on the importance of matter at hand, as well as the power and cogency of the conflicting view. While your questionable preference over a T-shirt probably won’t cause brain hemorrhage, the doubts over your morality and faith will definitely become a bee in your bonnet, as it did in the life of several illustrious thinkers and philosophers (the ilk of Descartes, Kierkegaard, Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, Camus, and many more).

After his experience with cult, Festinger devised an experiment to confirm his theory of cognitive dissonance. He brought a bunch of test subjects to a room and made them do all kinds of boring stuff (turning pegs, for instance). Then, he promised to pay them if they could convince a test subject (a hired actor) waiting outside that the activities were fun. Some he paid 20 bucks, while others just 1 dollar. After that, he asked the subjects to rate the activities. Those who were paid just one dollar bill rated them highly than others, confirming Festinger’s theory.

How so, you might be inclined to ask. Obviously, no one in their right mind would find tasks like turning pegs for an hour fascinating. And to add insult to injury, when you’re paid just one dollar to lie about it, you’ll be tempted to punch the payer in face and rebuke him to keep his dollar (that course of action, of course, depends on your cultural refinement). And yet you told the fake guinea pig that you enjoyed those activities. Notice the conflict here? Being paid less alone didn’t justify your admission of the tedious tasks as fun, so your brain concludes that you really must have found those tasks interesting (I know it sounds whacky, but it won’t feel that way when you’re really stuck in dissonance mode. See that for yourself the next time you give in to McChicken despite swearing with the rest of your vegan brotherhood to never touch meat again). Vice-versa, being paid more justifies your behavior, hence you don’t feel the urge to compensate your behavior by unconsciously acknowledging boring as interesting (this manipulation is known as forced compliance behavior, as a matter of fact).

There are several other theories proposed to give alternative explanation of the phenomenon (like self-perception theory, balance theory, cost benefit analysis and others), but none of them hold candle to the elegance and simplicity of Festinger’s theory (and I’m certainly not wasting any pixel on them either, but you can read about them here if you want).

One view I’ll discuss (like I always do) is of neuroscience. The findings from fMRI scan of a variation of Festinger’s experiment reveal that when attitudes and actual behavior mismatch, then anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insular cortex activated. The former is associated with functions like decision making, impulse control and reward expectations, while latter regulates emotional and homeostatic functions. The more dissonant the thoughts became, the more these regions fired up, meaning more of subjects’ attitudes transformed to justify their behavior, thus confirming Festinger’s original theory. Besides, another study found that when one tries to reduce dissonance, activity in right-inferior frontal gyrus, medial fronto-parietal region and ventral striatum increased while decreasing in the anterior insular cortex. Translation for muggles: reconciliation between dissonant thoughts happen almost spontaneously and without even deliberate effort, which means that our attitudes automatically align to justify our behavior without us trying.

Now that you’re familiar with basic mechanics of cognitive dissonance, let’s get to the fun part – it’s applications. The most important arenas it finds its applications are in decision making (and not necessarily in terms of economics alone) and effort justification.

Let’s say you’re offered admission by both Harvard and Stanford. Both are pretty big and highly esteemed names, and you’ve been hoping to get offer from either. Now you’ve got both, but with a catch: you’re interested in pursuing computer science, and you know Stanford offers better programs and opportunities relevant to your interests. But Harvard’s curriculum isn’t that bad, too. Besides, you get the added benefit of saving extra bucks, since the university is in close proximity to your residence. What to do?

I won’t tell you which one you should select, that’s up to you. But once you’ve defined your choice clear-cut with no backsies, you’ll rate the university you pick much higher than the other. You’ll even explain your choice to others by highlighting all its virtues (or by nitpicking the other university’s faults). That’s how cognitive dissonance works when you make decisions – you’ll always prefer your deliberate choice.

Another exhibit: one always cherishes something they worked really hard to get, whether good grades or FIFA world cup trophy, everybody knows. But what happens if you fail to get the prize despite your immense efforts? If you get depressed to the point of self-abuse, or worse, suicide, you’ll laugh it off by saying stuff like ‘journey is more important than the end‘ or ‘experience itself was rewarding enough for me‘. And that’s what effort justification is all about.

Put your money where your mouth is. No I’m not quoting some rap lyrics, but an old adage advising to act true to your words. And when you don’t, well, you know now what happens then. When we’re not too careful in daily life, the money may end up jamming in our nostril instead (and that’s hardly ever a pleasant sensation). And when you become a master at incorporating dissonance in your everyday life, congratulations – you’ve made it to senator.