Monday, May 27, 2013

Following Ourselves: Cognitive Dissonance and why behavior change is sticky

Image: Smoker in front of a hospital
Image: Smoker in front of a hospital
(Source: Twelves' photostream on Flicker)

# 3 in the Series "Applied Social Psychology" 

by Leo Walsh

Human beings are strange creatures. Despite what we think, we behave in odd, irrational ways. 

One thing that has always amazed me is how loyal people can be to decisions that they have made in the past. We all like to be consistent. If you've always purchased Acme brand detergent, you always will.

And advertisers and politicians use this mental inertia to manipulate us into taking actions or buying things that are frequently not in our best interest. And quite often, we as people are unable to change our behaviors. This tendency to maintain consistency to avoid the pain and embarrassment of being wrong is what Psychologists call "Cognitive Dissonance."

1. Leon Festiger's Classic Experiment on Consistency

Leon Festiger, a professor of psychology at MIT, ran a classic social psychology experiment in 1959. As always, the experiment was set up like a classic confidence game. In this one, "Pasty" is the subject. And the experimenter is "Conman." ...

The Con runs like this...

  1. Conman gives Patsy mind-numbingly dull task to do involving blocks.
  2. After the task is complete, he asks for Patsy's aid.
  3. If Patsy says "yes," which is normal, Conman says, "You know, I need someone to introduce the task to the next Patsy. My normal helper did not show up today. If you do not mind helping me out, all you have to do is introduce the task you've just completed as being wonderful."
  4. Patsy did as instructed.
Then comes the con (AKA - experimental manipulation)...
  • Half of the Patsies were paid a $20 retainer (~ $160 in 2013 dollars)  for helping
  • The others were paid a $1 retainer (~$8 in 2013 dollars) for helping.

About a week later, Conman called the Patsies back in. And had another experimenter -- his "Plant," -- quiz the students about their experiences.


  • Highly paid Patsies were more likely to be honest.
  • The Patsies paid $1, on the other hand, were more likely to describe the experience as Conman instructed. "It was wonderful! Not boring at all!"

Festinger hypothesized that since there was little monetary reward for them, lower paid people had to justify the advocacy that they displayed to the other experimental subjects to themselves. And thus, they believed even harder since they had little to show for their efforts.

The Bottom Line

You may want to pay attention to this phenomenon if you are ever invited to a multi-level-marketing (MLM) event. A rational examination of the products will show you that they are good products. But priced much higher than similar products in the store.

And a careful "grilling" of anyone selling the MLM will show you that 99% of the people in the program make nearly nothing.

However, the ones with little success are the ones most dedicated to the product being sold. Even though they are getting very little benefit from the MLM.

And, since they're you're friend, you're likely not going to get up and leave. After all, you have manners -- yet another con the MLM is running on you...

Dan Arielly, economics professor at Duke University, and author of the popular book on behavioral economics, Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, goes on at considerable length about this. And how truly irrational and disastrous to our own self-interest this behavior can become. Once we make a decision, we cease being rational. And tend to follow that groove.

He illustrates the point with the rapid growth of Starbucks. Their coffee is quite expensive. And pretty good -- though McDonald's and Wendy's coffee continuously wins in taste tests despite costing less. But even if you know that, once you make the switch, it is hard to switch away from Starbucks.

In short, you are not acting rationally. You are not working to "maximize the utility of your dollar expenditure" as classical economics theory would predict.

Why? According to Dr. Areielly, "You become the sort of person who goes to Starbucks. So you blindly continue going to Starbucks." Even though you are spending a lot more and getting less than the patrons at McDonald's.

 Sigh. I love humans. We are a great lot generally.

But there are times when we make no sense... =)

Some Online Resources.

The funny case of Harold Camping 

Camping is a fundamentalist preacher who has predicted the end of the word several times. Been wrong. And yet merely "changes the date." As if the date was inconsequential, and questioning his underlying beliefs impossible. 
A video on the Festinger Experiments

A video about Mindless Consistency from the Behavioral Economics perspective

Other installments in the "Applied Social Psychology Series"

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