Human beings hate conflict. Though this statement may seem funny when you look at all of the interpersonal conflicts that occur amongst us, it holds incredibly true for our own internal states. What do I mean by this? Well, “cognitive dissonance,” or more simply put a mismatch between what you think and how you act. In the 1950s, Leon Festinger and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments to examine how humans react when their attitudes and cognitions become discordonant with their behavior (Harmon-Jones & Mills, 2019). Today we are going to examine the results of one of his more famous experiments!
In 1959, Festinger and Carlsmith set out to investigate how people react when their attitudes and perceptions do not match their behaviors. The investigators recruited around 70 students from an introductory psychology course at Stanford University to serve as participants. In the experiment, participants were required to perform an incredibly boring and tedious task. Afterwards, each participant was asked if they would talk to the next participant that was coming in (although the “next participant” was secretly a research assistant who recorded the conversations) and tell them how fun and exciting the experiment was. 1 group of participants was given $1 to do this, while the other group was given $20 to do it. The question the experimenters sought to answer was whether the $1 group or $20 group would be the most positive and enthusiastic about the experiment to the “next participant.”
Interestingly enough, the $1 group reported significantly more positive descriptions of the experiment than the $20 group. But what does this mean and how does this have anything to do with cognitive dissonance? By making a tedious and boring experiment, the researchers assumed that all of the participants did not enjoy the experiment. By asking the participants to lie about their experience to the “new participant” the researchers create a state of cognitive dissonance where the participant’s actions and cognitions do not line up. Individuals who were paid $20 could justify this dissonance as that amount of money was reason enough to lie. Individuals who were paid $1 were unable to justify lying, so instead their actual cognitions about the experiment became more positive.
While there may be some assumptions made in this experiment, the conceptual aspects have held to scrutiny. This being that individuals are more likely to alter their thoughts and attitudes to match their behaviors than change their behaviors to match their thoughts and attitudes (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1957).. This commonly plays out in our day-to-day lives. For example, many smokers understand that cigarettes are harmful to their health, however they cannot stop their behaviors. In order to resolve this dissonance many smokers will change their cognitions. They may look for articles that suggest that smoking is not as bad as they say (Mcleod, 2007). By understanding how we handle cognitive dissonance we can work to ensure that we act in a way that is meaningful to our beliefs!