Archive for February, 2013

Me For a Member: Cognitive Dissonance and Rationalization

February 28, 2013 5 comments

“I would never belong to any club that would have me for a member.”Groucho Marx


Grouchoicon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A group of mediocre, boring people get together and decide that they want to form a club that features strong barriers to entry; very few other people can get in without a rigorous acceptance process. We outsiders see only the near impossibility of joining this group and start thinking: “Hey, the members of this group must be cooler than they seem.”

I want to point you in the direction of the excellent PsyBlog, the blog to which this one aspires. I search through PsyBlog from time to time when I’m coming up on deadline and desperate for inspiration. I found this gem detailing a 1959 Stanford sociology study that went down in history. I’ll summarize it, but I strongly suggest reading their excellent briefing to get the full flavor.

A student is asked to take part in an experiment having to do with comparing expectations to reality. He is told that he will be assigned a task, and will set about performing the task with no preset expectations. Another similar group of participants, he is told, will have to complete the same task, but will be told about the nature of the task beforehand.

The task is assigned, and the student goes at it. The task is mind-numbingly boring. Something like moving pegs around a board for a half hour.

As the participant finished and is about to leave, the experimenter throws in a curveball: there’s another student coming in who will participate next, and she is part of the group that’s supposed to be told about the experiment beforehand. The person who is supposed to brief this new participant has not turned up. The experimenter asked if our student, before he leaves, will brief the next student and tell her that the experiment task was really interesting. There’s a dollar in it for him if he does (this is 1959). Our student goes and tells the next student that the task was, indeed, very interesting (even though it was not). The experimenter returns, gives the promised dollar, and states incidentally that other participants have, in fact, found the task to be interesting.

One last step: our student is ushered into another room and interviewed about the experiment. Inexplicably, he tells his interviewer that parts of the task really were kind of interesting. It couldn’t have been all that boring after all, could it?

After the experiment is over, the student confers with a friend and finds out that she went through almost the exact same process. One difference: she was given $20 to tell the other student how interesting the experiment was.

Our guy says, “It really was kind of interesting, don’t you think? I rated it high.”

His friend says, “What are you kidding? It was so boring! I rated it the lowest I could. How could you have thought that was interesting?”

So why would the person paid only $1.00 to lie about a boring task actually start to believe it was interesting, whereas the person paid $20 to do the same thing accurately remembered how boring the task really was? Read more…