Say you agree to take part in an experiment, as part of it you’re asked to do this mind-numbingly dull task that involves you turning little spindly things for an hour and which doesn’t seem to have any real purpose. After you finish, the guy running the experiment asks you to enthuse about how enjoyable you found the spindle spinning, and he offers to pay you either $1 or $20 if you agree. Once you’ve done your level best to tell the poor chump who’s next how fan-dabbydosy the experiment was, the experimenter asks how enjoyable you found the study. Do you rate it differently depending on how much they paid for your enthusiastic feedback?

Cognitive dissonance theory says that if they paid you less, you would rate the dull task more positively than if you are paid more. You knew the task wasn’t fun, but you went for it when you told that poor sap how great it was. Why did you do that? Well, being offered $20 gives you an excuse – you did it for the monies. But if you only got $1, that’s not really enough to explain it.

There’s a gap between your values (not being a false person) and your behaviour (lying about how fab that task was) and if you can’t easily explain it, this makes you feel uncomfortable. Your brain is then likely to accommodate this by rating the task as better – you weren’t lying, you actually did think it was a pretty fun way to waste an hour.

That uncomfortable feeling that’s a result of the threat to a person’s sense of self and values is what is called ‘cognitive dissonance’ and is a fairly strong motivator.

There are a few ways of reducing it, or that it can influence us.

Say that recently you were informed that you’re at risk of developing diabetes because of your diet. You value your health, but you fancy eating some chocolate cake which has created an uncomfortable feeling. Here are the likely options to reduce this dissonance:

Stronghold: Devalue the new information

One option is to reject the contradictory information by devaluing its importance. You’ve only got a 60% of developing diabetes in the next 20 years, and 60% isn’t that big, right? So, you put the new information in a little, locked box inside your head and continue as usual. You eat the cake.

Justify: Add further information

You’ve done some research and found that actually, it’s more like a 20% chance you have because, yeah while your dad and uncle both developed Type II diabetes, that was because they were always eating McDonald’s, and you never eat McDonald’s. You eat the cake.

Change your behaviour/cognition

Somehow the cake doesn’t look so tasty now that it’s a possible gateway to making some major lifestyle changes and after all, you’re the kind of person who does value their health, especially after seeing what your dad went through. The discomfort that you feel is a significant motivator that encourages your behaviour. You don’t eat the cake.

Pink iced cake on a cake stand

The example of the spindle spinning experiment comes from one of the first studies done into the theory (Festinger 1957). I always love reading the write-ups of these kinds of studies (social psychology studies from the 50s-60s). The kind that involves the experimenter playing a part and describing it in detail: ‘Oh rats, the normal guy that usually explains how great the experiment is called in sick, would you mind… I mean… could you possibly tell the guy outside that the experiment is swell and you had a great time? I’ll pay you ($1/$20).”

In this post, I’ve given a brief description of cognitive dissonance. In my next post, I’ll be explaining how it applies to and influences our ‘self’ and dissonance can be reduced without us realising.

Have you ever been conscious of experiencing dissonance, where you’ve known that the way that you acted wasn’t in-line with your values or how you see yourself? Let me know in the comments below, or over on Twitter.

Want to read more?

Interested in social psychology? You can read about social influence in my previous posts or about how we can better understand our world through stories.

If you’re interested in reading about psychology and writing, or psychology and social media you might want to take a look at my other posts on social influence and social media. Or how reading reviews might change your opinions before you know what they are.