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How and Why We Lie to Ourselves

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posted on Sep, 2 2009 @ 03:09 PM
Second installment...enjoy.

Cognitive Dissonance

A classic 1959 social psychology experiment demonstrates how and why we lie to ourselves. Understanding this experiment sheds a brilliant light on the dark world of our inner motivations.

The ground-breaking social psychological experiment of Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) provides a central insight into the stories we tell ourselves about why we think and behave the way we do. The experiment is filled with ingenious deception so the best way to understand it is to imagine you are taking part. So sit back, relax and travel back. The time is 1959 and you are an undergraduate student at Stanford University...

As part of your course you agree to take part in an experiment on 'measures of performance'. You are told the experiment will take two hours. As you are required to act as an experimental subject for a certain number of hours in a year - this will be two more of them out of the way.

Little do you know, the experiment will actually become a classic in social psychology. And what will seem to you like accidents by the experimenters are all part of a carefully controlled deception. For now though, you are innocent.

The set-up

Once in the lab you are told the experiment is about how your expectations affect the actual experience of a task. Apparently there are two groups and in the other group they have been given a particular expectation about the study. To instil the expectation subtly, the participants in the other groups are informally briefed by a student who has apparently just completed the task. In your group, though, you'll do the task with no expectations.

Perhaps you wonder why you're being told all this, but nevertheless it makes it seem a bit more exciting now that you know some of the mechanics behind the experiment.
So you settle down to the first task you are given, and quickly realise it is extremely boring. You are asked to move some spools around in a box for half an hour, then for the next half an hour you move pegs around a board. Frankly, watching paint dry would have been preferable.

At the end of the tasks the experimenter thanks you for taking part, then tells you that many other people find the task pretty interesting. This is a little confusing - the task was very boring. Whatever. You let it pass.

Experimental slip-up

Then the experimenter looks a little embarrassed and starts to explain haltingly that there's been a cock-up. He says they need your help. The participant coming in after you is in the other condition they mentioned before you did the task - the condition in which they have an expectation before carrying out the task. This expectation is that the task is actually really interesting. Unfortunately the person who usually sets up their expectation hasn't turned up.

So, they ask if you wouldn't mind doing it. Not only that but they offer to pay you $1. Because it's 1959 and you're a student this is not completely insignificant for only a few minutes work. And, they tell you that they can use you again in the future. It sounds like easy money so you agree to take part. This is great - what started out as a simple fulfilment of a course component has unearthed a little ready cash for you.

You are quickly introduced to the next participant who is about to do the same task you just completed. As instructed you tell her that the task she's about to do is really interesting. She smiles, thanks you and disappears off into the test room. You feel a pang of regret for getting her hopes up. Then the experimenter returns, thanks you again, and once again tells you that many people enjoy the task and hopes you found it interesting.

Then you are ushered through to another room where you are interviewed about the experiment you've just done. One of the questions asks you about how interesting the task was that you were given to do. This makes you pause for a minute and think.

Now it seems to you that the task wasn't as boring as you first thought. You start to see how even the repetitive movements of the spools and pegs had a certain symmetrical beauty. And it was all in the name of science after all. This was a worthwhile endeavour and you hope the experimenters get some interesting results out of it.

The task still couldn't be classified as great fun, but perhaps it wasn't that bad. You figure that, on reflection, it wasn't as bad as you first thought. You rate it moderately interesting.

After the experiment you go and talk to your friend who was also doing the experiment. Comparing notes you found that your experiences were almost identical except for one vital difference. She was offered way more than you to brief the next student: $20! This is when it first occurs to you that there's been some trickery at work here.

You ask her about the task with the spools and pegs:

"Oh," she replies. "That was sooooo boring, I gave it the lowest rating possible."

"No," you insist. "It wasn't that bad. Actually when you think about it, it was pretty interesting."

She looks at you incredulously.

What the hell is going on?

Cognitive dissonance

What you've just experienced is the power of cognitive dissonance. Social psychologists studying cognitive dissonance are interested in the way we deal with two thoughts that contradict each other - and how we deal with this contradiction.

In this case: you thought the task was boring to start off with then you were paid to tell someone else the task was interesting. But, you're not the kind of person to casually go around lying to people. So how can you resolve your view of yourself as an honest person with lying to the next participant? The amount of money you were paid hardly salves your conscience - it was nice but not that nice.

Your mind resolves this conundrum by deciding that actually the study was pretty interesting after all. You are helped to this conclusion by the experimenter who tells you other people also thought the study was pretty interesting.

Your friend, meanwhile, has no need of these mental machinations. She merely thinks to herself: I've been paid $20 to lie, that's a small fortune for a student like me, and more than justifies my fibbing. The task was boring and still is boring whatever the experimenter tells me.

posted on Sep, 2 2009 @ 03:11 PM
A beautiful theory

Since this experiment numerous studies of cognitive dissonance have been carried out and the effect is well-established. Its beauty is that it explains so many of our everyday behaviours. Here are some examples provided by Morton Hunt in his classic work 'The Story of Psychology':

• When trying to join a group, the harder they make the barriers to entry, the more you value your membership. To resolve the dissonance between the hoops you were forced to jump through, and the reality of what turns out to be a pretty average club, we convince ourselves the club is, in fact, fantastic.
• People will interpret the same information in radically different ways to support their own views of the world. When deciding our view on a contentious point, we conveniently forget what jars with our own theory and remember everything that fits.
• People quickly adjust their values to fit their behaviour, even when it is clearly immoral. Those stealing from their employer will claim that "Everyone does it" so they would be losing out if they didn't, or alternatively that "I'm underpaid so I deserve a little extra on the side."

Once you start to think about it, the list of situations in which people resolve cognitive dissonance through rationalisations becomes ever longer and longer. If you're honest with yourself, I'm sure you can think of many times when you've done it yourself. I know I can.

Being aware of this can help us avoid falling foul of the most dangerous consequences of cognitive dissonance: believing our own lies.

When Prophecy Fails

An early version of cognitive dissonance theory appeared in Leon Festinger's 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails. This book gave an inside account of belief persistence in members of a UFO doomsday cult, and documented the increased proselytization they exhibited after the leader's "end of the world" prophecy failed to come true.

The prediction of the Earth's destruction, supposedly sent by aliens to the leader of the group, became a disconfirmed expectancy that caused dissonance between the cognitions, "the world is going to end" and "the world did not end."

Although some members abandoned the group when the prophecy failed, most of the members lessened their dissonance by accepting a new belief, that the planet was spared because of the faith of the group.

Postdecision dissonance

In a different type of experiment conducted by Jack Brehm, 225 female students rated a series of common appliances and were then allowed to choose one of two appliances to take home as a gift. A second round of ratings showed that the participants increased their ratings of the item they chose, and lowered their ratings of the rejected item.

This can be explained in terms of cognitive dissonance. When making a difficult decision, there are always aspects of the rejected choice that one finds appealing and these features are dissonant with choosing something else. In other words, the cognition, "I chose X" is dissonant with the cognition, "There are some things I like about Y." More recent research has found similar results in four-year-old children and capuchin monkeys.

Buyer's remorse, when evidence exists that it is justified, is a classical example of cognitive dissonance.

Buyer's remorse is an emotional condition whereby a person feels remorse or regret after a purchase. It is frequently associated with the purchase of higher value items which could be considered unnecessary although it may also stem from a sense of not wishing to be "wrong".

In the phase before purchasing, a prospective buyer often feels positive emotions associated with a purchase (desire, a sense of heightened possibilities, and an intimation of the enjoyment that will accompany using the product, for example); afterwards, having made the purchase, they are more fully able to experience the negative aspects: all the opportunity costs of the purchase, and a reduction in purchasing power.

Also, before the purchase, the buyer has a full array of options, including not purchasing; afterwards, their options have been reduced to two: a) continuing with the purchase, surrendering all alternatives, or b) renouncing the purchase.[dubious – discuss]

Buyer's remorse can also be caused or increased by worrying that other people may later question the purchase or claim to know better alternatives.

Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 58, 203-10.

Examples in the news......

The psychological cost of Christmas

'Make someone happy'

Shopping does have an element of happiness about it.
But it can also sometimes be inked to a feeling of uncomfortable tension derived from experiencing conflicting thoughts - "Can I really afford this?" - and the need to satisfy one's generosity - "It will really make someone happier at Christmas if I buy it".

This feeling of uncomfortable tension as a result of conflicting thoughts and actions has been explained as "cognitive dissonance" by psychologists.
This is particularly relevant in festive shopping when personal finances are being stretched.

At Christmas, people are challenged with what can be considered to be a moral form of cognitive dissonance, when people are torn between balancing their finances and the wish to make others and themselves happier - which is the societal expectation of what Christmas is really all about.
Knowing they may well not be able to afford what they are buying, people freely enter into transactions encouraged by heavy marketing influences.
And they will try to reduce their internal psychological conflict in order to justify their actions.

They will explain that their happiness and that of others is more important than their debt, that others cannot do without when people around them are receiving and being happy and that, above all, Christmas is a time for giving and sharing and the spirit of Christmas should be encouraged in a time of nationwide gloom.

First Installment - The Halo Effect

posted on Oct, 26 2009 @ 10:48 AM

6 Reasons Why We Lie

We all lie, but why do we lie? Sure, lying is both useful and sometimes even fun, yet there are fundamental reasons why we lie.

These main reasons are:

Fear of harm: The easiest reason to understand why we lie is for self protection, including self deception, to prevent harm to ourselves. This harm can be either physical or mental.

Fear of conflict: To some degree, we all fear having an argument.

Fear of punishment: When growing up, how often did we lie about how well we did in school, or who started a fight? How often do we cover up our mistakes and transgressions?

Fear of rejection: Sometimes, our insecurities are the foundation of why we lie to each other, because we want to be remain popular in our relationships. Typically, it is harmless boasting to make ourselves appear more admirable to other people.

Fear of loss: This is usually the loss of personal objects, such as money or expensive valuables. Greed is the foundation for this reason and can be found in each of us. We often lie to make ourselves more desirable to other people too. Most common, people lie for fear of losing an opportunity to have sex. Other times, when our self esteem starts to decline, we even lie to ourselves as means to prevent loss of morale.

Altruistic Reasons: We often lie to help our friends and loved ones. How often do we flattery someone just to make them feel better? This is the only selfless reason why we lie.

Despite all the technical reasons why people lie, it all boils down to this:

The fundamental reason why people lie is because it mostly works.

And because lying has become more understood in today’s society, lying has become more acceptable. It has sometimes even become an admirable and useful social skill.

That is the Truth about Lies.


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