A Freudian slip, as the joke goes, is when you say one thing but mean your mother. Cognitive dissonance, a more verifiable psychological conceit, is when you say one thing but think another. Jokes aside, cognitive dissonance refers to the mental conflict that arises when one’s actions are inconsistent with one’s beliefs. A classic example of cognitive dissonance can be seen in people who continue to smoke despite knowing the associated health risks. The discomfort arising from cognitive dissonance often leads one to alter their beliefs or their actions in order to resolve the tension.
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The theory of cognitive dissonance was first proposed by Leon Festinger in the 1950s. In 1956 Festinger and several colleagues published When Prophecy Fails, a psychological study of a UFO cult called The Seekers. When Prophecy Fails relates how members of The Seekers reacted when the doomsday prophecies of leader Dorothy Martin (called Marian Keech in the book) failed. Festinger and his co-authors found that individuals either retrenched their belief in the cult or rejected it in order to resolve the conflict between their beliefs and observed reality.
THE FORBIDDEN TOY STUDY
Several years later Aronson and Carlsmith conducted an experiment on children known as the Forbidden Toy Study. The study examined self-justification of behavior. Study participants were placed in a room with several toys. Half of the children were told that they would be severely punished if they played with a highly desirable toy, and the other half were told they would only be mildly punished. When the threat of punishment was removed, however, even the children who had been mildly threatened avoided the desirable toy. The children had convinced themselves the toy was not worth playing with in order to resolve the dissonance between their behavior (avoiding the toy) and their beliefs (that they would no longer be punished for it).
FORCED COMPLIANCE STUDY
Festinger and Carlsmith conducted a landmark 1959 study examining cognitive dissonance. In the study participants performed a mundane task: turning small spools of thread a quarter clockwise turn. Some participants received no pay for their time, some received $1 and others received $20. Following the task, participants were asked to rate how enjoyable the task was. Interestingly, participants who received $1 rated the task as more enjoyable than those who received $20. This suggested that for those participants $1 was not enough to justify performing the mundane task, forcing them to rationalize their participation to resolve cognitive dissonance by perceiving the task as “enjoyable”. This behavior is known as forced or induced compliance.
Festinger explored how decision making can create cognitive dissonance in a 1956 study. Study participants rated 8 appliances in terms of their desirability. Following this initial rating, participants were told that they could choose between two of the appliances to take home. Participants were then asked to rate the items again. The participants increased the rating of their chosen appliance and decreased the rating of the rejected one. Making the choice caused cognitive dissonance, and patients had to modify their ratings to explain their behavior (picking one appliance over another).
Self-perception theory is an explanatory theory of human behavior in opposition to cognitive dissonance. First developed by Daryl Bem, self-perception theory maintains that we develop our attitudes and opinions by observing our own behavior and drawing conclusions. Whereas cognitive dissonance suggests that there is often conflict between attitude and behavior, self-perception theory claims there is congruence.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
Read this article to learn more about The Seekers, the UFO cult that helped inspire Festinger’s theories.
This article has a helpful overview of self-perception theory and how it differs from cognitive dissonance.
The idea of cognitive dissonance can be hard to wrap your head around. This video offers several practical examples of cognitive dissonance.
Check out this video to see footage from Festinger and Carlsmith’s Forced Compliance study.
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