Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Cognitive Dissonance: How Our Brains Decide What We Like

Here's a common example of cognitive dissonance: Say a person does something that they know is dangerous or harmful, and while they like doing that particular thing, they also know that they don't want the negative effects. Now they have two pieces of information in their mind that don't make sense together: the fact that they do an activity and the knowledge that that activity is harmful.  The dissonance, or disagreement, between these two pieces of information causes negative psychological tension in their mind. The easiest way to reduce that tension is for the person to come up with a reason for why they still do the activity in spite of their knowledge, which usually involves telling themselves that the activity isn't actually that bad.

Cognitive dissonance is present in many aspects of our lives, when we're not even aware of it.  A theory that relates to cognitive dissonance is the self-perception theory. If someone asked you whether your friend likes the color blue, you wouldn't have access to your friend's thoughts - you would make a judgement based on what you have observed of your friend - the fact that they wear a lot of blue, carry a blue backpack, or that they told you they liked blue.  The self-perception theory states that when someone asks you a question about yourself, you formulate your answer the same way you would if you were asked about a friend.  In other words, we don't have conscious access to lists in our brains of everything we like and don't like - we look at our past behavior to determine whether we like something or not.  So when someone asks you if you like the color blue, you base your answer on your behavior, on whether you have a blue wardrobe, blue walls, blue backpack, etc. The very act of buying a blue sweater or painting your room blue helps to construct the idea that you like blue.

If self-perception theory is true, then we run into an obvious problem - what happens when you do something that you don't really want to do? Can the act of doing something make you think you like it, when you really don't? In social psych class, we read a study on cognitive dissonance in which participants were asked to do a tedious task of turning pegs in circles, then rate how enjoyable the task was. Participants were then told that as part of the study, they had to tell another person that the task was really fun and engaging. In scenario A, participants were paid $20 to tell the person that the task was fun, and in scenario B, they were paid only $1. When asked a second time to rate how enjoyable the task was, the participants who got $20 maintained that it was boring, but those who got $1 rated the task as more enjoyable than they did the first time.

The explanation? Cognitive dissonance. The disagreement between your actions and how you really feel. The fact that you thought the task was boring but told someone else it was fun. In your subconscious, making $20 is a good reason to say something was fun when it wasn't. But saying a task was fun to earn only $1? That's not a strong enough reason. Even if you know logically that you only did something because you were told to, your subconscious just doesn't process it that way. And if you don't have a strong enough reason for your subconscious to explain your behavior, you experience cognitive dissonance: your mind figures that you must have liked that boring task after all, since you told someone else it was fun.

The act of choosing something reinforces the fact that you like it, and can cause you to convince yourself that you like something when you really don't. The more freedom you perceive yourself to have, the more likely you are to convince yourself that you're happy with your choice, because otherwise, you wouldn't have chosen it. Here are some real-life examples:

If you're required to take specific classes you don't like in order to graduate from high school, it's pretty easy to maintain the fact that you don't like them, because you have a very strong reason for taking them anyway. In college, you also have certain requirements, but you have a lot more choices. Let's say you hate history, but your college requires you to take a history class. You may find your college class just as boring as high school history, but you're more likely to convince yourself that you do like it, because you chose it. You chose to take that particular history class. Maybe none of the choices interested you. Maybe you just don't have 4-5 classes that you're interested in each semester. But your subconscious can't process that. In your subconscious, you still feel that the classes were your choice, and you therefore must like them.

Peer pressure is a major source of cognitive dissonance. Even if you know logically that you only joined that club out of peer pressure, it's not a strong enough reason for your subconscious, because the club wasn't technically required. You aren't gaining anything quantifiable for joining or losing anything quantifiable for not joining. Your subconscious convinces you that you like it. You may get yourself really invested in something before you come to terms with that fact that it isn't your thing.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when you lie; saying something often enough to other people can start to make you believe it yourself, even if all you're saying is, "Yeah, I like this activity/class/job," because it's the socially acceptable response to give.

Cognitive dissonance is present other people's expectations of you. Anything you don't want to do that falls into that recommended-but-not-required category is extremely prone to the effects of cognitive dissonance. Expectations that you'll go away to college, get a particular job, marry a person of the opposite sex, etc. can easily lead you to believe that you want these things when you don't.

Cognitive dissonance is prevalent in procrastination. If you want to do something but keep putting it off, every day that goes by that that you don't do it helps to convince you that you don't really want to do it, because that fact that you want to do it is inconsistent with the fact that you haven't done it.

Cognitive dissonance inhibits people from getting themselves out of situations they don't want to be in. Not abusive situations where getting out is dangerous, just times when you think, "This really isn't where I want to be." Of course there are many other factors involved, but the simple fact that you are in the situation, especially if you chose to enter the situation, makes it harder for you to come to terms with the fact that you want to get out.
Cognitive dissonance is everywhere, and it's something to be aware of when you're making decisions. People often tell you to trust your instincts, but the truth is that your instincts may not always be in your best interest. Pressure and expectations can invade your subconscious, so that going with your "gut" will not necessarily mean that you are making the choice you really want to make. Sometimes it's better to organize your thoughts on paper, to think logically about what you really want and to separate that from any pressure you may be feeling to do something else, and any reasons you may have come up with to convince yourself of something different. Write down those explanations your mind has constructed to reconcile the cognitive dissonance in your brain, and decide for yourself whether those explanations are real to you. Because your subconscious, your "instinct" can be fooled.

Some cognitive dissonance will always be present in our lives, but I hope that if we're aware of it when it really matters, we can set it aside and make the choices that are right for us.

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