Friday, March 30, 2012

Cognitive Dissonance: How We Understand Each Other

In my last entry on Cognitive Dissonance, one thing I didn't address was how cognitive dissonance affects our understanding of other people.

Before I even learned about cognitive dissonance, I noticed how people's behaviors affect other people's assumptions. Let's say someone is planning a ski trip and inviting friends to come with them. The mountain they are going to has free lessons for beginners. Friend A has never tried skiing and doesn't think they would be into it. Friend B has tried skiing and didn't like it. Who do you think will get more peer pressure to go on the ski trip?

In my experience: Friend B. It doesn't make sense logically - you would think that the person who hasn't tried would get more pressure to try, and that the person who has skied before would have more authority in stating that skiing isn't their thing. But I have experienced this time and time again. People always accepted the fact that camping wasn't my thing back when I hadn't tried it. Once I went on a camping trip for college orientation and learned that I really hate camping, people weren't as accepting about my not liking it. It was always, "But you went on the orientation trip! And when I said that I hated my orientation trip, people would respond with, "But you must have liked some of it. What about this part? What about that part?" The fact that I went on one camping trip has made people challenge me when I say that I don't like it. The same was true for drinking - back when I didn't drink at all, people accepted that I didn't drink. But once I tried drinking and found that I didn't like it, I got a lot more pressure to keep trying.

It's not logical, but it could be cognitive dissonance. The same way that our own behaviors affect our likes and dislikes, perhaps other people's behavior's affect the way we see them - that when someone says, "I don't like coffee" when you've seen them drink coffee to be polite, you experience cognitive dissonance because what they're saying is inconsistent with what you've seen, so your brain decides that the person must like coffee in spite of what they're telling you.

The best thing we can do is just believe our friends when they tell us something, even if our minds are telling us otherwise. Your friend wouldn't tell you that they don't want to go skiing with you if they actually did want to go.

Encouragement vs. Pressure

What some people consider encouragement, I consider pressure. I'm all for encouraging people to go after things that they want, but it's important to make sure that the other person really wants something before encouraging them to do it, because if you encourage someone to do something that they're unsure of, that's when the encouragement turns into pressure.

If a friend of mine wanted to audition for a play but was afraid they wouldn't be good enough, I would encourage them to go for it.  I would say this because my friend may lack confidence, but they have indicated that they want to be in the play.

Now let's say this same friend is interested in auditioning for the play, but this time they're uncertain about the time commitment. This issue came up a lot in college, and here are some possible answers:

a. Rehearsals are normally x days a week for y hours.
b. You should email the director and ask about the rehearsal schedule.
c. Don't worry about it - I had the lead last year and took 4 AP courses and was in 10 other clubs.
d. Just go for it.

Both a and b are good responses. When a friend has a concern, it's best to provide objective information or suggest a way to obtain objective information if you don't know the answer yourself. I have heard a lot of college students say, "I do this and 10 other clubs," in response to people who aren't sure if they want the time commitment.  While they may intend this response to be encouraging, it is actually a subtle form of pressure because it tells the person, "You should be okay with this because I'm okay with it." The fact that you're in the play and 10 other clubs has nothing to do with anyone else - you may like to be busy, but the play alone might be more than someone else wants to do. It's best to help your friend get all the facts so they can make that decision for themself.

The length of commitment and difficulty of backing out are also important to consider.  If a friend is asking you about whether they should do something major, such as going away to college, it's even more important that you ask questions and not blindly encourage them to do something that they're not sure they want to do.  You may feel like you don't want to discourage them, but if your friend is asking you about it, they must have some hesitations - otherwise, they wouldn't ask.  When a friend asks me if they should do something or not, I ask my friend why they want to do it and why they don't want to it to try to figure out which choice they'll be happy with. Often, after questioning a friend, I find that they really do want to do what they were uncertain about and just need some reassurance.  That's fine, but it's important to ask because asking creates an environment where you can do what's right for you.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Pressure to Join Exclusive Groups

When I was in fourth grade, I sent in an idea to a TV show and was a little disappointed when  it didn't get picked. I had assumed they used every idea they received - since this show put so much emphasis on sending in ideas, it seemed like they were desperate for submissions. My friends thought the same thing, and were surprised to learn that not every submission was used. I wasn't really upset about not getting on the show, and I understand now that a TV show would receive many more submissions than they need. But this example reentered my mind recently, as I've seen similar scenarios in real life. I've seen students who only have room for 2 or 3 people in their group yelling at activities fairs or from their table at the student union, stopping every person who passes and persuading them to sign up, turning down every reason that a person gives for not wanting to join until they either walk away or sign with no intention of showing up. This behavior is wrong because it puts pressure on people, but it's also the kind of behavior that would make you think a group was desperate for new members, when if they didn't push as hard, if they advertised but let people come on their own rather than chasing them down, then maybe they wouldn't have to turn so many people away when they have limited space.

College dance club - not the ABC group.
When I was in college, there was a singing and dancing group that I really wanted to join. Let's call the group ABC. Almost every semester, I was competing with 15-20 people for 3-4 spots. The number of spots available had to do with how many people had either graduated or left ABC, so it changed every semester. When I got to be a junior, I heard that the following year, ABC would have 10 spots open. I was so excited! With 15-20 people competing for 10 spots, I would have a better chance of getting in than I ever had before!

Well, things didn't work out that way. See, ABC is one of those groups that tries to convince a lot of people to join, but normally that was only at the activities fair at the beginning of the school year. That was where those 15-20 people came from. But this year, because there were more spots open, ABC put more emphasis on getting people to join. We did a musical in first two weeks of the semester where anyone could be in the chorus.  A lot of the students in charge of ABC were also involved in directing this musical, and spent the entire two weeks promoting the group. A lot of students were iffy about it, not sure if they had the time commitment, but when the list got passed around, everyone decided that they might as well sign up. By the end of the play, there were 60 students competing for 10 spots. Needless to say, I didn't make it. But really upset me is that I was competing against people who weren't as interested in the group as I was.  I can understand missing the table at the activities fair, but there were upperclassman who knew very well that the group existed but never sought it out on their own. There were people who probably wouldn't have signed up if the list wasn't being passed around in front of everyone, if the ABC leaders had just spoken once about the group and left the signup list in one place, so it was something you had to do on your own. If I had been running ABC, I would have felt bad about having limited space when so many people wanted to join. I would have been thrilled at the opportunity to accept a higher percentage of everyone who auditioned. But instead, ABC made sure they could be just as exclusive as they had always been.

I'm very much against putting pressure on people to join things, but I think it's worse to put on that pressure when you don't have enough room for everyone.  I can understand if you really, really need someone to join, like if you need to cast someone for a particular role in a play or else you can't do the play, but most groups like ABC can still function just fine with fewer people. In addition to pressuring people into doing something that they may not want to do, you're reducing the chances of people who really want to do the activity getting in. If you have limited space, why not calm down a bit: advertise and make your group known, but let people come to you.  By doing so, you can both reduce peer pressure and give everyone who is really interested in your group a better chance of getting in.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Difference between Worrying and Caring

I learned that there is a major difference between worrying and caring about someone:

Worrying is a concern about something that might happen in the future, something that isn't happening right now. If, for example, someone has a problem and you're worried about them, it means you are concerned that the problem might get worse or will lead to worse problems in the future (ex: that this person will develop an addiction, become depressed, commit suicide, etc.)

Caring, on the other hand, means that you care right now. You can care about the future also (most people who care would be worried about a problem getting worse, if that seems like a possibility), but you also care about what's going on with your friends in the given moment, regardless of the future. Like, if you knew for a fact that your friend would not suffer any long-term damage from something that's really hurting them right now, that everything will be okay later on, you would still care about the fact that something is hurting your friend right now.

Most of the time, people who worry about someone also care about them, but it's good to be forewarned that there are those who don't. There are those who are only worried that you'll hurt yourself or someone else, but show no interest in your problems once they confirm that you're not a threat to yourself, to others, or to your school/company's reputation or liability. There are those who didn't consider bullying to be a serious problem until kids started killing themselves and psych research showed negative long-term effects. So if you ever think you're being assessed for the threat you may pose, run the other way. Stick with people who care about what you're going through now, regardless of what it may lead to.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

How Long Does Caring Last?

In high school, a bunch of us did a physics project where we designed and built something to help a person who had a disability. My group built a Nerf-ball shooter for a classmate who had muscular dystrophy and wanted to play basketball.  This experience made me realize how often we assume that people who a have a disability have different desires than people who are able-bodied. Like, if someone on the basketball team broke their leg and couldn't play for a while, they would get a lot more sympathy than someone who could never play basketball because of a permanent disability.  I'm not trying to downplay missing out on something because of a temporary injury - I know that sucks.  It's just weird the way we rationalize that if you're used to missing out on things, that makes it less bad or more okay than if you just had a temporary problem.

I've seen this a lot with emotional pain as well.  Most of us are familiar with the story of the boy who cried wolf: a boy cried wolf as a joke when there was no wolf, and everyone came running to help him.  Then when a real wolf appeared and he cried for help, no one came because they assumed it was another joke.  Now, we know the lesson here is not to joke about serious matters like a wolf attack, but this story got me thinking - what if there really was a wolf every time this boy cried for help? Would the story end differently?  I often wonder if the townspeople would have just gotten tired of answering the cries for help, even if every one of them was real. 

I've seen this sort of thing happen when people are going through a difficult time.  In the beginning, everyone is very kind and wants to help any way they can, but once they realize that the situation is more permanent than they realized, a lot of that caring fades off.  It doesn't take long before people forget what the problem was in the first place.  I've seen friends go through traumatic situations, and there's a point at which people start to forget what happened and start wondering why their friend isn't the same anymore.  Not much time goes by, and people expect everything to be okay again. It reminds me of those counselors and advisers who are supposed to help you "transition," but the minute you say, "I'm not okay with this, I'm not making this change," the problem becomes permanent and no one wants to deal with it.  One time when I  trusted someone and told them everything that I was upset about and they told me that I needed to figure out where all my anger was "really" coming from, because they couldn't believe that college was the problem.  I got that from a lot of people.

When I first got to college and started writing angry and depressing things on Facebook, everyone was there for me and asking what was wrong because they had never seen me that way before. But as time went by and these posts continued on, everyone lost interest. Since writing negative things became the norm for me, it was like it didn't matter anymore. But it did matter. I was writing those things because they were still going on. But the longer it went on and the more it became routine, the less anybody cared.

The longer a problem goes on, the more people forget the source of the problem and think that you're just like that.  The more permanent a problem becomes the less important it becomes to solve it.  Maybe we feel better when we can actually fix a problem., and when we can't fix it, we pretend it's not there.  If you spend a week of recesses hanging out with your friend who sprained their ankle instead of playing kickball, you can feel like you did a good thing for your friend.  But if you spend a week hanging out with your friend who uses a wheelchair, you probably feel like it doesn't mean much if you're playing kickball most of the time.  If you can cheer up a friend who had a bad day, the problem is gone, but if you cheer up a friend who is depressed, you know their depression will be back the next day.  Maybe we treat temporary problems more seriously because they are more in our power to solve.  But we all need to remember that getting used to something does not make it okay. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Moral Foundations Quiz

I love taking personality quizzes. One quiz I find particularly interesting is the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, which can be found here: Morality Quizzes along with many others. Under this questionnaire, there are 5 moral foundations that people take into account when deciding whether something is right or wrong, which exist across cultures:

1. Harm/Care - whether anyone was hurt.
2. Fairness/Reciprocity - whether everyone was treated equally and fairly
3. Authority/Respect - respect for authority figures and upholding social order
4. Ingroup/Loyalty - loyalty to groups that you are part of, such as social circles, family, country
5. Purity/Sanctity - feeling a sense of purity and avoiding disgust

People who are liberal typically put the more emphasis on care and fairness than the other three qualities. People who are conservative tend to value all five about equally. It's interesting to understand why people disagree on moral issues: even if the right thing to do seems perfectly clear to one person, another person may see it differently because they have different moral values.

My results showed that care and fairness are very important to me, and authority, loyalty, and purity don't really matter at all.  I came out very liberal compared to the average scores: I placed care and fairness slightly higher than average, and I place the other three values much lower than average.

I took another survey on the same website called the "Sacredness Survey," which relates the 5 moral foundations to real-life scenarios. Instead of being asked whether you agree or disagree with general statements, you are asked for how much money you would do different things that violate the 5 foundations.  You could do it for free, $10, $100, etc. up to $1 million, or say that you wouldn't do it for any amount of money. My scores on what I would actually do are completely different from what I believe is right and wrong in hypothetical situations. On this quiz, loyalty and purity mattered just as much to me as harm and care. Authority was still lower, but not by as much as it was in the first quiz.

I think the issue with purity is this: I do feel disgusted easily and I hate to feel that way, but logically, I don't believe that something is morally wrong because I find it disgusting. On the second quiz, there were many things that I wouldn't do because they were disgusting to me, but I would not consider those things morally wrong if someone else did them.

Ingroup loyalty is kind of complicated. Loyalty to people I love and groups that I feel loyal to is very important to me, and plays a major role in the choices I make. If I took the Moral Foundations Quiz before I had taken any psychology classes or learned what "ingroup" meant, I would have assumed that loyalty to an ingroup meant loyalty to your friends, and I would have rated it much higher than purity and authority. But while I do believe in loyalty to friends, close family, and anyone you choose to have a relationship with, an ingroup does not always constitute a group that you chose to be a part of. An ingroup can be your family, your city, your school, your country...groups that you're kind of stuck being a part of, that you may not actually like or feel any loyalty towards. Loyalty to an ingroup could mean sticking up for your friend when they're not around, but it could also mean not reporting harassment within a team or group, or doing something you don't want to do that is part of your culture, such as an arranged marriage. Some people consider it a betrayal when members of a certain culture or group aren't interested in clubs and events for people in that group. Because loyalty can mean so many different things, I can't really agree to general statements about loyalty and betrayal. But when asked specific questions about what I would do, loyalty is very important.

I would be curious to see how other people score, and what constitutes the differences between what you believe in general and what you would do.