We start to believe our own lies instead of the evidence before us.

This post and several posts over the next month or so will explore some of the baffling, confusing and counter-intuitive goings-on in our mind. Psychology and beliefs coaching have been accused of ‘stating the obvious’ when it comes to explaining what’s going on in the human psyche. To some degree I would agree with this; there are exceptions, however, and this post will explore one of the most commonly occurring: namely cognitive dissonance.

What is cognitive dissonance?

Cognitive dissonance is the process by which the brain deals with two apparently contradictory beliefs by altering one of those beliefs to fit better with the other one. We do this a lot!

Morton Hunt has written extensively on this in ‘The Story of Psychology’ and the following example is taken from that study. The excellent Psyblog has also been used as a source for this article among other resources.

There is a famous episode in the American sitcom: Frasier where Frasier and Niles are desperate to join the health club, La Porte D’Argent: http://www.frasieronline.co.uk/episodeguide/season10/ep11.htm. Frasier’s nemesis Cam Winston has received an invite to join this club and Frasier is frankly not at all pleased that he hasn’t been invited. Using Cam’s membership invite that Frasier receives in error in his mail post the two brothers attend this exclusive club. The initial membership level brings great pleasure to both of them until they both notice a door that they are told leads to the next level up of membership. Suddenly, the level of satisfaction from their current level of membership diminishes dramatically and only ‘the next level will do’ to satisfy their desires for pampering (see my post on hedonistic habituation for why this rapid dissatisfaction with current experience happens). However, the two brothers can’t gain access! This door is only for even more exclusive members, and they lack the means to join. Frasier, desperate for this even higher level of membership, asks his radio show’s producer Ros to ‘get them in’ because she knows a senator who is a member of that higher echelon.

Exclusivity aside, cognitive dissonance is rife in this episode. Frasier, renown for his fiercely principled actions and faith in people’s honesty, throws this out of the window’ since he believes that he should be in the exclusive club, La Porte D’Argent, if Cam is a member. Rather than return the invite to its rightful owner, Frasier uses it himself. What happened to Frasier’s wish for integrity, honesty and always telling the truth? Frasier’s cognitive dissonance bent the ‘truth’ to fit his more powerful belief that he should be a member. Something like, “The truth is, I should be a member! I’ll use his membership!” is probably what he thought.

Membership clubs know this desire for exclusivity only too well. They often make it deliberately hard to join let alone ascend the ranks of exclusivity. Rather than us deciding it’s just too exclusive, not for us and certainly not worth what’s involved with joining, we are predisposed to want it even more. The Scarcity Principle demonstrates this to a tee. The rarer something is perceived to be the more we value and want it. Worse yet, the quality of the exclusive product we end up with doesn’t actually have to be that good! The dissonance that exists between exclusivity and mere averageness is resolved in our mind by: you’ve guessed it, making the product seem better than it really is, not the exclusivity isn’t worth it in the first place.

Before you jump to challenge this counter-intuitive effect ask yourself: ‘Have I ever made something seem better than it really was?’. I have. That is cognitive dissonance at work. A world-famous experiment demonstrated this and you can read about it here in more detail: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0041593. Festinger and Carlsmith carried out the research experiment in 1959. The gist of it is as follows.

Unbeknown to those taking part they were actually part of a much bigger experiment. Students, originally told a task that they would be doing would be boring (and indeed it was boring!) were paid 1 dollar to tell the next group to do the same task that they would find the task interesting! Unbeknown to the first group, this second group were paid the princely sum of 20 dollars to lie to another group and say that the task was enjoyable.

In summary, one group was paid 1 dollar to lie to others that the task was enjoyable (not enough money to justify the lie, even in 1959) and the second group was paid 20 dollars to lie to another group that the task was enjoyable (in those days for students: a lot of money!)

What happened? Low and behold, when interviewed by the researchers, the people who did the task that they were told would be interesting and were paid 1 dollar reported that they found the task ‘mildly interesting‘ – what they had been paid to tell others; yet, the other group, when interviewed, said, ‘The task was boring!’ – not what they had been paid to tell others!

What was going on? The group paid 1 dollar to lie faced a mental dilemma. And the sort of thoughts that ran through their mind might have gone a little like this:

“It was boring! [Belief 1.] I was paid 1 dollar to say the task would be interesting to the next group. But it wasn’t interesting at all! But I’ve been told to say it was interesting. I was only paid a dollar! Umm…  Am I a liar? No, I don’t go around lying! [Belief 2.] How am I going to square this? May be it was more interesting after all. [Modifying belief 1 to better fit with the more deeply held belief 2]. May be it was even quite fun….” [Now, we’re just looking for even more ways to account for the dissonance!]

What was group 2 thinking? Something like: “$20! Wow! That’s ok. I can lie for $20! That task was boring! I don’t care what I was told to say!”

In other words, paying people less money helped them find greater satisfaction in the task in-hand! How counter-intuitive is that?!

To us looking on through rose-coloured spectacles this can seem extraordinary. This famous study and countless studies subsequently confirm cognitive dissonance. If two contradictory beliefs occupy our mind we will change one to more easily fit the other. And it might shock us to discover just how much we do that. 

Once you start to think about it, the list of situations where people resolve cognitive dissonance through rationalisation 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. Here’s one such dissonance I experienced when young with the thoughts running through my mind:

“Those times when I was a teenager that I used to spend in the amusement arcade enjoying the atmosphere, watching others shoot aliens and playing Defender wasn’t a waste of money and time at all. I don’t waste time do I? It was an education. I learnt so much! Just look at my scores!”

And that is perhaps one of the most serious consequences of cognitive dissonance: we start to believe our own lies instead of the evidence before us. There’s a thought…