What aliens taught us about self-justification

Newsweek has a brief but interesting article on the new generation of research focused on cognitive dissonance – our desire to reconcile ill-fitting beliefs and actions which can lead us to self-justify in the most curious ways.

The theory is one of the most important in psychology but has a rather unusual origin.

It originated with psychologist Leon Festinger who came up with the idea after studying a UFO cult.

The cult believed in a prophecy that aliens would land at a certain date and destroy the earth. The date came and went and no aliens appeared, but a curious thing happened.

While some believers became disillusioned and left, others strengthened their beliefs. Festinger asked ‘why would your belief strengthen if there’s evidence against it?’.

He thought that it might result from a process of trying to make sense of two conflicting things – in this case, acting as a cult member, but having your belief in a prophecy disproved.

Perhaps to reconcile these positions and make yourself feel more at ease, you could either change your actions (leave the cult), or, change your other beliefs to fit (maybe the prophecy was a test of faith?).

Festinger set decided to test this idea in the lab with a now classic experiment.

He asked groups of students to volunteer for an experiment. In the study the students were asked to complete a dull and repetitive task.

Afterwards they were asked to persuade another student to volunteer. For this, half the students were paid one dollar, half twenty dollars.

The students were put in the position that their actions (persuasion) conflicted with their belief that the task was boring.

The students who were paid only one dollar rated the task as more enjoyable than the twenty dollar students.

While the paid students could justify their persuasion by telling themselves they were doing it for the money, the unpaid students justified it to themselves by changing their opinion of the task – “Actually, it wasn’t that boring after all”.

Many more studies have born out the theory, suggesting that we are motivated to reduce conflicts in our actions and beliefs, partly because we feel discomfort when they do not adequately match.

The Newsweek article looks at some of the more recent research in this area, and touches on some of the neuroscience studies which are trying to work out how the brain is involved in this process.

Incidentally, the author of the piece, Wray Herbert, also has a blog that is full of other great articles.

Link to Newsweek article ‘Toothless is Beautiful’.

One Comment

  1. Posted June 20, 2007 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the kind attention to both my Newsweek column and my blog. I find your site very interesting and will return.


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