classic 1959 Social Psychology (1) experiment demonstrates how and
why we lie to ourselves. Understanding
this experiment sheds a brilliant light on the dark world of our inner
The ground-breaking social psychological
experiment of Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) provides a central insight
into the stories we tell ourselves about why we think and behave the
way we do. The experiment is filled with ingenious deception so the
best way to understand it is to imagine you are taking part. So sit
back, relax and travel back. The time is 1959 and you are an
undergraduate student at Stanford University...
part of your course you agree to take part in an experiment on
'measures of performance'. You are told the experiment will take two
hours. As you are required to act as an experimental subject for a
certain number of hours in a year - this will be two more of them out
of the way.
Little do you know, the experiment will actually
become a classic in social psychology. And what will seem to you like
accidents by the experimenters are all part of a carefully controlled
deception. For now though, you are innocent.
in the lab you are told the experiment is about how your expectations
affect the actual experience of a task. Apparently there are two groups
and in the other group they have been given a particular expectation
about the study. To instil the expectation subtly, the participants in
the other groups are informally briefed by a student who has apparently
just completed the task. In your group, though, you'll do the task with
Perhaps you wonder why you're being told all
this, but nevertheless it makes it seem a bit more exciting now that
you know some of the mechanics behind the experiment.
settle down to the first task you are given, and quickly realise it is
extremely boring. You are asked to move some spools around in a box for
half an hour, then for the next half an hour you move pegs around a
board. Frankly, watching paint dry would have been preferable.
the end of the tasks the experimenter thanks you for taking part, then
tells you that many other people find the task pretty interesting. This
is a little confusing - the task was very boring. Whatever. You let it
Then the experimenter
looks a little embarrassed and starts to explain haltingly that there's
been a cock-up. He says they need your help. The participant coming in
after you is in the other condition they mentioned before you did the
task - the condition in which they have an expectation before carrying
out the task. This expectation is that the task is actually really
interesting. Unfortunately the person who usually sets up their
expectation hasn't turned up.
So, they ask if you wouldn't
mind doing it. Not only that but they offer to pay you $1. Because it's
1959 and you're a student this is not completely insignificant for only
a few minutes work. And, they tell you that they can use you again in
the future. It sounds like easy money so you agree to take part. This
is great - what started out as a simple fulfilment of a course
component has unearthed a little ready cash for you.
quickly introduced to the next participant who is about to do the same
task you just completed. As instructed you tell her that the task she's
about to do is really interesting. She smiles, thanks you and
disappears off into the test room. You feel a pang of regret for
getting her hopes up. Then the experimenter returns, thanks you again,
and once again tells you that many people enjoy the task and hopes you
found it interesting.
Then you are ushered through to another
room where you are interviewed about the experiment you've just done.
One of the questions asks you about how interesting the task was that
you were given to do. This makes you pause for a minute and think.
it seems to you that the task wasn't as boring as you first thought.
You start to see how even the repetitive movements of the spools and
pegs had a certain symmetrical beauty. And it was all in the name of
science after all. This was a worthwhile endeavour and you hope the
experimenters get some interesting results out of it.
still couldn't be classified as great fun, but perhaps it wasn't that
bad. You figure that, on reflection, it wasn't as bad as you first
thought. You rate it moderately interesting.
experiment you go and talk to your friend who was also doing the
experiment. Comparing notes you found that your experiences were almost
identical except for one vital difference. She was offered way more
than you to brief the next student: $20! This is when it first occurs
to you that there's been some trickery at work here.
You ask her about the task with the spools and
"Oh," she replies. "That was sooooo
boring, I gave it the lowest rating possible."
"No," you insist. "It wasn't that bad. Actually
when you think about
it, it was pretty interesting."
She looks at you incredulously.
What the hell is going on?
you've just experienced is the power of cognitive dissonance. Social
psychologists studying cognitive dissonance are interested in the way
we deal with two thoughts that contradict each other - and how we deal
with this contradiction.
In this case: you thought the task
was boring to start off with then you were paid to tell someone else
the task was interesting. But, you're not the kind of person to
casually go around lying to people. So how can you resolve your view of
yourself as an honest person with lying to the next participant? The
amount of money you were paid hardly salves your conscience - it was
nice but not that nice.
Your mind resolves this conundrum by
deciding that actually the study was pretty interesting after all. You
are helped to this conclusion by the experimenter who tells you other
people also thought the study was pretty interesting.
friend, meanwhile, has no need of these mental machinations. She merely
thinks to herself: I've been paid $20 to lie, that's a small fortune
for a student like me, and more than justifies my fibbing. The task was
boring and still is boring whatever the experimenter tells me.
A beautiful theory
this experiment numerous studies of cognitive dissonance have been
carried out and the effect is well-established. Its beauty is that it
explains so many of our everyday behaviours. Here are some examples
provided by Morton Hunt in his classic work The Story of Psychology (2).
Once you start to think about it, the list of
situations in which people resolve cognitive dissonance through
rationalisations 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.
Being aware of this can help us avoid
falling foul of the most dangerous consequences of cognitive
dissonance: believing our own lies.
trying to join a group, the harder they make the barriers to entry, the
more you value your membership. To resolve the dissonance between the
hoops you were forced to jump through, and the reality of what turns
out to be a pretty average club, we convince ourselves the club is, in
- People will interpret the same information in
radically different ways to support their own views of the world. When
deciding our view on a contentious point, we conveniently forget what
jars with our own theory and remember everything that fits.
quickly adjust their values to fit their behaviour, even when it is
clearly immoral. Those stealing from their employer will claim that
"Everyone does it" so they would be losing out if they didn't, or
alternatively that "I'm underpaid so I deserve a little extra on the