Friday, May 29, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance II

I’m sure those of you who read the last post could hardly wait to read more about cognitive dissonance. Those of you who have not read that post might want to do so now. I’ll wait.

Okay, onward with more thoughts about cognitive dissonance. Here’s the basic idea of the concept and decades of research on it. One of the key applications of the concept is to situations where you have to make a choice. I’m going to mix it up some today and, instead of option A or option B, I’m going with option X and option Y. (Don’t worry, I’ll bring A and B back in another post, in case you really liked them. But we need some balance here, right?)

Let’s say you have a situation where your options look like this:

Option X
Option Y

The option you don’t have here is to have both X and Y. Sometimes you can have it all, but not today. Sorry. In the real world, it looks like this. You have 75 cents and you can get the Hershey bar or the M&Ms. You cannot get both because you don’t have the resources at the moment to get both. Bummer, I know, but this is real life and you cannot have every type of chocolate. Let’s up the stakes, and since chocolate is often linked to love, let’s go after love.

Suppose you want to choose a partner and you hope it’s for life. You’ve narrowed your options to Jesse and Lee. Now, even if you have a buck fifty, it should be exceptionally obvious that you cannot have both, at least if life-long love is your goal. Jesse’s not likely to accept the idea of you still hanging around Lee if Jesse is your choice. Likewise, Lee thinks three’s a crowd. Lee and Jesse could be friends in another life, but not in YOUR life.

Back to dissonance. Let’s say you’ve done everything right, or nearly enough. You took your time, thought about what was most important to you, explored your options enough to have a good idea what they were, and then chose Lee. Call it a leaning that became pretty strong that ended up in a real commitment.

Here is where cognitive dissonance theory gets pretty important. What decades of studies show is that if you’ve made a clear choice—a real decision, not a slide—and chosen one option, dissonance will help you follow through. Dissonance helps you maintain your motivation on the pathway you chose. You chose Lee and not Jesse; dissonance supports that commitment in a powerful way.

Here’s what dissonance is in this context. Dissonance is that bad feeling you get when your behavior isn’t consistent with your decision. If you’re attracted (really, seriously attracted) to Jesse after you decided on Lee, and your character is fully intact, you will feel bad. This is similar to guilt but the idea of cognitive dissonance is broader than guilt. It’s feeling bad when things are not lining up right between important parts of yourself; dissonance feels uncomfortable and you’ll try to reduce it. The stronger and more forceful and conscious the original decision, the more dissonance supports following through on that commitment.

This has some really interesting implications for the ways that couples build commitment—keeping in mind that anything that can be built can be built poorly or built well. The clearer the decision, the stronger the follow-through on the commitment that was made. I’ll write more on this in my next post, surely to be labeled, Cognitive Dissonance III. Someday, these will be great movies, starring Lee, Jesse, A, B, X, and Y. I’m sure of it.