Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Daughter of Son of a Son of Dissonance (Cognitive Dissonance IV)

Maybe it’s just a bad movie that keeps coming back, but I’m not having any dissonance over writing so much about cognitive dissonance. (If you are tired of the topic, I really do think this is the last post on this for the time being.)

Some of you have been thinking about where I left off (and some have not). If you want the full background, you really need to read some or all of the prior three posts. In the prior post, I left off with a question about what cognitive dissonance might have to do with the trend for ever more expensive weddings. Caveat: I would guess, but do not know, that there is some reigning in on wedding expenses by those who historically could or would spend a lot, given our current economic downturn. Nevertheless, here’s a theory of why some people are spending amazing amounts of money on weddings.

My Theory

We live in a time when people largely are still interested in marriage. The image of marriage has been tarnished and confidence in marriage has suffered, but people want it. Why, you might ask? Because marriage remains the preeminent symbol of commitment for two people interested in life-long love. Sure, not everyone is into it or can be into it (a matter way too complex for me to touch here), but it remains what most people want and what most people will seek.

My theoretical assumptions look like this:

Assume people are more anxious than ever before maintaining life-long love.
Assume people are as likely as ever to fall in love.
Assume that most people will seek to address commitment in love by marrying.
Assume that the security of marriage, as a vehicle for commitment, has suffered.
Assume that cognitive dissonance is a fact of the human experience.

Some people who can afford it (and many who cannot) will spend an amazing amount of money on their wedding because doing so creates a particularly strong cognitive dissonance dynamic that serves to reinforce the commitment. I’m NOT saying that these folks are more committed than those spending a lot less (you can’t believe how little my wife and I spent on our wedding). What I am saying is that some folks will feel acutely a need to create a binding commitment that lasts, and dissonance theory predicts that making a bigger deal, spending more, and having more guests, etc., will all add to the power of the dissonance force that is created.

Suppose you have the Smiths and the Jones. They are identical—virtual clones, of each other in all ways that matter, including desire to marry for life and anxiety about marriage for life working. And let’s assume that the anxiety is pretty strong for all four people involved because they all came from homes where they saw commitment not work out very well, up close and personal. (Refer back to research by Paul Amato and colleagues, and Sarah Whitton and I and colleagues, some posts back. )

The only difference: The Smiths pay $ 30,000.00 for their wedding and the Jones pay $ 3000.00 for theirs. What researchers like Rosenblatt predicted long ago (1977 is pretty long ago, right?) is that when times get a little tough, like they usually do, the Smiths will feel a stronger force of dissonance to keep to their committed path than will the Jones. The reason is simply that the Smiths more strongly built a dissonance that will add extra discomfort when tempted not to follow through. In their heads it sounds like this (if you could put it into words so easily): “I really made a big deal and a big investment out of committing to my partner, and in front of scads of people; I simply have to follow through. I must have really meant it!”

I’m suggesting that the escalation in what people are willing to spend on weddings may be a form of buying insurance for their marriages. (For some, obviously, it’s simply about a big, showy, expression of wealth, which is another matter altogether.)

Am I recommending this? Nope. I’d rather see people have reasonable wedding costs and better savings—or less debt—at the start of their marriages. I’d also much rather see people invest in things like learning about how to communicate, manage conflict, clarify expectations, and build and preserve friendship and commitment in marriage by doing things like attending a marriage/relationship education class. There’s more than money when it comes to ways to invest in your relationship.

As a poignant side point: Researchers who study couples in poverty note an especially strong desire to have a formal wedding rather than merely go to the justice of the peace. The stated reasons are often about respecting marriage by respecting the wedding process. In this, I think there is a recognition of the positive role of ceremony in forming strong commitments. This makes particular sense for couples who tend to have very high respect for marriage but a lot of odds stacked against their marriages when it comes to making it in life. Here, the goal isn’t a lavish wedding but a solid, good enough, serious ceremony. That’s a nice goal.