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.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cognitive Dissonance I

The concept of cognitive dissonance has been around for decades. There is a lot of research supporting the fact that it is a powerful force in our lives.

Let’s lay some foundational points for the thoughts I’ll share regarding cognitive dissonance.

Deciding (or choosing) between two or more paths is the essence of commitment. My favorite one liner about commitment is this: “Commitment is making the choice to give up other choices.” That says a lot about why commitment can be so hard in today’s world. We’re encouraged to hang onto everything while commitment feels like we are giving something up. That’s because we do give something up when we make a commitment. If we are not giving anything up we are not making a commitment. Commitment is deciding to go down path A or B, in a situation where one cannot do both—at least until cloning is widely available. (There’s some time left before commitment is irrelevant.)

Cognitive dissonance is a concept originally developed in the 1950s by social psychologist, Leon Festinger. The essence of Festinger’s idea was that we often feel internal conflict about who we are, how we see ourselves, and what we do. That is what cognitive dissonance is. Something is unsettled or not in sync in how we see ourselves and what we’re doing. In essence, when have cognitive dissonance, you feel at odds with your self,

It does not feel good to have dissonance and our minds are pretty good at finding ways to reduce it. In fact, study after study after study (a large number of them) document that cognitive dissonance happens and we’ll do what we can to reduce it.

Suppose, for example, you see yourself as very environmentally conscious. However, you also happen to drive a gigantic SUV that gets 12 miles to the gallon with a fair wind at its back. Your behavior of driving the big SUV and your beliefs about the environment are in conflict, and you’ll do something to reduce that internal conflict. You might get a Prius or you might become less environmentally concerned. You might rationalize that it would waste a lot of energy for Detroit to build you another car (but they would dearly love to build you one), so you decide it’s best for the environment to keep the SUV even if it burns through gas like my sons go through Oreos. (We’re talking about fuel, after all, right?)

Next time, I’m going to talk about how cognitive dissonance research helps explain some things about decisions and commitment. Soon.


Friday, May 15, 2009


In my last post, I left off with the question of why people might avoid the DTR Talk. If you have not read that post yet, I encourage you to read it before going on with this one.

To reset the scene, I’m assuming some things about a relationship with person A and person B. I’m assuming that partner A is either more committed to the future than B or is, at least, thinking a lot more about the issue. Hence, person A is the one who wants to know now or soon where person B is at on the whole matter of a future. This is not something that usually (or should) happen early in the relationship. It’s something that becomes more and more of an issue over time. That’s because most people want to marry eventually. Most adults who are “in the market” for life-long love (the aspiration) are going to be less inclined to spend a lot of time with someone if they know that this someone does not see a future together.

So person A wants to know what person B is thinking and intending. While it’s easy to think of person A as a female and person B as a male, there are doubtless many situations that go any which way. The key is that one person, A, is more ready than the other, B.

Questions and Ideas of Answers

Why might person A avoid having The Talk? Person A might avoid having The Talk because person A has a hunch that person B either sees no future or that person B would run from the relationship if person A pushes it.

By the way, this relates to a painful reality about commitment: The person who is most committed has the least power. This is true, at least at this stage of a relationship, where the future is not nailed down.

Since person A loves person B, and knows he/she wants a future with person B, pushing the matter is scary. People tend to avoid scary things until they can’t put them off any longer.

The reasons why person B might avoid the talk seem more complex, in my view, but they all boil down to a sense of potential loss. Essentially, what I’m defining is a situation where person B likes the status quo. Whatever the relationship is right now, person B is happy not to rock the boat. It’s working, at least for now, so why mess with anything?

The Talk can bring person B the loss of something in one of at least three ways.

1. If person B is quite a bit less committed than person A, The TALK can lead to a break up. Person B’s answers can lead to person A to realize that what she or he wants is never going to happen. B avoids The Talk because of a desire to hang onto the present arrangement.

2. If person B is somewhat less committed than A but a future is at least possible, the talk leads to ongoing negotiation. One Talk will lead to other Talks because A sees the possibility of getting somewhere and will keep pressing it. B might not want to be in what starts to seem like a series of Talks because B does not like negotiating about change B really does not want, yet. The status quo is groovy for B and it’s not fun for either A or B to keep talking about something so difficult, tricky, and important.

3. Person B might avoid The Talk because the end result will be that B has to up the commitment. It’s sort of like playing poker. Both have their cards (their commitment cards and their attractiveness cards). Person A is throwing all in, and person B is being called to pony up or fold. Person B has to match the bet of person A and lay em down.

To put it briefly (something you may have figured out I don’t do easily!), person B avoids The Talk because it can lead to one of several types of loss:

Loss of the relationship due to break up.
Loss of peace in the relationship due to ongoing negotiation.
Loss of freedom due to having to match the bet of A or leave the game.

If you are counting, that’s three “dues” and it’s time to pay them.


Saturday, May 9, 2009

The DTR Dance: Avoiding the Talk

I wrote in prior posts about ambiguity and how that is one of the defining features of romantic relationships in this day and age. The motive for keeping things not quite clear about what a relationship is and where it is heading is simple: ambiguity gives couples a way to avoid breaking up in a relationship that is desirable for now, but where one or both senses the future is unclear.

Ambiguity can protect fragile relationships. There’s some good and a lot of not good in that.

The acronym, DTR, stands for Define The Relationship. It means having The Talk. DTR is a modern day antidote to ambiguity.

I have some thoughts about why people avoid DTR. There are a number of possibilities.

1. It’s just too soon to have the talk, and bringing it up too soon makes one look desperate.

2. It’s hard for one or both partners to talk about things that are emotional or sensitive because the most important conversations often don’t go well. In this case, the issue is communication not commitment. In the work I have done with colleagues such as Howard Markman, Natalie Jenkins, and Susan Blumberg, we focus a lot on helping couples to learn how to talk openly, clearly, and with emotional safety. Stuff for another day, but if you need help there, now, try one of our books listed on the left of this site (except the commitment one).

3. The big reasons why people avoid DTRing is that there are issues with commitment.

When it comes to commitment, I merely mean important dynamics such as the willingness to commit to the future, interest in marriage, etc.

When it comes to commitment, let’s assume two possibilities about hypothetical couple AB, which is made up of person A and person B.

One possibility: A and B are nearly equally committed.


Second possibility: A and B are not equally committed.

In this second case, either A is more committed to B or B is more committed to A. Let’s just focus on A being more committed to B. It happens all the time. It’s pretty much a normal part of couple development, except that if it goes on and on and on, it’s a serious problem. In fact, the problem version of this now happens so commonly that bestselling books have been written about this painful dynamic: He’s Just Not That Into You, comes to mind. (The title is a link if you want to read more about it.) It’s an excellent book—humorous, brutal, a bit coarse (that’s a warning if such things bother you)—describing these dynamics of differences in commitment.

I think situations where there are serious differences in commitment levels between two people are the situations where DTR talks are most likely to be avoided, and for some pretty logical reasons.

I’ll give you my sense of those reasons in my next post. For the time being, think about the possibilities in the reasons people avoid doing the DTR talk. I suppose the DTR talk is then a DTR dance.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

We, We, We, all the way home!

I’ve thought and written a lot about commitment. Once of the hallmarks of a strong commitment between two individuals is that they have “WE-ness.” In other words, there is a strong identity of “us” and it’s not all about just me or you. In fact, one of the many ways I’ve summarized commitment in marriage is that it reflects “us with a future.” (My book on commitment is linked on the side of this blog. Okay, that was shameless, but someone might be interested!)

Having a strong couple identity doesn’t mean merging the identities of the two individuals into some Vulcan-mind-meld-blob-of-undifferentiated-goo. A lot of people fear the merging thing, some to the point of over doing their avoidance of joining with another; and some people desire exactly this type of merging because of insecurity or other issues. Healthy couple identity means there is me, you, and us. There are three identities. All three matter and all are honored in how we go through life together.

So, WE is good, but it also gets hard to build and hang onto in a culture that is focused on individuality. There is growing trend that reflects the WE thing but undermines it as well. Paul Amato is a sociologist I know and admire, who published a book with colleagues two years ago that I thought was fantastic. (Keep in mind, I mean fantastic in the somewhat geeky manner.) It’s not a self-help book but it is a fabulous, very readable discussion of how marriage has changed in the past 20 years. Amato and colleagues have one of the best research samples in the country for addressing questions about changes in marriage. The book is entitled, “Alone Together: How Marriage in America Is Changing.” If you are interested in marriage as a subject of interest, not just your own marriage, I highly recommend this book.

Today, I’m focusing on one major finding among many from their work. They found that couples, as couples, are increasingly isolated. There is a WE but the WE has, on average, been growing thinner. Think of this as the isolation WE diet. Couples have grown less engaged in shared activities and outside commitments, such as involvement in community groups. Amato and colleagues note: “Couples in 2000 were substantially less likely than couples in 1980 to eat together, visit friends together, go out for leisure activities together, or work on projects around the house together.” They were less likely to do things like be in clubs or groups together, as well. Home alone meets alone together.

Couples do best when engaged in some significant shared commitments outside their relationship, such as to groups, clubs, church/synagogue, etc., and efforts to help others. This trend toward growing isolation is concerning. Amato and colleagues note one exception to this trend, which is involvement in religious organizations, particularly churches. There is a movement toward increased church involvement among married couples since 1980.

My short hand for what they find is the title of this blog entry: We, We, We, all the way home. It’s sort of like couples—at least some couples—have figured out a version of the WE thing, but it’s very much a WE at home and alone thing.

Does this matter? I think it does. Doing some things together, where you are engaged and connected to others in the community, is usually a good thing. Good for you, good for your relationship, and good for the community. Isolation has never been shown to be good for people. While there are some couples who are involved in too many things, the trend for the average couple is toward reclusiveness. If you and your partner have gotten pretty isolated, it’s worth taking a bit of time to reflect on your options for doing at least one thing together where you can be involved, together, with others. That would take a decision.

You’re not always safe when you are sliding into home.