“I would never belong to any club that would have me for a member.”Groucho Marx


Grouchoicon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A group of mediocre, boring people get together and decide that they want to form a club that features strong barriers to entry; very few other people can get in without a rigorous acceptance process. We outsiders see only the near impossibility of joining this group and start thinking: “Hey, the members of this group must be cooler than they seem.”

I want to point you in the direction of the excellent PsyBlog, the blog to which this one aspires. I search through PsyBlog from time to time when I’m coming up on deadline and desperate for inspiration. I found this gem detailing a 1959 Stanford sociology study that went down in history. I’ll summarize it, but I strongly suggest reading their excellent briefing to get the full flavor.

A student is asked to take part in an experiment having to do with comparing expectations to reality. He is told that he will be assigned a task, and will set about performing the task with no preset expectations. Another similar group of participants, he is told, will have to complete the same task, but will be told about the nature of the task beforehand.

The task is assigned, and the student goes at it. The task is mind-numbingly boring. Something like moving pegs around a board for a half hour.

As the participant finished and is about to leave, the experimenter throws in a curveball: there’s another student coming in who will participate next, and she is part of the group that’s supposed to be told about the experiment beforehand. The person who is supposed to brief this new participant has not turned up. The experimenter asked if our student, before he leaves, will brief the next student and tell her that the experiment task was really interesting. There’s a dollar in it for him if he does (this is 1959). Our student goes and tells the next student that the task was, indeed, very interesting (even though it was not). The experimenter returns, gives the promised dollar, and states incidentally that other participants have, in fact, found the task to be interesting.

One last step: our student is ushered into another room and interviewed about the experiment. Inexplicably, he tells his interviewer that parts of the task really were kind of interesting. It couldn’t have been all that boring after all, could it?

After the experiment is over, the student confers with a friend and finds out that she went through almost the exact same process. One difference: she was given $20 to tell the other student how interesting the experiment was.

Our guy says, “It really was kind of interesting, don’t you think? I rated it high.”

His friend says, “What are you kidding? It was so boring! I rated it the lowest I could. How could you have thought that was interesting?”

So why would the person paid only $1.00 to lie about a boring task actually start to believe it was interesting, whereas the person paid $20 to do the same thing accurately remembered how boring the task really was?


Freakonomics (Photo credit: Northfield.org)

This isn’t the first instance I’ve heard of where money had an unexpected influence on behavior. The book Freakonomics begins with the story of a day care in Haifa that had a problem with parents coming late to pick up their children. They decided to institute a monetary penalty for lateness, and to their complete surprise parents were more frequently late to pick up their children.

The connection has to do with rationalization, our defense mechanism that creates a logical justification for incongruent behaviors. I want to take a pen from my office and keep it. The pen technically belongs to the office, but it’s so small a thing that my office wouldn’t care. And maybe I can think of instances where my office didn’t treat me very nicely. So it really is alright.

Ordinarily it’s not alright to pick up my child late from daycare. I feel guilt when I’m late. But if there’s a financial penalty that I can pay, I no longer have to feel guilty. It is now alright to be late to pick up my child, because I have traded money for the right to be late without guilt.

If I lie to a student about how interesting a task was, $20 is enough money (especially in 1959) to make me not feel guilty. I have essentially be employed to do a job, which I did. But if I get paid $1, I have now lied to someone else for no good reason. So what’s my out? The experimenter gave it to me: it’s the idea that others might actually have reported that the task was interesting. I didn’t lie if the task wasn’t all that boring. So I convince myself that the task was indeed interesting.

A diagram of cognitive dissonance theory. Diss...

A diagram of cognitive dissonance theory. Dissonance reduction can be accomplished in various ways, broadly including the addition of more, consonant elements, or else changing the existing elements. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Robert Cialdini talks about commitment and consistency, which is another way of looking at the same phenomenon. We have a basic human need to make decisions that are consistent with tenants of our identity: “I am a good parent, ” “I am an honest person,” “I support worthy causes,” etc. Two problems with this. One, sometimes we desire to behave in ways that are inconsistent with how we view ourselves. This creates cognitive dissonance. Two, most humans have many conflicting beliefs about their own identities. It’s nearly impossible to be rigorously consistent. Our beliefs about ourselves can change situationally or with our mental state. This means that many behaviors will violate at least one set of self-beliefs.

So how do we keep ourselves sane in view of all this? We create a “comfortable illusion” (Scott Adams in Social Psychology) that our behavior is actually consistent with who we are, if we look at the behavior, the situation or our identity in just the right light. These illusions are necessary to our ability to assess ourselves and function in the real world, but also are inconsistent by definition and in the extreme can enable a lot of unwanted behavior.

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