Sunday, January 16, 2005

Cognitive Dissonance and the BBQ

So what really lies behind this idea of BBQ-stopping?

Perhaps it's the theory of Cognitive Dissonance?

This is a pretty cool theory coined by a guy named Leon Festinger back in '57. In a nutshell, it basically means that when someone has an opinion (say, for instance, that John Howard - current Prime Minister of Australia - is a good and noble leader) and they come into contact with facts that contradict that belief (for instance, proof that John Howard is actually a dishonest serial liar) then it produces a kind of mental "pain" in which which one idea must be rejected or "modified" in some way so that the opposing thoughts (cognitions) no longer clash (create dissonance), or a different perspective taken which resolves the overall paradox.

For instance, in the example above the person in question can reconcile the two cognitions by taking the attitude that John Howard might be a dishonest serial liar, but he is doing it "for the good of the nation". This allows the two apparently contradictory points of view to coexist.

Festinger proposed that cognitive dissonance was a basic stimulus, like hunger and thirst, and a person would instinctively seek out a way to return to the initial "comfortable" state (consonance).

Sounds like a BBQ-stopper, doesn't it? If everyone is having a good time and an argument breaks out, generally other friends or family members will try and "smooth things over" so the BBQ can return to its previous friendly atmosphere.

Of course, Festinger's theory is not without its critics. Some psychologists argue that cognitive dissonance cannot be disproven, as it can be argued that any failed experiment did not use a strong enough stimulus to produce dissonance in the subject. Daryl J. Bem reinterprets Festinger's results to suggest that the idea of cognitive dissonance is just an unnecessary complication and that attitude adjustment can be explained via self-perception.

For instance, say person B tells person A that he doesn't like onion rings on his burgers. Person C overhears this, and says he will give B one dollar if he eats a burger with heaps of onion rings on it. A then watches B eat the onion-laden burger. Rather than assuming B has "forced himself" to like the onion rings to escape cognitive dissonance, A just assumes that B didn't really mind onion rings that much to begin with.

What Bem is saying is that B perceived the exact same thing of himself that A did. B thought "Hey! I've got no reason to eat an onion-laden burger for one dollar, yet here I am doing it anyway. I guess I like onions after all!"

My biggest criticism of this idea is that it assumes people are constantly SEEING their own behaviour, and they draw the same conclusions from their own behaviour that they would draw from anothers. Anyone who is familiar with the ideas of Georges Gurdjieff or other such esoteric systems will find this claim to be highly improbable.

Personally, I find this theory explains quite a lot about my own observations of human behaviour, whether at BBQs or otherwise. It's not the whole enchilada by any stretch of the imagination, but does provide an interesting perspective on the reactions of people to unfamiliar ideas and events.

Mmmm... burgers with onions...

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