Thursday, 18 August 2011
Cognitive dissonance dissonance
This clip contains original footage of Leon Festinger's work on cognitive dissonance.
However, for me there are a number of obvious problems with Fesinger's experiment. It doesn't tell us what cognitive is as distinct from observed behaviour. Neither does it tell us what dissonance is except to equate it with a rather broad spectrum of negative emotions. It also assumes that boring is a fixed parameter within the experiment and it skates over the possible complexities of introducing such a powerful variable as money.
As you see from the clip, after a boring exercise, subjects were offered either $1 or $20 to enthuse about the test to the next subjects. Finally they were asked about their own views on the test as asked if they would do it again. But maybe this merely tells us something about the social role of money. Maybe it tells us something about commonplace aspects of social interaction such as politeness.
I'm not using a short blog post to dismiss cognitive dissonance here, but I am interested in the history of ideas, scientific theories and experimental design. It seems to me that Festinger's experiment isn't well-designed. It is highly likely that he had already invented cognitive dissonance before designing the experiment. Nothing wrong with that, because it's mostly how science is done. Anyhow, it's a complex issue, but I'm not convinced by cognitive dissonance theory, I think we need to be more parsimonious with our explanations, retaining our focus on observable behaviour before we build non-neurological theories of mental processes .
For me, the most interesting aspect of Festinger's experiment is the enthusiasm with which cognitive dissonance has been widely adopted, used and misused as a viable theory of rationalization. Theories of rationalization are important because irrationality is often what we accuse each other of when we disagree. For example, cognitive dissonance has been used to attack religious belief using absurd arguments which could just as easily work in the opposite direction.
Scientific theories have to add something observable that we didn't see before. I can't see how Festinger's experiment does that.