In 1959 Festinger and Carlsmith asked the participants in their experiment to complete an extremely boring couple of tasks for an hour. Each participant was then offered money to lie to the next one and say that they would find the task really interesting and enjoyable. They were offered either $1 or $20.
After they had told their lies the participants were interviewed to find out how interesting and enjoyable they had really found the tasks. Those who had only been paid $1 to lie to the other participant reported finding the tasks much more enjoyable than those who had been paid $20.
The cause of this strange discrepancy is something called cognitive dissonance – the uncomfortable feeling of inconsistency in our thoughts and behaviours. Our brain doesn’t like to think of us as inconsistent, so it will do what it can to avoid it.
We don’t like to think of ourselves as liars because we are brought up to believe that lying is bad. But the participants were asked to lie to another person and tell them that they would find a really boring task interesting. They didn’t like to think of themselves as liars, but they did lie, and this caused cognitive dissonance.
The participants who were paid $20 could justified their lies by telling themselves that they did it for the money. This reduced their cognitive dissonance. Those who were only paid $1 couldn’t really justify their lies the same way as $1 is such a paltry sum. Instead they reduced the dissonance by convincing themselves that the tasks weren’t so bad. If they believed the tasks were interesting then they weren’t lying and there was no cognitive dissonance.
This sort of change in our attitudes is happening all the time every day. Our minds are constantly making small adjustments to our beliefs and opinions to avoid the uncomfortable feelings of cognitive dissonance.
A recent study by Hyun et al indicated that if you wake up in the morning expecting to experience stress, your working memory function will be impaired throughout the day.
Working memory is that part (or parts) of your brain which makes second to second calculations. It is the part which you use to manipulate information, whether verbal, numerical or visual. Many decisions, particularly business-type decisions, are made on the basis of calculations made by the working memory.
Hyun’s participants were periodically reminded, by their smartphones, to complete a quick questionnaire designed to measure their stress anticipation. They then completed a working memory task. People who woke up and started the day anticipating stress performed worse in the tasks even much later in the day. This happened whether or not the stress did in fact materialise.
Seeing as working memory is so important in the average office worker’s decision making, it behoves managers and leaders to do everything they can to prevent their employees from expecting to feel stressed. This way, perhaps, errors in reasoning and decision making can be avoided.
We manage to get through the complications of modern life by using heuristics. These are mental rules of thumb which may or may not be accurate, but which save us time and effort. For example, when we see someone and judge them to be attractive, we also tend to assess them as intelligent, kind, sociable and athletic. Of course, these are all things we cannot actually judge by looking at them, but this doesn’t stop us. It is called the Halo Effect and we all do it all the time.
To properly assess somebody’s intelligence or kindness would be quite difficult and would take some considerable time to do, so we use a shortcut. We look for something we can measure more easily and use that instead: physical attractiveness is most often used because it can be easily assessed at a glance.
Usually someone who is assessed positively for attractiveness is assessed positively on other scales too, but this can occasionally go the other way. If a lady fits the look of a “bimbo” she may be classed as physically attractive but probably unintelligent. Instead of being a result of the halo effect though, this would be straying into the realm of stereotypes.
It is well known that we make first impressions remarkably quickly, but few people realise that it is almost instantaneous. Willis and Todorov showed some participants pictures of faces for only one tenth of a second and others for as long as they wished. The participants then had to rate the people pictured on a range of traits such as attractiveness and trustworthiness.
The way participants rated any given face correlated well. This suggests that we all agree on what constitutes, for example, aggressiveness or competence in a face. For instance, someone with a high forehead and a long nose tend assessed as wise (this is possibly a result of confusing age with wisdom).
What also emerged from the study was that faces were rated similarly whether they were seen for one tenth of a second or several seconds. This suggests that the judgement is made within the first tenth of a second of seeing someone.
So it seems that you make a first impression of someone within the first tenth of a second of seeing them. Being able to study someone’s face for longer tends not to change your impression, but simply increases your confidence that your initial assessment was correct.
Mental, physical and emotional effort can result in us being “ego depleted”, which means we are running low on the resource needed for those kinds of effort. In this state we are less likely to benefit from the relaxation of watching TV.
Watching TV and playing video games may feel like a bit of lazy time-out to us sometimes, but can actually be very useful in aiding recovery from stress according to some studies. On the other hand, some studies show the opposite.
Leonard Reinecke et al looked into why some people benefitted from media usage and some didn’t. They found that people’s own appraisal of their media usage affected whether they benefitted or not. It seems that if someone is ego-depleted they are more likely to feel that watching TV is a waste of time and that they are putting off more important things that they should be doing. This prevented them from relaxing properly and reaping the down-time benefits of watching TV or playing games.
Those who were not ego-depleted were less likely to feel worried about wasting time and were able to gain the full benefits of the relaxation.
This, of course, causes an awkward situation: those who most need the relaxation of watching TV (those who are ego-depleted) are least likely to get it.
I should add that these findings in some ways go against other research into subjects like ego depletion. For example, ego depletion generally makes people less likely to feel guilty, so it is unclear why they felt guilty in this case.
Parole judges should snack regularly – as should anyone who makes important decisions.
One of the problems with being ego-depleted (when the combined resource for mental, emotional and physical effort has been drained) is the difficulty in putting effort into decision making. In this state of ego-depletion you are more likely to fall back on whatever the default option is, rather than investigating all the possibilities and carefully choosing the best one.
Danziger et al studied the timings and decisions of parole judges. Their job was to decide whether a prisoner should be granted parole or not, with the default position being that they should not – that is, they were to be granted parole only if there was a good reason. At the start of the day about 65% of prisoners were granted parole. This gradually went down until, for a period of time before lunch, almost no prisoners would be given it. After lunch the rate went back up to 65% and gradually declined once more. The longer it had been since the judges took a break and food, the more likely they were to defer to the easy option – the default judgement of no parole.
Eating snacks can help to keep the blood sugar level up, resulting in better decision making.
If you make important decisions, make sure your brain is rested and fed enough. You should take regular short breaks and eat something to restore the glucose levels in your blood. Becoming ego-depleted from exertion without rest and fuel means you risk settling for the easy option rather than choosing the correct course of action.
Feelings of guilt are important drivers of prosocial behaviour. If we feel guilty about something, we are more likely to do a favour for someone else.
Ego depletion is a state in which our combined resource for emotional, physical and mental effort has been drained by exertion in one of those areas, and has not had time to recover.
If someone is in a state of ego depletion they are less able to feel guilty and are therefore less likely to participate in prosocial behaviour – that is, behaviour which helps other people or society in general. Therefore, if you have had a hard session in the gym you are likely to be ego-depleted and are therefore less likely to perform a favour for someone else.
Begue and Bushman tested this hypothesis by getting their participants to watch a horrible film, but half of them had to suppress their emotions (one way of producing a state of ego-depletion). All the participants then took part in a game in which they saw other people being punished for the participants’ errors. This was designed to induce feelings of guilt. Finally, the participants were given the opportunity to donate, anonymously, to a charity. The people who had been told to suppress their emotions felt less guilty than the others, and were less likely to donate to the charity.
Physical, emotional and mental effort all seem to draw from the same attentional resource. This pool of attention is limited and a period of effort in any of these forms runs down this resource. It’s exhaustion leaves us in a state known as ego-depletion. In this state we are less able to concentrate well at physical, emotional or mental tasks. We are also less able to exert will power when faced a tempting offer.
Baumeister et al conducted several experiments in which people had to make themselves eat radishes instead of chocolates, suppress their emotions or make difficult calculations and so on. They then had to perform another task requiring will power or concentration. The emotionally, mentally or physically tired people would perform the second task less well than those who had not had to do the first one. For example, if they had been thinking hard about a mathematics problem, they would then be more likely to choose a chocolate cake to eat than a salad.
The psychologists’ conclusion was that “the self’s capacity for active volition is limited and that a range of seemingly different, unrelated acts share a common resource.”
So, next time you come out of the gym after a hard session, beware of advertisements. You are far more likely to succumb to temptation than you were before you went in.
If you are reading this online, first follow this link and watch the video, then come back.
You would think that if you are looking in a particular direction then you see whatever is there, as long as it is light enough. Unfortunately not. Inattention blindness is the term given to the fact that we miss some things that we are looking directly at, simply because our attention is focused on something else. Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris brought this phenomenon to the public with their basketball video, but it has been shown in other experiments too. The more focused your attention and concentration are, the more likely you are not to notice something unexpected.
The most obvious real-world situation where inattention blindness can have serious consequences is driving. You are fine if you are driving along a clear road in the daylight, which requires very little attention, whilst holding a conversation with a passenger. However, trying to negotiate a difficult, busy junction at night makes you pause the conversation because all of your attention is required for the driving. Your passenger realises this and shuts up so you can concentrate.
Scholl et al had their participants watch a screen and count the number of times various grey shapes bounced off the sides of the monitor. After a while a bright red shape moved across the screen and 30% of the participants didn’t notice it. That was classic inattentional blindness. Then the experimenters repeated the experiment with people who also had to carry on a conversation on a hands-free phone. The number who didn’t even see the bright red shape went up to 90%!
Someone on the other end of a phone call doesn’t know you are coming up to a tricky junction and that the conversation should be paused. They continue speaking, you feel you should continue to listen to them and respond appropriately. You are now so concentrated on trying to negotiate a tricky junction, whilst attending to the conversation, that you are far more likely (90% in that experiment!) not to notice the unexpected (a cyclist perhaps).
You may protest that you have never failed to notice anything before, but think about it. Unless you actually crashed into something, how would you know?