• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Thursday 10th July, 2008

Nothing's changed – so I’ve decided to change my mind

People crave consistency. We like to act according to our beliefs and we become troubled when we find ourselves doing things we don’t believe in. So much so that, on occasion, we may be willing to change our reasoning to match our behavior. This is the basic idea behind “dissonance theory”. In their classic 1950s experiments, Leon Festinger and J. Merrill Carlsmith were able to change study participants’ feelings toward boring, repetitive activities (like turning pegs or putting spools on a tray) by asking them to persuade other participants that the activities were actually quite engaging. [See, with caution, Wikipedia : Cognitive dissonance.]Curiously, participants who received $20 for agreeing to do the persuading represented the tedious activities less positively than those who were paid only $1. This finding led Festinger and Carlsmith to suggest – more controversially – that contrast or “dissonance” between actions and beliefs is greatest when people believe their behavior is voluntary (ie. not performed for a reward). Volunteers are thus more motivated to reduce the discomfort of dissonance by changing their attitudes.So can the power of the basic desire for consistency be harnessed to change behaviors in the real world? In other words, can we convince people to change harmful attitudes by coaxing them voluntarily to change their behavior, at least for a few hours?These questions have prompted a wave of experiments on programs designed to prevent eating disorders among girls and young women. In a recent article in Prevention Science, Eric Stice of the University of Texas and several other US researchers review the results from a number of such “dissonance-based interventions”. In a variation on one of the original Festinger and Carlsmith investigations, experimenters were paid varying amounts of money (eg, one or ten dollars) to expressing in writing opinions contrary to their own.Specifically, volunteers were asked to behave in ways that people with healthier behavior and ideas about body weight would behave. For example, they wrote letters to hypothetical younger girls about the dangers of idealizing thinness. They tried to dissuade group leaders from pursuing the thin-ideal, and made lists of the top ten things girls can do to resist. Most of the activities occurred in a group setting in line with research that shows that people are more likely to adopt ideas which they have proclaimed publicly.Based on their review, Stice and company conclude that dissonance-based interventions for eating disorders tend to be significantly more effective than other approaches. One of the studies followed participants over several years and found participants still benefiting three years after the group sessions. The researchers also note that the same approach has helped to reduce negative attitudes and to promote positive behavior in relation to drinking, smoking, practicing safe sex, and even conserving water. So, while changing attitudes in order to change behavior might seem the intuitive route, evidence suggests that changing behavior first (and letting attitudes follow suit) might be more powerful.[See also the Northwestern University School of Law’s “Bluhm Blog” Must Read: Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts ]• Summary of “Dissonance-based Interventions for the Prevention of Eating Disorders: Using Persuasion Principles to Promote Health” by Eric Stice, Heather Shaw, Carolyn Black Becker and Paul Rohde in Prevention Science, Volume 9, Number 2, June, 2008, pp 114-128.

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