An old proverb says “he who blames would buy”: is it really possible to start appreciating (even a lot) what we initially didn’t like? Let’s try to think about it one step at a time. The root of the problem is our attitude, indeed every one of us has a personal box to constantly draw from. There are situations, events, people, ways of doing things that we love or we despise: during each moment of the day, we see a particular attitude at work. Attitude can be defined as any personal opinion that contains a value judgement, such as “betrayal is wrong”, “fried foods are not good” or “only annoying kids play football in the street.” But what happens if, for whatever reason, we must act in contrast to it? At work, in order to please someone or because of other factors, sooner or later it happens to do something we said we would never do.
No matter what the cause is, if we do not have a strong enough justification to go against our attitudes in that moment, we experience what Festinger called “cognitive dissonance”. Cognitive dissonance is an unpleasant state that comes from the incongruity arisen between our basic attitude and what we have actually done. We went to dinner at that restaurant where we said we wouldn’t have ever eaten; we spent a boring evening but we told them that we were having fun; we swore utmost sincerity to our best friend but when we saw her boyfriend flirting with someone else we stayed silent. In our daily life, such examples abound.
According to authors like Zanna and Cooper, cognitive dissonance manifests itself to our perception in the form of arousal, meaning an unpleasant activation of our vegetative system: increased heart rate, increased sweating, breathlessness or restlessness. In order to ensure that these symptoms are interpreted as manifestations of the dissonance, they must be attributed to the inconsistency we have just put in place. We must be aware that what was annoying activation is solely due to our behavior conflicting with our attitude, not anything else.
At this point, according to Festinger, we would be naturally inclined to eliminate this unpleasant condition caused by dissonance. To go to the next step, the primary determinant is the justification that we can give. “Why did I go against my attitude?”: if the answer provides a valid reason that makes us feel at least congruent with another important value of ours, the dissonance is not experienced and there won’t be further consequences. For example, this happens if we get very well paid or if we do it for a higher cause (think of the famous “lies for a good purpose”). On the contrary, if we behave against our attitude without adequate motivation, we fall victims of dissonance, due to the effect of insufficient justification.
How do we solve this conflict, according to Festinger? Just by changing attitude. This modification happens only when there is no adequate justification and it completely makes sense, since it let us be at peace with ourselves.
Let’s try for a moment to reflect on how much the dissonance may be connected with some deviant behavior: it can happen, especially among adolescents, to adopt behavior contrary to their attitudes, maybe just because they wish to accepted. Drinking inordinately, leading an excessive life or even enacting violent actions: by applying Festinger’s theory to these examples, we could see how the change in attitude towards certain behaviors is a natural consequence and we could, at least in part, explain these changes of course.
If properly used, however, dissonance can do great things. Benjamin Franklin knew this well, indeed, conscious of having a powerful political opponent which was not very nice, he decided to write him a letter asking to borrow a very rare book from him. Faced with this request, the opponent could not say no and after the episode they became great friends (and they remained friends for the rest of their lives). What did Franklin trigger in the other’s head with this gesture? Basically, he had “set the tone” to a mechanism of cognitive dissonance: the man had just lent a book of inestimable value to a person he does not like at all! Unable to ignore this incident, he would have suffered every time the thought crossed his mind. Alternatively, he could have changed his attitude towards him…
Therefore, it is often true that “he who blames would buy”, because, once an attitude is broken without a valid reason, dissonance is always lurking.
Graduated in Applied Criminology, Investigation, and Security at Bologna University
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Gray, P. (2012) Psicologia. Bologna: Zanichelli.
Mannetti, L. (2002). Psicologia Sociale. Carocci: Roma.
Revlin, R. (2014) Psicologia cognitiva. Teoria e pratica. Bologna: Zanichelli.