Why don't doomsday cults break up when their apocalyptic predictions fail to come true? After all of that suffering and inconvenience, people want to make the best of a situation. And this same phenomenon will allow you to treat people like crap, and pay them a pittance — and they'll thank you.
We've all heard the Aesop's Fable about the fox and the grapes. The fox is walking around, doing whatever foxes do, when it looks up and sees some grapes hanging on a vine. The fable, to its credit, is biologically accurate. Foxes will eat grapes if they can get them. In this particular fable, though, the fox couldn't get them. After trying for a while, it angrily said that they were probably sour anyway, and walked off. This is a version of negative cognitive dissonance. When we want something but can't have it, we have to justify not having it so we don't feel bad about our situation.
If the fox were totally subscribing to the theory of cognitive dissonance — as put forward by Leon Festinger in the 1950s — the fox would have followed its pronouncement that the grapes were sour by brightly saying, "But it was really good that I tried, because I got a lot of exercise!" Cognitive dissonance doesn't just cause us to denigrate the things we don't get, it also makes us justify the things we do get — and the ridiculous actions we take to get them.
Festinger started formulating this theory when he noticed the fact that doomsday cults stay together after the apocalypse failed to materialize. How did they justify all the inconveniences, and the evidence against their vision?
In 1959 he tested out his theory of cognitive dissonance, with a basic experiment. He recruited about seventy volunteers and had them do a simple task. In fact, he had them do a very simple task. They turned pegs in a pegboard. Over and over again. For an hour. This task brilliantly combined monotony and fiddling little details and no one enjoyed it.
After the experiment was over, Festinger asked the volunteers to come with him and convince the next volunteer that the task was going to be the equivalent of playing video games while having their feet massaged by their favorite celebrity. Oh boy, they were going to have a good time! Since this was over and above what the original volunteers had been asked to do, Festinger told them that they were going to be paid for it. Some he said he would pay twenty dollars. Some were paid one dollar.
After they'd sent the next volunteer — usually another scientist posing as a volunteer — off to endless tedium, the participants were interviewed about whether or not they enjoyed the activity. No one was paying them to lie at that point, but one would think that loyalty to the dollar would cause the ones who were paid more to think more kindly of the experiment. That was not the case. The ones who were paid twenty dollars cheerfully admitted that the task was actually bang-your-head-against-a-wall boring, while the ones who were only paid a dollar rated the task as, if not fun, then at least more fun than the well-paid ingrates considered it.
Why? It seems that one dollar isn't enough to let a lie sit well on one's conscience. In order to justify getting, essentially, a handful of change flung in their face as a reward for deceiving another human being, the volunteers who were paid less actually made themselves believe the task was more fun than it was, and so they weren't lying. The ones who sold their soul for a whole twenty were more clear-eyed in their assessment of the stupid boring thing that the egghead scientists had made them do.
There's all kinds of cognitive dissonance on display in everyday life, but the first experiment might have revealed the most potential for evil. Treat people well and pay them well, and they might grumble over the tedium. Let them know that they're getting ripped off, and they're having to be underhanded while doing it, and they'll hum a happy tune because — what else are they going to do, admit that everything sucks?
First Image: Jon Sullivan
Second Image: Roman Oleinik