How and Why We Lie to Ourselves
A classic 1959 Social Psychology (1) experiment
demonstrates how and why we lie to ourselves. Understanding this
experiment sheds a brilliant light on the dark world of our inner
The ground-breaking social psychological experiment of Festinger and
Carlsmith (1959) provides a central insight into the stories we tell
ourselves about why we think and behave the way we do. The experiment
is filled with ingenious deception so the best way to understand it is
to imagine you are taking part. So sit back, relax and travel back. The
time is 1959 and you are an undergraduate student at Stanford
As part of your course you agree to take part in an experiment on
'measures of performance'. You are told the experiment will take two
hours. As you are required to act as an experimental subject for a
certain number of hours in a year - this will be two more of them out
of the way.
Little do you know, the experiment will actually become a classic in
social psychology. And what will seem to you like accidents by the
experimenters are all part of a carefully controlled deception. For now
though, you are innocent.
Once in the lab you are told the experiment is about how your
expectations affect the actual experience of a task. Apparently there
are two groups and in the other group they have been given a particular
expectation about the study. To instil the expectation subtly, the
participants in the other groups are informally briefed by a student
who has apparently just completed the task. In your group, though,
you'll do the task with no expectations.
Perhaps you wonder why you're being told all this, but nevertheless it
makes it seem a bit more exciting now that you know some of the
mechanics behind the experiment.
So you settle down to the first task you are given, and quickly realise
it is extremely boring. You are asked to move some spools around in a
box for half an hour, then for the next half an hour you move pegs
around a board. Frankly, watching paint dry would have been preferable.
At the end of the tasks the experimenter thanks you for taking part,
then tells you that many other people find the task pretty interesting.
This is a little confusing - the task was very boring. Whatever. You
let it pass.
Then the experimenter looks a little embarrassed and starts to explain
haltingly that there's been a cock-up. He says they need your help. The
participant coming in after you is in the other condition they
mentioned before you did the task - the condition in which they have an
expectation before carrying out the task. This expectation is that the
task is actually really interesting. Unfortunately the person who
usually sets up their expectation hasn't turned up.
So, they ask if you wouldn't mind doing it. Not only that but they
offer to pay you $1. Because it's 1959 and you're a student this is not
completely insignificant for only a few minutes work. And, they tell
you that they can use you again in the future. It sounds like easy
money so you agree to take part. This is great - what started out as a
simple fulfilment of a course component has unearthed a little ready
cash for you.
You are quickly introduced to the next participant who is about to do
the same task you just completed. As instructed you tell her that the
task she's about to do is really interesting. She smiles, thanks you
and disappears off into the test room. You feel a pang of regret for
getting her hopes up. Then the experimenter returns, thanks you again,
and once again tells you that many people enjoy the task and hopes you
found it interesting.
Then you are ushered through to another room where you are interviewed
about the experiment you've just done. One of the questions asks you
about how interesting the task was that you were given to do. This
makes you pause for a minute and think.
Now it seems to you that the task wasn't as boring as you first
thought. You start to see how even the repetitive movements of the
spools and pegs had a certain symmetrical beauty. And it was all in the
name of science after all. This was a worthwhile endeavour and you hope
the experimenters get some interesting results out of it.
The task still couldn't be classified as great fun, but perhaps it
wasn't that bad. You figure that, on reflection, it wasn't as bad as
you first thought. You rate it moderately interesting.
After the experiment you go and talk to your friend who was also doing
the experiment. Comparing notes you found that your experiences were
almost identical except for one vital difference. She was offered way
more than you to brief the next student: $20! This is when it first
occurs to you that there's been some trickery at work here.
You ask her about the task with the spools and pegs:
"Oh," she replies. "That was sooooo boring,
I gave it the lowest rating
"No," you insist. "It wasn't that bad. Actually when you think about
it, it was pretty interesting."
She looks at you incredulously.
What the hell is going on?
What you've just experienced is the power of cognitive dissonance.
Social psychologists studying cognitive dissonance are interested in
the way we deal with two thoughts that contradict each other - and how
we deal with this contradiction.
In this case: you thought the task was boring to start off with then
you were paid to tell someone else the task was interesting. But,
you're not the kind of person to casually go around lying to people. So
how can you resolve your view of yourself as an honest person with
lying to the next participant? The amount of money you were paid hardly
salves your conscience - it was nice but not that nice.
Your mind resolves this conundrum by deciding that actually the study
was pretty interesting after all. You are helped to this conclusion by
the experimenter who tells you other people also thought the study was
Your friend, meanwhile, has no need of these mental machinations. She
merely thinks to herself: I've been paid $20 to lie, that's a small
fortune for a student like me, and more than justifies my fibbing. The
task was boring and still is boring whatever the experimenter tells me.
A beautiful theory
Since this experiment numerous studies of cognitive dissonance have
been carried out and the effect is well-established. Its beauty is that
it explains so many of our everyday behaviours. Here are some examples
provided by Morton Hunt in his classic work The Story of Psychology (2).
When trying to join a group, the harder they make the barriers to
entry, the more you value your membership. To resolve the dissonance
between the hoops you were forced to jump through, and the reality of
what turns out to be a pretty average club, we convince ourselves the
club is, in fact, fantastic.
• People will interpret the same information
in radically different ways to support their own views of the world.
When deciding our view on a contentious point, we conveniently forget
what jars with our own theory and remember everything that fits.
quickly adjust their values to fit their behaviour, even when it is
clearly immoral. Those stealing from their employer will claim that
"Everyone does it" so they would be losing out if they didn't, or
alternatively that "I'm underpaid so I deserve a little extra on the
Once you start to think about it, the list of situations in which
people resolve cognitive dissonance through rationalisations becomes
ever longer and longer. If you're honest with yourself, I'm sure you
can think of many times when you've done it yourself. I know I can.
Being aware of this can help us avoid falling foul of the most
dangerous consequences of cognitive dissonance: believing our own lies.
source of this article
Original reference used by article's author: Festinger, L., &
Carlsmith, J. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance.
Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 58, 203-10.
psychology experiment - Details
Story of Psychology
The M+G+R Foundation
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