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I Am, Therefore I Rationalize

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Since writing about the newly discovered ability of monkeys to rationalize, I've gotten reactions to the experiment from some other experts in cognitive dissonance. Some of them find the new research with monkeys intriguing but say it doesn't explain the complicated forms of rationalization employed by human primates.

I heard from Elliot Aronson, who started his career at Stanford working with the father of cognitive dissonance theory, Leon Festinger. He and Dr. Festinger had what he calls a "strenuous running argument" over whether cognitive dissonance would be aroused in the mind of a guy who got a flat tire on a lonely country road at night and discovered he didn't have a jack in his trunk. Dr. Festinger maintained there'd be no cognitive dissonance because there were no conflicting throughts in the guy's head; Dr. Aronson disagreed, arguing that the driver's "cognition about his idiotic behavior" would conflict with his "self-concept of being a reasonably smart guy." The notion that we rationalize in order to preserve our "self-concept" became one of the competing explanations for cognitive dissonance.

Monkeys presumably don't have all that elaborate a concept of themselves, yet in the experiment at Yale, once they chose a red M&M over a blue M&M, they seemed to be afflicted with cognitive dissonance — and reduced it by acting as if they didn't like the blue one anyway. How does this finding jibe with the self-concept theory? I asked Dr. Aronson and Carol Tavris, the co-authors of a new book, "Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)." Here's their answer:

The monkey research shows that the brain is nicely adapted to efficiently maintain its beliefs and decisions at a basic neurological level. But human beings have that damned cerebral cortex, the part that allows us to say, subsequently, "Say, Consumer Reports says that red M&M's are really bad for your health, but blue ones are beneficial." Here in LA, that would produce a run on blue M&Ms, no matter how many red ones had been popular.

More important, unlike monkeys, we have a self-concept that we are constantly trying to protect and live up to—monkeys rarely have to worry about bad reviews, or feeling foolish about having voted for a leader who started inter-troop warfare. As we say in our book, dissonance reduction may hum along beneath awareness, but how we learn to think about decisions, whether we admit they were wrong and change course—not easy, but that ability does differentiate us from monkeys. Sometimes!

Other experts suggested that the monkeys' behavior tended to support "self-perception" theory — which (bear with me) is not the same as "self-concept" theory. It's the theory that once you perceive yourself making a choice — say, an electric sandwich press over a toaster, as in the classic experiment I described in my column — then you conclude that the toaster must be unappealing to you simply because you rejected it, not because you're trying to banish the dissonant thought that you made a mistake.

Could be that what was going on with the monkeys? Here's an answer from the social psychologist Daniel Gilbert, the author of "Stumbling On Happiness":

The data in the monkey study are extremely interesting. They could be interpreted in terms of cognitive dissonance theory, but there are other interpretations as well. For example, monkeys may be wired not to waste time making the same evaluation twice. So once they reject something, they remember that they rejected it and reject it again in the future. The fact that monkeys derogate unchosen items is novel and important, but the "Why?" question is still unanswered.

I also heard from the scientist who did that famous 1956 experiment, Jack Brehm, and he concurs with the researchers who see cognitive dissonance in the monkeys:

It does not surprise me that monkeys behave in this way. Cognitions guide behavior for monkeys, dogs, cats, and other animals as well as humans, and frequently there will be conflicts between behavioral options. When a choice is made, one or more preferences can be thwarted, and that is the basis of dissonance. So the animal (including humans) must give up its desire for the rejected alternative.

Dr. Brehm, who was a student of Dr. Festinger's, calls the monkey experiment "a genuine contribution—one that Festinger would have liked," and says it "suggests that the basic process involved in dissonance does not depend on factors that have been suggested by a variety of researchers as central to the dissonance process—the self-concept, for example."

Are you sensing some disonnance among researchers here? Well, they've only been debating this topic for half a century now.



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