Justifying ourselves: Leon Festinger's peg-turning study A classic in cognitive dissonance.
The remarkable Hannah Whittingam, the researcher on this series, found this trove of psychological study about the relationship between cognitive dissonance and interpersonal attraction.
RESOLUTION OF COGNITIVE DISSONANCE
"It is a principle of human nature to hate those whom you have injured." Tacitus
As logical human beings, we are wired to try to eradicate cognitive dissonance should it emerge; whether we find that two of our beliefs logically oppose one another, or whether we stumble upon something that contradicts beliefs formed by our past experience.
Researchers found that this is also the case in interpersonal relationships. Through a series of studies where participants were instructed to be cruel or kind to strangers, it was found that those performing un-called-for bad deeds were inclined to form a dislike of the stranger, in order to justify their behaviour.
Those instructed to perform a good deed or a favour for the stranger were more likely to judge the stranger to be of good character. Thus, individuals were found to change their attitude towards strangers in order to be consistent with their behaviour.
Research suggests that unmerited kindness produces dissonance in a benefactor. If a person holds the belief that people should get what they deserve, yet finds himself in the position of gratuitously rewarding an undeserving person, he will experience dissonance.
One way to reduce this dissonance is to convince oneself that the recipient of the benefit is in fact more deserving than he had initially thought. One study (Hastorf and Regan, outlined by Berscheid) conducted a study in which a lame student asked another student to pick up some pills from the Health Service. He claimed to be unable to get the pills himself. In some cases, the trip to the Health Service required the expenditure of a great deal of effort, for instance, the subject was required to walk there in poor weather. In other conditions, the trip was not so effortful. Hastorf and Regan found that individuals who had to exert more effort to do the favour liked the recipient of their kindness better than did individuals who performed a less effortful favour.
Jecker and Landy conducted a similar experiment in this area. Subjects were recruited to participate in a concept formation task. By design, they won either 60 cents or $3.00 at the task. Throughout the experiment, the experimenter behaved in a uniformly rude and brusk way towards them.
Subjects were randomly assigned either to a No-Favour condition, to the FE condition (a condition in which they did a favour for the experimenter), or to the FP condition (a condition in which they did a favour for someone other than the experimenter).
If the subject had been assigned to the FE condition, the experimenter explained the funds for his experiment had run out, so that he was now using his own money. He then asked, as a favour, whether the participant would mind returning the money they had won.
If the subject had already returned his winnings to the experimenter, the secretary simply gave him a questionnaire to fill out. The subjects were to evaluate various aspects of the experiment in which they had participated, ostensibly for the Psychology Department. Actually, this questionnaire asked subjects to rate their personal liking for the experimenter.
Subjects who still had their winnings were treated in one of two ways. No-Favour subjects were also given the Psychology Department's questionnaire as soon as they arrived. FP subjects were in a control treatment in which they were asked to do a favour for someone other than the experimenter. In this condition, the secretary said: "The money Mr. Boyd is using comes from the Psychology Department's research fund, which is running extremely low. The department would appreciate your doing it a favour by returning the money to the fund." After these subjects had returned their winnings, they filled out the dependent measure.
Overwhelmingly, those subjects who returned the money to the experimenter liked him better than did the subjects who returned their money to the Psychology Department.