Using Cognitive Dissonance
The study of psychology results is useful knowledge about
how we think and act, which (we hope) can be used to make our
lives better. But the knowledge gained can also be used to manipulate
people. The various forms of psychological manipulation are usually
subliminal, meaning they happen without the conscious awareness
of their use by the target. I've reported on these techniques
before, and will continue to do so.
My goal isn't to provide you with tools to do nasty things,
but to make you aware of tricks that might be used on you. Also,
this information is just plain interesting. So with that in mind,
here is what you need to know (or might like to know) about cognitive
dissonance and how it is used for psychological manipulation.
We prefer to be consistent with what we think we should be,
and what we believe or say. It is uncomfortable to have hold
two opposing beliefs. So when we're faced with inconsistency,
we experience what psychologists call "cognitive dissonance,"
which is the stress resulting from holding two contradictory
cognitions at once. Cognitions, in this context, can be a thoughts,
attitudes, emotions, beliefs or behaviors.
For example, suppose a man thinks he's a nice person, but
says something cruel to a woman he works with. That uncomfortable
feeling he experiences is less about her being hurt as it is
about violating his belief about himself as a nice man. This
is cognitive dissonance, but the important point for our purposes
is that he feels the need to resolve it (we all do). He can do
so in a number of ways.
First, he could alter his belief, recognizing that he's not
always nice. This is perhaps the least likely option to be chosen.
Second, he can explain why she deserved it, thus making it her
fault, not his. This is probably the most common way to resolve
one's own self-doubt. He could blame it on other factors, telling
himself he's only this way when tired, for example. The many
psychological responses to cognitive dissonance are fascinating,
but how ar they used to manipulate a person?
The manipulator might start by getting people to say something
about who they are or what they believe. He fashions his "sale's
pitch" in such a way that by doing what he wants the prospect
resolves any cognitive dissonance, or in such a way that any
other choice causes the discomfort of inconsistency. By the way,
this works whether he's actually selling a product, an idea,
or just trying to persuade a man to take a particular action.
Is this a dirty trick? Yes. Here's an example of how it could
A man enters a computer shop one evening and tells the salesman
a little bit about what he's looking for. The salesman tells
him about some new model that he will be selling in a couple
weeks, but describes it in a way that makes the customer not
want it. He finishes with a comment like, "But that won't
be here for a couple weeks. You want something today, right?"
If the man agrees, the salesman has his opening.
The idea is to get him to say something that can be used.
He will feel uncomfortable acting in a way which contradicts
what he has said. After he says something like, "Yes, I
want to bring something home tonight," the salesman might
now say, "Well, it's getting late for more shopping, so
if you really want to get a stereo today, I think I have what
you need right over here." The phrase, "if you really
want to get a stereo today," reminds him of his words, influencing
him to follow through on them.
Manipulating People Into a Commitment
Let's look at a non-monetary example. Suppose a woman is trying
to organize a clean-up of a local park, and she's with friends
who might help. Instead of asking directly, she steers the conversation
to the trash in the park and lets them talk about it. Then she
suggests, "We residents should do something about it, shouldn't
we?" As soon as some of them agree, she asks each one which
day they can volunteer a few hours to help out. The new volunteers
just stated that they should do something, so it is tough to
now say they shouldn't. Publicly stated beliefs and commitments
are the most uncomfortable ones for a person to contradict or
back out of.
Another way to use cognitive dissonance is to suggest something
about a person that he can agree with, and then ask for a small
commitment based on it. For example, to influence a man politically,
the manipulator might start with, "Hi, you probably care
about justice, so could I have just thirty seconds of your time?"
In the man's mind he immediately agrees to the first part (caring
about justice), so to be consistent he feels the need to grant
the small request, due to the manipulator's subtle inference
that if he cares, he will give him thirty seconds. This is just
a first step, of course. Small commitments lead to larger ones.
In one study, reported in the Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology, psychology students were asked to participate
in research on thinking processes. One group was told beforehand
that they would have to show up at 7:00 A.M. The second group
was first asked if they would participate, and then told
it would start at 7:00 A.M. Here are the results:
Group One (First told the research would start at 7:00
24% agreed to participate and showed up.
Group Two (First asked if they would participate and
then told that they would start at 7:00 A.M.):
56% agreed, and 95% of them showed up, for an overall compliance
rate of over 53% (95% of the 56%), more than twice that of the
One obvious lesson is to mention the good stuff first when
seeking a commitment. Afterwards, having agreed to something,
people feel uneasy saying no, even if the new information makes
them not want to continue.
Other research shows that any minor commitment makes people
far more likely to make a larger one. If you first agree to watch
your friend's dog for an hour, for example, you're more likely
to later agree to care for him for a week (don't you hope your
friend doesn't know these tricks?). This is true even though
you never said you would watch him for a week. By watching him
at all, you've created a concept of yourself as the "helpful
friend who watches the dog," and you feel cognitive dissonance
when thinking about denying the next request. It becomes psychologically
easier to just say yes.
This is all very manipulative, at least when used consciously.
I'm not recommending that you use these techniques (although
we probably all use them to some extent subconsciously), and
I think there are honest and rational ways to persuade others.
But if these less-honest methods are being used on you, at least
you might recognize that now.