It is commonly assumed that our behaviors follow from our attitudes, and under certain conditions this is true. But it is equally accurate to say that our attitudes can result from our behaviors (Myers, 2008).
Leon Festinger and J. Merrill Carlsmith carried out an experiment in 1959 that illustrated this point. They had college students spend one hour performing dull and repetitive tasks, which attitude measures revealed they disliked. Individuals in two separate conditions were then asked to tell the next “participant” (who was actually an experimenter) that the work was enjoyable (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959).
Curiously, participants awarded just $1 to make these counter-attitudinal statements came to view the original tasks more favorably. But those given $20 did not (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959). Findings like these triggered a plethora of research designed to answer how, when, and why our actions can change our attitudes. The two most influential theories to come out of this period were cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957) and self-perception theory (Bem, 1967).
Cognitive Dissonance Theory
Cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957) operates on the premise that humans have a basic need for cognitive consistency. This means our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors have to agree with one another (McLeod, 2014). This makes sense evolutionarily, since part of our species’ survival involves anticipating future events and selecting from various action-sequences (Jordan, 2013; Masicampo & Baumeister, 2013). When our cognitions conflict with one another, it might interfere with these processes (Gawronski, 2012). Such disagreements therefore lead to the negative sensation of cognitive dissonance, which motivates us to bring our cognitions into alignment (Myers, 2008; Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959; Gawronski, 2004).
There are several ways to alleviate cognitive dissonance. One option is to blame our discrepant behavior on the situation (Fazio, Zanna, & Cooper, 1977). That is why participants in Festinger and Carlsmith’s (1959) $20 condition did not revise their attitudes: they had a good reason to act the way they did. But when an individual has insufficient justification for their counter-attitudinal behaviors, they tend to adjust their attitudes to fit their actions (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959; Myers, 2008).
The support for cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957) is vast. But it does not explain attitude change that occurs without cognitive dissonance (Myers, 2008; Fazio et al., 1977). That is where self-perception theory (Bem, 1967) comes in.
Bem’s (1967) self-perception theory claims that we infer our attitudes from our observations of our own behavior. For example, when we perform an unsolicited act of kindness we may come to view ourselves as kind people. When we argue a position that is in accordance with, but a little beyond, our current attitudes; we may adjust our beliefs to fit our self-observed behavior (Fazio et al., 1977). Self-perception theory (Bem, 1967) helps to explain two important phenomena: the foot-in-the-door technique and the overjustification effect.
The foot-in-the-door technique refers to the finding that when someone agrees to a small request, they are more likely to agree to larger ones in the future (Myers, 2008). For instance, Freedman and Fraser (1966) demonstrated that participants who consented to display insignificant “Be a safe driver” window signs were dramatically more willing to allow hideous “Drive Carefully” signs to be installed in their front yards. Freedman and Fraser (1966) postulated that the individuals who agreed to showcase the window signs came to view themselves as “…the kind of person who does this sort of thing” (p. 201).
Subsequent research has revealed that the foot-in-the-door technique is more effective when the initial act involves some effort (Gneezy, Imas, Brown, Nelson, & Norton, 2012; Baca-Motes, Brown, Gneezy, Keenan, & Nelson, 2012), and when it includes a public reminder (Baca-Motes et al., 2012).
The other significant phenomenon that is explained by self-perception theory (Bem, 1972) is the overjustification effect. When given an unnecessary incentive that is designed to control behavior, it can reduce one’s intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1987; Myers, 2008). Under these conditions, individuals perceive their actions to be the result of external forces. Consequently, rewards administered inappropriately (more on what that means later) may not lead to lasting behavior change (Deci & Ryan, 1987), and might even turn cherished work into drudgery (Myers, 2008).
To be Continued
I have barely scratched the surface on how our behaviors can affect our attitudes, since this topic has been studied heavily. But when I return to it, I will apply the above concepts to the realm of conservation.
Festinger, L. & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-210. Retrieved from http://heatherlench.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/festinger.pdf.
Gawronski, B. (2012). Back to the future of dissonance theory: Cognitive consistency as a core motive. Social Cognition, 30(6), 652-668. http://dx.doi.org/10.1521/soco.2012.30.6.652.
Gneezy, A., Imas, I., Brown, A., Nelson, L. D., & Norton, M. I. (2012). Paying to be nice: Consistency and costly prosocial behavior. Management Science, 58(1), 179-187. http://dx.doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.1110.1437.
Fazio, R. H., Zanna, M. P., & Cooper, J. (1977). Dissonance and self-perception: An integrative view of each theory’s proper domain of application. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 464-479. Retrieved from http://heatherlench.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/fazio.pdf.
McLeod, S. (2008). Cognitive dissonance. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html.