Sweet Little Lies
A fox crept up to a vine. He gazed longingly at the fat, purple, overripe grapes. He placed his front paws against the trunk of the vine, stretched his neck, and tried to get at the fruit, but it was too high. Irritated, he tried his luck again. He launched himself upward, but his jaw snapped only at fresh air. A third time he leapt with all his might—so powerfully that he landed back down on the ground with a thud. Still not a single leaf had stirred. The fox turned up his nose: “These aren’t even ripe yet. Why would I want sour grapes?” Holding his head high, he strode back into the forest.
The Greek poet Aesop created this fable to illustrate one of the most common errors in reasoning. An inconsistency arose when the fox set out to do something and failed to accomplish it. He can resolve this conflict in one of three ways: (a) by somehow getting at the grapes, (b) by admitting that his skills are insufficient, or (c) by reinterpreting what happened retrospectively. The last option is an example of cognitive dissonance, or, rather, its resolution.
Suppose you buy a new car. However, you regret your choice soon afterward: The engine sounds like a jet taking off and you just can’t get comfortable in the driver’s seat. What do you do? Giving the car back would be an admission of error (you don’t want that!), and anyway, the dealer probably wouldn’t refund all the money. So you tell yourself that a loud engine and awkward seats are great safety features that will prevent you from falling asleep at the wheel. Not so stupid after all, you think, and you are suddenly proud of your sound, practical purchase.
Leon Festinger and James M. Carlsmith of Stanford University once asked their students to carry out an hour of excruciatingly boring tasks. They then divided the subjects into two groups. Each student in group A received a dollar (it was 1959) and instructions to wax lyrical about the work to another student waiting outside—in other words, to lie. The same was asked of the students in group B, with one difference: They were given $20 for the task. Later, the students had to divulge how they really found the monotonous work. Interestingly, those who received only a dollar rated it as significantly more enjoyable and interesting. Why? One measly dollar was not enough for them to lie outright; instead they convinced themselves that the work was not that bad. Just as Aesop’s fox reinterpreted the situation, so did they. The students who received more didn’t have to justify anything. They had lied and netted $20 for it—a fair deal. They experienced no cognitive dissonance.
Suppose you apply for a job and discover you have lost out to another candidate. Instead of admitting that the other person was better suited, you convince yourself that you didn’t want the job in the first place; you simply wanted to test your “market value” and see if you could get invited for interview.
I reacted very similarly some time ago when I had to choose between investing in two different stocks. My chosen stock lost much of its value shortly after the purchase, whereas shares in the other stock, the one I hadn’t invested in, skyrocketed. I couldn’t bring myself to admit my error. Quite the reverse, in fact: I distinctly remember trying to convince a friend that, though the stock was experiencing teething problems, it still had more potential overall. Only cognitive dissonance can explain this remarkably irrational reaction. The “potential” would indeed have been even greater if I had postponed the decision to purchase the shares until today. It was that friend who told me the Aesop fable. “You can play the clever fox all you want—but you’ll never get the grapes that way.”