I kind of love the phrase “cognitive dissonance”. Although I don’t really use it correctly (I’m not sure that it translates as a snooty version of “you’re both boring and irritating and it’s happening to me at the same time”). It’s meant to mean that you hold two conflicting beliefs simultaneously and it causes you pain*. *so I’m almost there – if “boring” and “irritating” can be considered conflicting…

But what’s really interesting is the resolution of cognitive dissonance, which is the source of “fake it til you make it”…

And I guess it should go without saying that this is the lead-in to a psychological experiment on cognitive dissonance. And specifically: how it relates to being paid.

Meet Mr Festinger and Mr Carlsmith

In 1959, these two psychologists set up the following experiment:

Step 1: invite students from Stanford to participate in a study about mental attentiveness (also known as: “the ruse”).

Step 2: tell them that the task should only take an hour, but to be safe, you’ve booked them for two, so that you can do a little interview at the end.

Step 3: give them mind-numbing tasks for an hour, while you sit by and pay attention to a stopwatch. These should include:

    1. Placing objects into a tray, then removing them, then putting them back in the tray, then removing them, and so on for 30 minutes.
    2. Turning each peg on a board of 48 pegs one turn to the left, repeatedly, for a further 30 minutes.

Step 4: when the hour is over, and the student is well and truly negative, approach the student in an awkward fashion and ask him for a favour…

Step 5: inform the student that there are actually two groups of people in this “mental attentiveness” experiment: his group, which had no warning of what was coming; and a second group that was primed by being told that the tasks were exciting, interesting, and a cause of great delight.

Step 6: declare that the person that usually does the priming has just called in sick, and that you desperately need someone to prime the candidate that’s waiting in the next room (after explaining that it can’t be the experimenter/you, because that might be considered bias).

Step 7: offer to compensate the student for his time. For a third of the students, offer $1 compensation. For the second third, offer them $20. The final third don’t experience steps 6 and 7 – being the control group, they jump straight to step 9 after the experiment was explained to them.

Step 8: wait for the student to go and speak to the “candidate” next door (an actor, in reality).

Step 9: take the student to his interview, where the interviewer is entirely unaware of which group the student is part of (the control group, the $1 group, or the $20 group)

Step 10: the interviewer asked some questions about the student’s enjoyment of the experiment and the tasks.

The Key Results

The control group, obviously, was very negative about the enjoyment of the tasks. And that comes as no surprise.

But here’s the surprise:

  • The $20 group was also negative about things; but
  • The $1 group said that they had enjoyed their hour of mind-numbing.

To repeat: if the student was paid nothing or paid generously, then they experienced the task negatively. If they were only paid a token amount, then they enjoyed it.

How to explain it?

The general interpretation, as I understand it, is this:

  1. When you get paid $20 to make a boring task sound enjoyable, you consciously feel like you’re being paid to lie. And that’s fine, because there is a clear dividing line between what you’re saying and what you actually think – so your personal opinion does not change.
  2. When you get paid $1 to make a boring task sound enjoyable, you feel like you’re being compensated for your time. Because there is no clear line at this point, you seek to rationalise a connection between what you’re saying and what you actually think – so in order to talk up the boring task, you actually reframe the experience as positive in your mind.

To Extrapolate

Obviously, what this experiment clearly indicates is that everyone has a price. Which is only reasonable. I mean, we may say that we don’t; but if the million dollars was actually sitting in front of you, in a briefcase, and all it would take is an hour of relative discomfort, you’d at least pause for thought…

But the other conclusion here is that the human mind does a lot more rationalising than we perhaps realise. And I think that’s why there are people who get stuck in really low-paying jobs – as in, those people in the office that work really hard on the tasks that no one likes but then don’t really get rewarded at salary review time because the boss is a scrooge.

The thought process could sound something like this: but I’m not sure if I could find anything else, and I like the people that I work with, and I’m actually quite happy where I am when I think about it…

All I’m saying is: I think it would pay us to think about the way that we think.

Unless you’re the boss, in which case, just pay people to continue thinking the way that they do.

PS: here’s the link to the original paper by Festinger and Carlsmith.