The Situationist

Archive for May 11th, 2012

Random Assignments

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 11, 2012

Social Psychologist Dave Nussbaum recently launched his blog, Random Assignments.

The blog already contains several posts worth reading, including a series on the important topic of replication in social science.  The first two parts are “Replicating Dissonance” and “Conceptual Replication.”

Here’s a sample of Nussbaum’s writing:

The 1950s were a bleak time if you were a social psychologist interested in the empirical study of thoughts and feelings and how they affect human behavior. At that time, experimental psychology was dominated by behaviorism, an approach which focused exclusively on observable behavior, exiling ephemeral concepts like beliefs and emotions outside the boundaries of proper science. But things were about to change.

The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, published by Leon Festinger in 1957, was one of those things. The theory was based on the simple idea that when a person simultaneously holds two conflicting beliefs he will experience a feeling of discomfort – cognitive dissonance – and that he will be motivated to end that discomfort by reducing the conflict between the beliefs, often by changing one of them.

Today, the term cognitive dissonance has entered our vernacular and the idea that we change or discard beliefs that don’t suit us seems like common sense. Research on how people rationalize their beliefs has spread to political science, medicine, neuroscience, and the law, and is one of the cornerstones of our understanding of human psychology. But in 1957, at a time when the field of psychology was dominated by behaviorism, the notion was far more controversial. Luckily, Leon Festinger and his colleagues and students conducted numerous experiments that tested predictions derived from Cognitive Dissonance Theory that could not be accounted for by behaviorist principles.

One of my favorite of these experiments (PDF), published by Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills in 1959, had college women reading obscene words out loud (words so obscene that I don’t feel comfortable writing them here myself, but the F word is in there, as is a four-letter word that also means rooster, and remember, this was 1959!). The women were reading these words as an initiation to get into a discussion group about the psychology of sex – they had to prove they were not going to be too embarrassed to take part in the conversation. This was the “severe initiation” condition. Another group of women recited a milder list of words (e.g., prostitute, virgin); this was the “mild initiation” condition. The women then heard a recording of a discussion by the group to which they had gained entry – as it turned out, the discussion was, according to the study’s authors, “one of the most worthless and uninteresting discussions imaginable.”  The question was which group of women would like the psychology of sex discussion group more, the ones who had to undergo the severe initiation or the mild one?

To find out, pay a visit to Nussbaum’s blog.

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