100 Things You Should Know About People: #46: The more uncertain you are, the more you dig in and defend your ideas

Picture of mac vs. pc adI’m one of these staunch Apple converts. For as long as there were PCs, I used to be a Windows/PC person. (Realize that I go all the way back to when PCs first came out. I used to sell a marvelous “portable” PC that ran on CPM operating system and had TWO (count ’em) TWO 360 KB (yes, I said KB) “floppy” disk drives (in other words NO hard drive.)) I was a PC person, NOT an Apple person. Apples were for teachers and then later, for artsy people. That was not me.

Fast forward to today and I will be talking on my iPhone, charging my Nano for my afternoon exercise, and transferring a movie to my ipad from my MacBook Pro. What the heck happened here?! — (that’s another story altogether).

Don’t show me the Android phone — So you might be able to guess what happened when I went to dinner with a colleague who was showing me his Android phone. He loves his new Android phone and wanted to show me all the great ways it was as good as, or better than, my iPhone. I was totally uninterested in hearing about it. I didn’t even want to look at it. Basically, I didn’t want to allow into my brain any information that would conflict with my opinion that anything besides an iPhone was even a possibility. I was showing classical symptoms of cognitive dissonance denial.

Alter your beliefs or deny the information? — In 1956 Leon Festinger wrote a book called When Prophecy Fails. In it he describes the idea of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling we get when we have 2 ideas that conflict with each other. We don’t like the feeling, and we will therefore try to get rid of the dissonance. There are two main ways we can do that: change our belief, or deny one of the ideas.

When forced you’ll change your belief — In the original research on cognitive dissonance, people were forced to defend an opinion that they did not believe in. The result was actually that people tended to change their belief to fit the new idea.

Watching cognitive dissonance via an fMRI scan — In new research by Van Veen, researchers had people “argue” that the fMRI scan experience was pleasant (it’s not). When “forced” to make statements that the experience was pleasant, certain parts of the brain would light up (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insular cortex.) The more these regions were activated, the more the participant would claim that they really did think the fMRI was pleasant.

When not forced you’ll dig in — But there’s another reaction that sometimes occurs. If you are not forced to state that you believe something you don’t, if instead you are presented with information that opposes your beliefs, but not forced to espouse a new belief, then the tendency is to deny the new information instead of changing your belief to fit.

When made to feel uncertain, you will argue harder — Gal and Rucker recently conducted research where they used framing techniques to make people feel uncertain. (For example, they told one group to remember a time when they were full of certainty, and the other group to remember a time when they were full of doubt). They then asked the participants whether they were meat-eaters, vegetarians, vegans, etc, how important this was to them, and how confident they were in their opinions.  People who were asked to remember times when they were uncertain, were less confident of their eating choices. However, when asked to write up their beliefs to persuade someone else to eat the way they did, they would write more and stronger arguments than the group that were certain of their choice.  They performed the research with different topics (for example the MAC/PC distinction) and found similar results. When people were less certain, then they would dig in and argue even harder.

I’m still trying to digest this latest research. What does this mean? If we want someone to be loyal and to be an advocate then we should actually give them a reason to be uncertain about the product? What do you think?

And for those of you who like to read the research:

Festinger, L., Riecken, H.W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When prophecy fails. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gal, David, and Rucker, Derek, When in doubt, shout. Psychological Science, October 13, 2010

Van Veen, V., Krug, M.K., Schooler, J.W., & Carter, C.S. (2009). Neural activity predicts attitude change in cognitive dissonance. Nature Neuroscience, 12(11), 1469–1474.

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