Source: Peter Mende-Siedlecki & Jay Van Bavel—New York University
A host of research in psychology suggests that feelings of psychological arousal may be relatively ambiguous, and under certain circumstances, can lead us to make inaccurate conclusions about our own mental states. Much of this work flows from seminal research conducted by Stanley Schacter and and Jerome Singer. If someone experiences arousal and does not have an obvious, appropriate explanation, they may attempt to explain their arousal in terms of other aspects of the situation or social context.
For example, in one classic study, participants were told they were receiving a drug called “Suproxin,” in an attempt to test their vision.1 In reality, they received shots of epinephrine, which typically increases feelings of psychological arousal. While some participants were told that the drug would have side effects similar to epinephrine, others were not informed of the side effects, others were misinformed, and others received a placebo with no arousing side effects. Participants then interacted with a confederate, who was either behaving in a euphoric or an angry manner. The authors observed that participants who had no explanation for their feelings of arousal (e.g., the uninformed condition) were most susceptible to the confederates. In other words, these participants took on the confederates’ emotion (either euphoria or anger) most strongly.
A subsequent study generalized this effect to the domain of interpersonal attraction in a natural setting.2 Researchers had male participants meet an attractive female experimenter by walking across either a high, narrow suspension bridge (high arousal), or a lower, more stable bridge (low arousal). After the participants completed a questionnaire in which they were asked to describe an ambiguous picture, the experimenter provided them with her phone number, which they were instructed to call if they had any further questions. Notably, the men who walked across the arousing suspension bridge provided descriptions with more sexual content, and they were more likely to call the experimenter after the study. The authors concluded that these men misattributed their psychological arousal arising from the bridge-crossing to the interaction with the female experimenter, and subsequently interpreted their arousal as a sign of attraction towards her.
Zanna and Cooper (1974)3 applied these principles to the study of cognitive dissonance. They predicted that people who experience cognitive dissonance, but are able to attribute their psychological arousal towards some other, external influence, would be less likely to change their attitudes about a topic, compared to people who lack a source of external explanation. This work follows in the tradition of earlier research on cognitive dissonance by Leon Festinger in 1962, suggesting that dissonance itself is a psychologically arousing phenomenon, which can be experienced as discomfort or tension.4
The investigation by Zanna and Cooper is based on several principles sitting at the core of social psychology. It draws upon the two-factor theory of emotion, as originally conceived by Schacter and Singer, which suggests that our emotions are a constructed product of the states of arousal we experience and the labels which we subsequently apply to that arousal. Within this framework, misattribution of arousal can occur, in cases where an individual incorrectly interprets their experience of arousal as stemming from some internal or external cause, as a result of some situational factor or factors.
In general, these ideas support a view that we typically lack direct access to our awareness of the mental processes underlying our perceptions and behavior (see Nisbett & Wilson, 1977),5 and also highlight the power of the situation to influence our mental states.
Finally, Zanna and Cooper apply these principles to the study of cognitive dissonance, the idea that in cases where an individual holds two (or more) opposing beliefs or attitudes, they may feel psychological discomfort, and as a result, may be motivated to relieve that discomfort (perhaps through changing their attitudes).
1. Participant Recruitment
- Conduct a power analysis and recruit a sufficient number of participants and obtain informed consent from the participants.
2. Data Collection
- Meet the participant in a common room outside of the testing room to explain the (alleged) purpose of the experiment.
- Describe to the participant that they’ve been "asked to come here today to participate in an experiment on memory processes " and that they will be given a drug in order to investigate its effects on short-term memory. Assure the participant that the drug is perfectly safe.
- Explain that the participant will complete two memory tasks—one prior to taking the drug, and one after its “total absorption.”
- Take the participant into the testing room and explain that they will now perform the first memory task on the computer.
- Start the task and leave the room. In this task, the participant should see 12 nonsense words on the computer screen, each displayed for a few seconds. After all 12 words have been displayed, the participant should be prompted to recall as many words as they can. Following this, the participant should be prompted to call the experimenter back into the running room.
- Upon re-entering the room, instantiate the “drug side effect manipulation,” giving the participant a pill capsule and a glass of water.
- The capsule is, in reality, a placebo—containing powdered milk.
- To manipulate the potential side effect of the pill, blind to condition, give the participant one of three drug consent forms to sign.
- Randomize the order of the condition-to-participant assignment ahead of time.
- In the arousal condition, the drug consent form should state: “This M.C. S771 capsule contains chemical elements that are more soluble than other parts of the compound. In this form of the drug these elements may produce a reaction of tenseness prior to the total absorption of the drug, 5 min after ingestion. This side effect will disappear within 30 min.”
- In the relaxation condition, the drug consent form should be identical, except that "tenseness" should be replaced with "relaxation."
- In the no-information condition, the drug consent form should only state that "the total absorption time of the drug is 30 min" and that "there are no side effects."
- Allow the participant to sign the consent form and ingest their pill capsule.
- Explain that the study requires 30 min to pass before the second memory task, and that the lab has another study going on, not related to memory but about opinion research, that the participant is invited to participate in.
- Initiate the “dissonance manipulation” (two conditions: “high choice” and “low choice”), by varying the degree of decision freedom the participant has to write an essay that diverges from their own attitudes.
- In the “high-choice” (e.g., high dissonance) condition, the experimenter should say, "I will leave it entirely up to you to decide if you would like to participate in it, but I would be very grateful if you would.”
- In the “low-choice” (e.g., low dissonance) condition, the experimenter should simply say, "During this wait, I am going to ask you to do a small task for this opinion research experiment."
- In both conditions, explain the task as follows: “The issue of whether inflammatory speakers should be allowed to speak on a college campus often becomes a problem. The Ivy League Administrators Association is trying to formulate a standard policy on whether or not, and in what circumstances, inflammatory speakers should be allowed to speak on campus. Past experience has indicated that one of the best ways to understand what the relevant arguments are on both sides of any issue is to ask people to write essays favoring one side of the issue. Therefore, what we would like you to do is to write the strongest, the most forceful essay that you can taking the position that inflammatory speakers should be banned from college campuses.” (NOTE: Change the language depending on the university.)
- In the “high-choice” condition, go further and secure the participant’s verbal consent, adding after compliance, "Remember, you are under no obligation." (In the original study, all of the subjects agreed to write the essay.)
- Give the participant 10 min to complete their essay.
- Subsequently, collect the dependent measures.
- First, ask the participant to indicate how they feel "right now" on a 31-point scale with endpoints labeled calm (1) and tense (31).
- Next, ask the participant to describe their present feeling "about the adoption of a ban against inflammatory speakers on campus" on a 31-point scale with endpoints labeled strongly opposed (1) and strongly in favor (31).
- Finally, to assess the effectiveness of the decision-freedom manipulation, ask participants to indicate "how free [they] felt to decline to participate in this Ivy League Administrators research project" on a 31-point scale with endpoints labeled not free at all (1) and extremely free (31).
- As a means of obtaining some baseline regarding these dependent measures, a separate group of control subjects were recruited in an identical way as the experimental subjects but were not exposed to the experimental procedures (e.g., neither the “drug side-effect manipulation,” nor the “dissonance manipulation”). Instead, these control subjects merely indicated their opinions on the measures described in points 7 through 9 above.
- After the participant completes these questions, give them a full debriefing concerning the purpose and procedures of the study, with special emphasis placed on the fact that the ingested capsule was, in reality, a placebo.
3. Data Analysis
- After running all participants, compare the amount of agreement with the proposal to adopt a ban against inflammatory speakers on campus as a function of both the degree of dissonance experienced and the side effects ascribed to the pill, via a 2 (dissonance: high choice vs. low choice) x 3 (side effects: arousal, none, relaxation) ANOVA.
- Moreover, as a manipulation check, also compare participants self-reports of tension as a function of dissonance condition and side effects condition, via a 2 x 3 ANOVA.
We may think that we know how and why we feel a certain way at any given moment. However, mental states are a product of both internal dispositions and external situations that we are not directly aware, which— under certain circumstances—creates inconsistencies between perceptual expectations and reality.
For example, while hiking an individual approaches a high and narrow suspension bridge and must cross it. In doing so, he is psychologically aroused, even though he doesn’t realize it. Instead, he interprets his feelings of excitement in terms of other salient aspects of the situation—like meeting a woman on the other side.
In this particular setting, he misattributed his arousal as a sign of attraction towards the female rather than the true cause—the bridge-crossing. Thus, the misattribution led to attraction and his pursuit of daringly exchanging his phone number.
However, if before scheduling the hiking trip he was committed to being single, such an action would be inconsistent with his own expectations, which is an example of cognitive dissonance—a state of mental distress related to simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs. This psychological conflict produces discomfort and as a result, could cause the individual to avoid relationship situations in the future.
This video demonstrates how to manipulate principles behind the two-factor theory of emotion—that feelings are a constructed product and therefore vulnerable to misinterpretation—and cognitive dissonance to ultimately measure attitudes about a particular belief, such as banning inflammatory speakers.
In this experiment, participants think they are completing a memory recall study—one that is supposed to examine a drug’s effect—when in fact, they are being manipulated. In reality, the pill is a placebo—an external cue—to attribute their internal feelings towards when writing a counter-attitudinal essay in the second phase.
During the first phase, participants are randomly divided into three groups: two are informed of the drug’s side effects—its absorption can result in either tenseness or relaxation—while the remaining third is not given any such information.
In the second phase—dissonance manipulation—participants are further divided into one of two levels: high-choice, where they can decide whether or not to write an essay that counters their beliefs about free speech on campus; or low-choice, where they are essentially forced to write it.
All participants are instructed to write the strongest and most forceful essay that they can in support of banning inflammatory speakers from campus. Those with freedom—high-choice—are reminded that they are under no obligation to take part.
Subsequently, the following dependent variables are measured using two attitude questionnaires: In the first, participants’ report their current feelings on a scale ranging from 1 (calm) to 31 (tense).
Compared to the no-information participants, those in the arousal condition are predicted to report being more tense, whereas those in the relaxed condition are expected to be the opposite—calmer. Such findings would be consistent with the original side effects provided.
Moreover, if cognitive dissonance is arousing, participants within the high-level, no-information group are expected to report being more tense than those assigned to the low-level.
In the second survey, participants are asked about their support for the adoption of the ban, on a scale from 1 (strongly opposed) to 31 (strongly in favor). For participants in the control no-information group—who had nothing to attribute their action on the essay to—those within the high-choice level are predicted to show a bigger attitude change, agreeing with the ban, compared to the low-choice level.
In addition, participants in the arousal condition are expected to attribute their tenseness to the pill and not the essay, so their attitudes of not agreeing to the ban wouldn’t change.
On the contrary, in the relaxation condition, there would be increased cognitive dissonance with a high-choice level, yielding an even bigger change in attitudes in favor of the ban, compared to the low-choice level.
Before starting the experiment, conduct a power analysis to determine the appropriate number of participants required. Once completed, greet each one in the lab and explain the cover story: that they will participate in a study on a drug’s effect on memory processes.
In the testing room, first instruct them to partake in a recall task on the computer. Display 12 nonsense words, each for a few seconds. Afterwards, prompt them to recall as many as possible.
Following the memory test, hand the participant a glass of water and a pill. From a stack of randomly ordered assignments, provide them a consent form to look over and sign before ingesting the pill. Note that the form indicates different side effects depending on the experimental conditions.
Here, the arousal assignment indicates that a reaction of tenseness is produced. For the second group, replace tenseness with relaxation. Lastly, in the no-information condition, simply indicate the absorption time and that there are no side effects. Once signed, allow the participant to ingest the pill.
Now explain that 30 min must pass before doing the second memory test and invite them to take part in another study about opinion research. To manipulate the dissonance level, tell those randomly assigned as high-choice: "I will leave it entirely up to you to decide if you would like to participate in it, but I would be very grateful if you would." and as low choice: "During this wait, I am going to ask you to do a small task for this opinion research experiment."
In both conditions, explain the task: "I would like you to write the strongest, the most forceful essay that you can taking the position that inflammatory speakers should be banned from college campuses.". Emphasize for the high choice level participants: "Remember, you are under no obligation.". Give them 10 min to complete the essay.
After they have finished writing, ask them to rate how they feel right now on a 31-point scale ranging from calm to tense. Next, ask them how they feel about adopting a ban against inflammatory speakers on campus on another 31-point scale, from strongly opposed to strongly in favor.
Additionally, to assess the effectiveness of the choice-level, ask the participants how free they felt to decline participation in this opinion research project, again on a 31-point scale, ranging from not free at all to extremely free.
Finally, debrief participants and reinforce that the pill was a placebo and thank them for taking part in the study.
To analyze the data, compute the average reported amount of tension for each of the conditions and plot the results. Use a 2 x 3 ANOVA to confirm the findings are significant.
Feelings were induced, as expected: Regardless of choice-level, participants in the arousal condition reported feeling more tense than controls, whereas those in the relaxation group reported much lower levels, consistent with being calm.
In contrast, the effects of choice-level were only evident within the control—no-information provided—condition. Here, high-choice participants reported feeling more tense than those in the low-choice condition, reinforcing that dissonance did have an impact, manipulating arousal.
To assess attitudinal differences in supporting the ban, average the ratings and use a 2 x 3 ANOVA to confirm the findings that in the no information condition, participants in the high-choice level showed larger attitude change by agreeing with the ban. These results suggest that dissonance was affecting their behavior.
This effect of dissonance was even greater for the relaxation condition with an exaggerated agreement to the ban in the high-choice level.
However, there was no effect of dissonance in the arousal condition; that is, the high-choice level showed similar support for the ban as the low-choice level, suggesting they ascribed their arousal to the external influence of the drug, thereby reducing their feelings of dissonance and change in attitude.
Now that you are familiar with misattribution of psychological arousal and how it can be used to alter the effects of cognitive dissonance, let’s look at other real-life situations where these principles can be applied.
Based on the research on misattribution of arousal, one might want to take a first date to perform an active sport in the hope that they will misinterpret their racing heart as a sign of attraction. This strategy is used all the time in popular romantic TV shows to help build attraction between contestants.
Research also suggests that in order for an individual to change their mind with respect to a given belief, psychological discomfort is necessary. For example, to convince someone to switch to a vegetarian diet, consider offering a psychologically arousing argument based on the ethics of animal welfare.
Cognitive dissonance is created the next time that person makes a choice between a meat meal and a vegetable one. If enough psychological discomfort exists, they will choose the vegetarian feast to lessen the dissonance.
Lastly, researchers have combined functional magnetic resonance imaging with dissonance manipulation to figure out what brain regions are involved. Participants were tasked with pretending that the unpleasant MRI experience was in fact pleasant.
The anterior cingulate cortex of those who were pretending showed increased activity as compared to controls, suggesting this region is involved in processes related to cognitive dissonance.
You’ve just watched JoVE’s video on the misattribution of arousal and cognitive dissonance. Now you should have a good understanding of how to design and execute an experiment with manipulations of psychological feelings and opinions, how to analyze and assess the results, as well as how to apply the principles to a number of real-world situations.
Thanks for watching!
In the original investigation, the authors observed that participants’ reports of tension were influenced by the side effects that the experimenters ascribed to the drug (Figure 1). Participants in the arousal condition felt more tense than participants in the no-information condition, while participants in the relaxation condition would make them feel relaxed felt less tense than participants in the no-information condition. Moreover, within the no-information condition, participants in the high-choice condition reported feeling more tense than participants in the low-choice condition.
With regards to the attitude change results, the authors observed the classic dissonance result in the no-information condition: Participants in the high-choice condition showed larger changes in their attitudes than participants in the low-choice condition (Figure 2). However, in the arousal condition, there were no differences in attitude change between high- and low-choice. Conversely, in the relaxation condition, the effects of dissonance were exaggerated: Individuals in the high-choice condition showed even stronger evidence of attitude change, compared to low-choice participants.
Figure 1: Reported tension as a function of dissonance manipulation and drug side effect. Participants’ reported feelings of tension are plotted on the y-axis, as a function of both the dissonance manipulation they were exposed to and description of the drug’s side effects that they were given. Confirming the side effects manipulation, participants who were told the drug would make them feel aroused felt more tense than participants in the no-information condition, while participants who were told the drug would make them feel relaxed felt less tense than participants in the no-information condition. Moreover, within the no-information condition, participants in the high dissonance condition felt more tension than those in the low dissonance condition.
Figure 2: Support for adopting the ban as a function of dissonance manipulation and drug side effect. Participants’ support for adopting a ban on inflammatory speakers is plotted on the y-axis, as a function of both the dissonance manipulation they were exposed to and description of the drug’s side effects that they were given. The figure shows an interaction between the dissonance manipulation and the side effects ascribed to the drug. While participants who could attribute their arousal to the drug showed no support for the ban in either dissonance condition, participants in the no information condition showed stronger support for the ban in the high dissonance condition than in the low dissonance condition. Furthermore, when participants expected the drug to produce relaxation as a side effect, this effect of the high dissonance condition was even more pronounced.
Applications and Summary
Based on these results, the authors concluded that dissonance is, indeed, a psychologically arousing, drive-like mental state. As such, offering participants an external cue to ascribe their arousal to (in this case, the drug, as it was described in the arousal condition) reduced feelings of dissonance, and as a result, diminished the degree to which participants changed their attitudes. While the procedure described above has been employed here specifically as a means for studying cognitive dissonance, it could be modified to serve as a general method for inducing feelings of arousal, and more specifically, for examining the misattribution of arousal.
The overarching implication of studies like the one conducted by Zanna and Cooper in 1974 is that we are profoundly influenced by aspects of “the situation.” Why we may think that we know how we feel (and why we feel it) at any given moment, our mental states are a product of myriad external and internal factors. If you want to avoid feeling nervous before a crucial job interview, maybe avoid the (potentially) arousing cup of coffee. Conversely, perhaps taking a first date to a scary movie will cause them to misinterpret their racing heart rate as a sign of attraction.
More specifically with regards to the science of persuasion, this research suggests that psychological discomfort is a necessary condition for an individual to change their minds with respect to a given belief. Moreover, for attitude change to occur, it may be crucial to ensure that the individual is not able to attribute this discomfort to some other environmental attribute.
- Schachter, S., & Singer, J. (1962). Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, 69, 379-399.
- Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 510-517.
- Zanna, M. P., & Cooper, J. (1974). Dissonance and the pill: An attribution approach to studying the arousal properties of dissonance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 29, 703-709.
- Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford university press.
- Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231-259.