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Misattribution of Arousal and Cognitive Dissonance

Misattribution of Arousal and Cognitive Dissonance



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!

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