The Effects of Behavior on Beliefs

Richard Wiseman has an interesting article at New Statesman. He describes how

[a]t the end of the Korean War, 21 American prisoners-of-war chose to remain in communist Korea and openly sided with an enemy that had killed thousands of their comrades. In addition, a surprisingly large number of the American service personnel who did return home enthusiastically expounded the strengths of communism. The family and friends of these servicemen were stunned, and the world’s media flocked to Korea to report the story. Some researchers suggested that the Koreans had brainwashed the American soldiers with flashing lights, hypnosis or mind-altering drugs.

They were all wrong.

So how was this feat, of converting American soldiers to enthusiastic supporters of communism, achieved?

Shortly after capture, the Chinese guards asked servicemen to jot down a few short pro-communist statements (“Communism is wonderful”, and “Communism is the way of the future”). Many of the Americans were happy to oblige because the request seemed so trivial. A few weeks later the guards upped the ante and asked the prisoners to read the statements aloud to themselves. A couple of weeks later the Americans were asked to read the statements out to their fellow prisoners, and to engage in mock debates arguing why they believed the statements to be correct. Finally, fresh fruit or sweets were offered to any soldiers who were prepared to write pro-communist essays for the camp newsletter. Once again, many of the prisoners were happy to oblige.

The Chinese did not have to resort to arcane brainwashing techniques. Instead, they simply ensured that the prisoners were encouraged repeatedly to support communism, and then leave them to develop beliefs that were consistent with their behaviour.

Wiseman describes findings from laboratory studies, demonstrating that simply asking people to endorse certain attitudes or opinions can affect their actual beliefs. These findings conflict with our common sense intuitions about the cause-effect relationship of belief and behavior. If we are not aware of this subtle effect, we can be manipulated to support the values and opinions of others:

Having people repeatedly sing a national anthem will make them more patriotic. Making children pray every morning will increase the likelihood of them adopting religious beliefs.

We can use Leon Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory to explain why these shifts in attitudes or beliefs occur. Festinger’s theory asserts that when people hold two inconsistent attitudes or beliefs, or behave in a way that is not in keeping with their beliefs, they experience cognitive dissonance. In order to reduce this dissonance, they will alter their beliefs.

To test this theory Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) conducted what is now a classic study in social psychology. Participants were asked to engage in boring, repetitive tasks. They were asked to take 12 spools of thread off a board, put the spools back on, take them off again, and so on, for 30 minutes. They were then asked to turn pegs in holes to the left, then right, then back again, for another 30 minutes. The participants were next instructed to go out and meet the next participant (in reality, an accomplice of the experimenters) and tell her that the experiment was a lot of fun. Some of the participants were paid $1, others were paid $20 (quite a lot of money back in 1959!). Afterwards, the participants were asked to rate their enjoyment of the tasks they had engaged in. Those who were paid $20 gave the tasks a low rating – as one might expect – but those who were paid only $1 rated the tasks as more enjoyable.

When I describe this study to students, they are often confused – surely the person who was paid lots of money would be happy to go along with the idea that the experiment was fun? The findings seem to be the wrong way round. However, it makes sense when we think about conflicting behaviors and beliefs. The participants’ verbal behavior (what they said to the next participant) was to endorse the idea that the boring, repetitive tasks were fun. The verbal behavior is in clear conflict with the participants’ experience. However, those who were paid the higher sum have an easy alternative explanation for their behavior: they were paid $20 to lie. Those who were only paid $1 are not likely to see the money as sufficient cause for their verbal behavior, so another explanation must be found. The reason they claimed the tasks were fun was because the tasks were fun. Their attitudes toward the tasks changed so as to be in line with their behavior.

So be careful if someone asks you to “pretend” to endorse a belief contrary to what you actually think. It could lead to a gradual shift in your beliefs! This is why we also need to vigilant when authority figures ask children to repeat statements of ideology. Coercing the verbal behavior of children can be a type of brainwashing.

Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of abnormal psychology, 58 (2), 203-10 PMID: 13640824