There is a theory that the more external justification we have for our actions, the less cognitive dissonance occurs. If we can say “They made me do it”, we can justify actions that don’t accord with our belief systems by blaming something external to ourselves. The less external justification there is, on the other hand, the more need there is for internal justification  to cause us to modify either our behaviour or our beliefs, and thus avoid the cognitive dissonance that arises when our behaviour does not accord with our beliefs.

In one well-known experiment (well-known according to Wikipedia, my main research source, at any event), researchers took a toy which they knew to be very attractive to nursery age children and placed it in a nursery classroom. They told the children that they must not play with the toy, telling half of the children that they would receive a severe punishment if they did so and half that they would receive a mild punishment. They then left the room. When they returned, none of the children had played with the toy. The researchers then asked the children to assess the attractiveness of the toy (I don’t suppose they used those exact words; I hope they also gave the children a lot of praise for doing as they were asked).

The children who had been threatened with a severe punishment still rated the toy as very attractive; they had strong external justification for not playing with it, in the shape of the severe punishment they would get if they did, so no cognitive dissonance arose and they had no need to change their beliefs about the toy. In the case of the children who had been told they would get a mild punishment if they played with the toy, on the other hand, their view of the toy had changed and they rated it as considerably less attractive than did the first group. In the absence of the strong external justification available to the first group, the children in the second group had to find some other way of dealing with the cognitive dissonance caused by seeing an attractive toy and not playing with it, which they did by CHANGING THEIR OPINION ABOUT THE TOY. We might call this “I never wanted it anyway”, or, possibly, “It’s Not That Good”.

More anon. But tomorrow is the UK Cold Water Swimming Championships at Tooting Lido, where I am both swimming and stewarding, so I suspect that I shall be writing about that tomorrow and Sunday. See you there!