The Igon Value of Cognitive Dissonance
| Dick Langlois |
Some of you may have seen Steven Pinker’s review of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book in the New York Times this weekend. Pinker praises Gladwell’s writing and his instinct for interesting topics, but skewers him for his bad grasp of the underlying science of what he writes about, especially statistics. In Pinker’s view, Gladwell is in the end a character from one of his own essays, “a minor genius who unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and who occasionally blunders into spectacular failures.” One blunder seems to epitomize Pinker’s assessment: Gladwell’s report on an expert who talks of “igon values” instead of eigenvalues. Pinker call this the igon value effect.
As I read this, I thought back to a department seminar I had attended a couple of days earlier. Keith Chen from Yale gave one of the most dazzling presentations I’ve heard in a long time. He basically demolished 45 years of experimental results in social psychology that claim to have discovered cognitive dissonance in choices. According to this literature, it is among the best-documented results in psychology that people change their preferences after making a choice so as to rationalize the choice and make themselves feel better about their decision. Chen argues — persuasively — that essentially all these results are statistical artifacts. At a much more sophisticated level, social psychologists have fallen victim to the igon value effect. Here is the abstract of a working paper, though it gives only a hint of how clever this research is.
Cognitive dissonance is one of the most influential theories in social psychology, and its oldest experiential realization is choice-induced dissonance. Since 1956, dissonance theorists have claimed that people rationalize past choices by devaluing rejected alternatives and upgrading chosen ones, an effect known as the spreading of preferences. Here, I show that every study which has tested this suffers from a fundamental methodological flaw. Specifically, these studies (and the free-choice methodology they employ) implicitly assume that before choices are made, a subject’s preferences can be measured perfectly, i.e. with infinite precision, and under-appreciate that a subject’s choices reflect their preferences. Because of this, existing methods will mistakenly identify cognitive dissonance when there is none. This problem survives all controls present in the literature, including control groups, high and low dissonance conditions, and comparisons of dissonance across cultures or affirmation levels. The bias this problem produces can be fixed, and correctly interpreted several prominent studies actually reject the presence of choice-induced dissonance in their subjects. This suggests that mere choice may not be enough to induce rationalization, a reversal that may significantly change the way we think about cognitive dissonance as a whole.
Chen was also written up in the New York Times last year.
Oh, and by the way, that was our second seminar of the day. Earlier we listened to Bob Lucas, whom the grad students brought in to give a major lecture. (First time I had met him.) He talked about his paper in the inaugural issue of the new AEA macro journal: “Trade and the Diffusion of the Industrial Revolution.” (There wasn’t actually much trade in it.) Lucas and I had a nice conversation at lunch about Jane Jacobs, who we agreed was fantastic. “She was a theorist!” was Lucas’s assessment. High praise.