Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance and Breaking Up

Being a Cognitive Science major I am interested in how and why people think. For this post I would like to drift away from language and whip up some pop-psychology, if you're interested in how people interact I guarantee you will find this post thought-provoking. What brought up the idea for today's topic is something I currently am experiencing, which is the dreaded post break-up stage of a relationship.

Time for real talk, because here things get a little personal. I once fell in love with a girl, who for the sake of the post we will call her Jahi, after the Persian female demon who specialized in debauthery and was responsible for causing the menstrual cycles of women. I told Jahi that I loved her and she told me the same. We dated and even carried on a long distance relationship for a while. Eventually things broke down; she would criticize me, pick fights with me, and accuse me of avoiding her. Eventually, of all platforms, she broke up with me over Skype.

image from scientificamerican.com
Months passed, I did not think much of Jahi or our relationship until I saw her new Facebook profile picture; her and her new boyfriend. Something deep inside my amygdala, outdated primordial testosterone fueled feelings of ownership perhaps, clicked. I turned off the computer and went out with my friends for the day, I needed a change of brain chemistry. Nonetheless I couldn't help but think about that picture, why did I stick around for so long with someone who I now realize was verbally abusive? Also why was I having feelings of jealousy and regret of not being with Jahi after six months?

The answer is a form of cognitive bias called cognitive dissonance. In a great book entitled Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion Dr. Robert Cialdini gives a wonderfully simple example of cognitive dissonance in the chapter Commitment and Consistency. Commitment is a desirable human trait and as a result people strive for it, even when they are wrong; because of this, people are easily exploitable. The example given was a test where people at a race track were more confident in their horse after they bet on it. Cialdini goes further to say that the more exclusive social groups have more committed members, because there is more desire amongst the members. Why can this not be true for individuals? One of the rules of logic is that the less of something there is, the more valuable it becomes. Do I see my old girlfriend as being more valuble because she is with someone else, and thus unavailable?

Just like the gamblers at the horse track I "bet" on Jahi and stuck with her for too long. How could I leave her? I loved her and how could love be wrong? How could we be wrong after telling each other how much we meant to each other and how we would never ever leave no matter what? I / we needed to stay consistent. By the time the relationship ended, I had realized that the relationship should have ended way earlier. Whoops!

My feelings of regret for leaving her is the result of rosy retrospection, seeing the past in a positive light, even if it was not necessarily as great as I remember it. All I had do to was crack open one of my journals to see just how miserable I was during the tail end of our relationship. According to logic, my girlfriend may now be more valuable in a social context because she is unavailable, but I wasn't happy before our relationship ended. If only I had started taking psychology classes earlier! At least now I am able to recognize why I feel the way I do and pass off my feelings of anger and jealousy as irrational, unfounded, and stupid for the most part. Good riddance!

In Dr. Cialdini's book he goes on to explain how cognitive dissonance is important for telemarketers and how it plays a role in fraternity hazing. It is a must read for anyone interested in social psychology.

What do you have to say about this?


  1. good read. ive always been interested in psychology

  2. Your dissonance can be seen quite clearly through your writing of this post. Have you tried confronting Jahi about your feelings?

  3. You should write for the examiner!

  4. I do agree with you. "At least now I am able to recognize why I feel the way I do and pass off my feelings of anger and jealousy as irrational, unfounded, and stupid for the most part. Good riddance!" Is something I've been able to do this for a long time now and it helps when i get into arguments with people

  5. good read! really intresting

  6. I completely agree with: Dr. Cialdini

  7. Anything can look better in retrospect

  8. Interesting read, and its easy to relate to the race track example that is presented. anyway have to agree.

  9. Stephen: I like the way you think!