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Using actions to change behaviour

Using actions to change behaviour

Today I am going to share this idea with you of how we can use action to change behaviour. Many people are quite familiar with the interrelationships between thoughts, feelings and actions, especially if you are a therapist. We tend to ask our clients to change their thinking, as we understand that if their beliefs are not going to change, their feelings and behaviour will remain the same.

There is a story about Abert Ellis when he was 19. He had a shyness towards women. He was inspired by the work of John Watson, a behavioural psychologist. He went to talk to 100 women and ask them on a date in the Bronx Botanical Gardens. At the end he approached 130 women and talked to around 100 of them. However, he was not successful at all. But it helped him overcome his fear and shyness of women and that led him to talk to another 100. That was to demonstrate how his actions, talking to 100 women helped him change his attitudes about his fear of talking to women.

When our thoughts, feelings and actions are not aligned with each other, we do not feel comfortable and will generate some form of resistance to defend ourselves. The concept behind this can be attributed to the theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1975). One of my personal experiences was when I was a late adolescent, I did not like to eat durian. I had been influenced by other people that its smell was just like the cat poo. One day I decided to try a little bit and was amazed with it’s taste and nothing smelled like cat poo. Initially my belief and behaviour contradicted each other. Something had to be done in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance. Even though I still had trouble resisting it, but when I decided to eat a little bit, it was proved that there was not anything that tasted or smelled like cat poo and at the end my attitude was changed.

Like watching a TV show initially you don’t like, after a while you tell yourself it is not that bad – you change your thoughts and feelings to make sense of the action to avoid cognitive dissonance.

In one occasion when I worked with a student who was caught shoplifting, she rationalized that they made such a big profit and when she took a few items from their shop it did not affect their financial stability. Obviously she was trying to justify her shoplifting behaviour  and was correct by aligning her belief and behaviour to reduce any cognitive dissonance, and as a result she did not feel bad about doing shoplifting. I was surprised the justification she came up with to make sense of her behaviour.
Like watching a TV show initially you don’t like, after a while you tell yourself it is not that bad – you change your thoughts and feelings to make sense of the action to avoid cognitive dissonance.

The theory of cognitive dissonance has been applied to what we called the Forced Compliance Behavior. When someone is forced to do (publicly) something they (privately) do not want to, dissonance in their cognition happens – I don’t want to do it and their behaviour is, I did it. The individual who performs the action is inconsistent with their beliefs. As the behaviour had already happened so dissonance will need to be reduced by changing their attitude.

Festinger (1957) did an experiemnt to demonstate the theory of dissonance. The study was called Measures of Performance. They asked the first group of participants to perform a series of monotonous tasks to put cotton spools onto a tray,empty the tray and refill the tray,and the other group to turn pegs in a peg board one after the other for 30 minutes non-stop. When they finished they were told they had to tell the waiting participants their tasks were all about mental preparedness and were very interesting. They were paid either $1 or $20 for telling a participant this message.

Can you guess :
Who reported the task as more fun and interesting?
A. those paid $1
B. those paid $20

Actually the tasks were very boring. It was the act of lying to others from each individual participant to create cognitive dissonance. Festinger predicted the $20 group would have less justification to change their opinions because they were paid a larger sum and felt less internal conflict. Those who would pay $1 feel more dissonance and justify their lie by changing their opinion of the boring task to match the lie they told others.

In the book “The As If Principle” (2013) written by psychologist Richard Wiseman, he mentioned how to use the theory of cognitive dissonance to apply it to our daily life. A few examples such as “if you ask older people to act younger, their memories and cognitions improve”, “If you ask someone to sequence their fist, their willpower improves”, “If you ask a procrastinator to spend three minutes pretending they find a task more interesting, they are more likely to complete the task”.

Have you heard about the Benjamin Franklin effect? One of Benjamin’s opponents, whom he had never even met or spoken to before, attacked him in a speech. Instead of delivering a speech accusing him back, Franklin asked him if he could borrow one of his rare books. He agreed and sent the rare book to Benjamin. A week later Benjamin returned the book to him with a thank you note. Afterwards they became lifelong friends. How and why did this happen? Benjamin Franklin explained that once your opponent has done you a kindness he will be more likely to do you another one. It was because the positive action of lending Franklin a book was converted into positive thinking and feelings towards Franklin. Once again, action changes attitude faster than attitude changes action. By the same token you can also use this technique to ask a girl on the street to do you a favour, and if she agrees there is a higher chance you will be able to make friends with her later on.

In order to change our thought, it would be preferable to minimise our cognitive dissonance and resistance so that if we act first, then it will align our thoughts and feelings to the action. Remember that action changes attitude faster than attitude changes action.

Cherry, K. (2006). What is cognitive dissonance? About.com Psychology. Accessed at http://psychology.about.com/od/cognitivepsychology/f/dissonance.html.
Festinger, L. (1975). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Ferrier, A.; Fleming, J. (2014). The advertising effect: how to change behaviour. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
Wiseman, R. (2013). The as if principle: the radically new approach to changing your life. New York: Free Press.

Gabriel Wong
Clinical Psychologist at the Resilience Centre

Gabriel Wong
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