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Aaronson and Carlsmith

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    Journal o f Abnormal and Social Psychology1963, Vol. 66, No. 6, 584-588

    EFFECTOF THE SEVERITY OFTHREATON THEDEVALUATION O F FORBIDDEN BEHAVIOR 1ELLIOT A R O N S O N

    University of MinnesotaJ. M E R R I L L C A R L S M I T H 2

    Harvard UniversityIf a person is induced to cease performing a des ired ac t ion thro ug h the threatof punishment , he will exp erience dissonan ce. His cogni t ion that he is notperforming th e action is dissonant with his cogni t ion that th e action isdesirable. A n effective way of reducing dissonance is by derogating th eaction. The greater the threat of punishment the less the dissonancesincea severe threat is consonant with ceasing to perform the action. Thus , themilder the threat, the greater will be a person's tendency to derogate theaction. In a laboratory experiment 22 preschool children stopped playingwith a desired toy in the face of either a mild or severe threat of punishment .The mild threat led to more de roga t ion of the toy than th e severe threat .

    If aruler,aparent, or a psychologist wishesto elicit or prevent th e occurrence of a par-ticular response from a citizen, a child, ora pigeon, his problem is not a difficult one.All he must do is offer a salient reward orthreaten to inflict a salient punishment.Clearly, th e more attractive th e reward orth e more severe th e punishment, th e greaterth e likelihood that th e organism will comply.B ut such induced compliance is an inefficientmethod of social control, for one must con-t inue to reward or to punish th e response inorder to ensure continued com pliance. A m uchmore effective technique would entail some-how getting th e organism to enjoy (o r abhor)th e performance of the act.8 Such a tech-nique has been suggested by the theory ofcognitive dissonance (Festinger, 19S7, 1961;Festinger & Aronson, 1960). According to thetheory, dissonance occurs when an individualsimultaneously holds tw o incompatible cog-nitions. Dissonance is assumed to be an un-pleasant drivestate; thus,when an individualexperiences dissonance he attemptsto reduceit by changing one or both of his cognitions,adding newcogn itions, etc.

    research was supported by grants f rom th eNational Science Foundation (NSF-G-16838 andNSF-G-22316) to Elliot Aronso n. The experim entwas conducted while Merrill Carlsmith was on thetenure of an NSF fellowship. The authors wish tothank th e staff of the Harvard Preschool for theirkind cooperation.2N ow at Yale University.3S ee Kelman (1961) for an interesting discussionof this issue.

    One situation which often arouses disso-nance involves th e per formanceof an unpleas-ant or effort ful task for little or no reason.That is, if a person finds himself doing some-thing which he does not like to do and is in-sufficiently rewarded, his cognition tha t heper formed an unpleasant task is dissonantwith his cognition tha t he received little orno compensation for it. He can reduce disso-nance inthis situation by seeking some otherjusti f ication for having perform ed the act.Previous research in this area has demon-strated that an effective way of just i fy ing aninsufficiently rewarded action is bycognitivelymagni fying the attractiveness of the goal.4In one experiment, subjects w ho expended ahigh degree of effort to attain an unattract ivegoal convinced themselves that th e goal wasindeed at t ract ivewhereas subjects who ex-pended little effort saw the goal as it wastha t is, unattractive (Aronson & Mills, 1959) .Theoretically, th e opposite effect should occurfo r punishment . That is, one should be ableto induce a strong distaste for a previouslydesired action by getting an individual tocease pe r fo rming that action following a mildrather than a severe threat of punishment .Specifically, if a person is induced to ceasethe performance of a desired act by thethreatof punishment, his cognition tha t the act is

    4This is not to imply that this is the one m e ansof reducing dissonance in this kind of situation. Al-te rnat ive methods of reducing dissonance in similarsituations have been investigated by Festinger andCarlsmith (1959), Mills (1958), and Aronson (1961) .584

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    S E V E R I T Y op THREAT 585desirable is dissonant with his cognition thathe is not performing it. A threat of severepunishment, in and of itself, providesamplecognitions consonant with ceasing th e action.If a person ceases to perform a desired actionin the face of a mildthreathowever, helacksthese consonant cognitions and, therefore,must seek additional justification for not per-forming thedesiredact.O nem ethod ofjusti-fication is to convince himself that the de-sired act is no longer desirable. Thus, if a per-sonis induced to cease performing a desiredaction by a threat of punishment , th e milderth ethreat th e greater will be his tendency toderogate the action.

    METHODThe general procedure involved having youngchil-dren evaluate several toys, issuing either a mild or asevere threat of punishment for playing with on especific toy, asking the children to re-evaluate thetoys at the close of the exper iment . Through thistechnique we could compare the effect of a m ildthreat with that of a severe threat on the attractive-ness of playing with the forbidden toy.The sub jects were 22 children at the Ha rvard Pre-school, 11 girls and 11 boys, rang ing in age from 3.8to 4.6 years.5 The experimental room was a largeplayroom familiar to allsubjects. It containeda one-way observat ion mirror and a low table on whichth e experimenter could display f ive toys . The toysused were a bat te ry-powered tank, a steam shovel,a set ofplastic gears, a battery-powered fire engine,and a set of dishes and pans. The toys were all at-tractive to the children, and an opportuni ty to playwith them was met with enthusiasm. Prior to thebeginning of the experiment, th e experimenter spentseveral weeks at the nursery school playing with th echildren, sothat all the children knew him well whenth e experiment began.The experimenter le d each subject into th e experi-mental room, closed th e door , and showed th e sub-ject th e toys. He demonstrated how each to y worked,and allowed the subject to play with it briefly be-fore moving on to the next one. Af ter the subjectw as familiar with all the toys, th e experimenter sug-gested a question gam e, following which th e sub-ject would have a chance to playwith thetoys. Theexperimenter placed all the toys on the floor and sat6A nadditional six children were ru n throughpart,but not all, of the exper iment : tw o failed to com-plete the experiment because they moved f rom town;three were unable to make consistent rankings bythe method of paired comparisons, and so were dis-carded; one did not wish to cont inue with the ex-periment. Only data f rom those children w ho com-pleted all of the experiment are included in theanalysis.

    on the opposite side of the low table from the sub-ject. Putting two of the toys on the table ( for ex-ample, th e steam shovel and the tank) he asked:Suppose you could either play with th e steamshovel [picking it up ] , or the tank [picking it up].Which one would you rather play with?

    After th e subject had responded, the experimenterreplaced the two toys on the floor, put two otherson the table, and continued until the subject hadmade choices between all 10pairs. Bythis procedure,a ranking was elicited, from the most preferred to y(1) to the least preferred toy (5) . With childrenthisyoung , it was inevitable that there would be someinconsistencies in the paired comparisons. Three sub-jects gave judgments which were completely incon-sistent; they were not ru n throu gh the rem ainder ofthe experiment and their results were discarded. Ina few other cases, the reversal of one paired-com-par ison judgment led to a tie in the ranking of threeof th e toys. In these cases, th e three toys were placedon the table and the experimenter pestered the childuntil the tie was broken. Such cases were surprisinglyrare. The great major i ty of subjects were able torank th e toys in a consistent manner.After th e subject ranked th e toys, th e experimenterpicked up the second-ranked toy and placed it onth e table in the center of the room. He arranged th eremaining toys on the f loor, and said:I have to leave now for a few minutes to do anerrand. But why don't you stay here andplay withthese toys while I am go n e? I will be right back.You can play with this one [pointing], this one,and this one. But I don' t want you to play withth e [indicating th e second-ranked toy].At this point th e experimental conditions were in -troduced. In the Mild Threat condition, th e experi-mente r cont inued:I don't want you to play with the Ifyou played with it, I would be annoyed. But youcan play with all the others while I am gone, andI will be right back.

    In the Strong Threat condition, th e experimentercontinued:-. If don't want you to play with the you played with it, I would be very angry . Iwould have to take all of my toys and go hom ean d never come back again. You canplay with al lth e others while I am gone , but if you played withth e , I would thinkyouwere just a baby.I willbe right back.

    The experimenter then left th e room, observed th esubject for 10 minutes through the one-way mirror,re turned, and again allowed th e subject to playbriefly with all the toys, including th e forbidden toy.After th e subject had played with all the toys, th eexperimenter suggested that they play th e questiongame again, after which they would play togetherwithall thetoys.The experimenter administered the

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    8 ELLIOT A R O N S O N AND J. MERRILL CARLSMITHpaired-comparison procedure exactly as before, andthen played with th e subject for a

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