Black Hearts and Punishing Prostitutes

The peculiar impact of cognitive anomalies

Posted Jun 30, 2017

What does viewing playing cards with the colors switched have to do with punishing a prostitute or becoming more politically motivated? What if you replaced the playing cards with reading a story that has no ending, or a subtle switching of experimenters in a study that leaves you unsure if you're seeing the same person?

According to recent research, surprisingly (to me at least!), quite a lot.

Before getting to research, however, let’s take a quick look at some past work that it built upon.

Decades ago, Leon Festinger coined “dissonance theory.” The basic idea is that when people experience conflicting thoughts and behaviors, and they are aware of this, they will act in ways to alleviate that dissonant, unpleasant feeling. One outcome of this is that people tend to align their beliefs to match how they have just acted. So if you, for instance, are gently asked to wear a ridiculous costume in a research study, and you do it, you will likely underestimate the extent of time which you wore the outfit. This would alleviate the dissonance caused between willingly doing something and that something being embarrassing ("oh it wasn't that long").  Another option would be to exaggerate the importance of the research study ("The study really matters, so it makes sense why I did it"), or coming to believe that, actually, wearing the costume wasn’t so bad.

Regardless of the specific path of alleviating dissonance, this theory argued that you can only alleviate dissonance in the domain in which the dissonance occurred. If you felt dissonance related to wearing said outfit, for instance, dissonance theory would not propose that you could reduce the dissonance by defending your political beliefs.

A variety of theories came along after dissonance theory that argued that people can defend against “psychological threats” that elicit feelings of dissonance, anxiety, uncertainty, or inconsistencies with responses that have little logical connection to the threat. For example, hundreds of studies based on Terror Management Theory have found that when reminded of death in experiments (done mostly with participants who are not expecting to die any time soon), participants show increased support of their cultural values. This includes becoming more aggressive towards people with different beliefs (e.g., support for war, giving them more painful hot sauce to eat) and dismissing their views of your country, if they are negative. It also includes supporting more severe punishment of people who break the law. In the earliest version of this study, actual judges in real courts were provided with fake case documents about a prostitute. They either had been primed to think about their own death or a control topic prior to reading this. When thinking about death, the judges actually gave higher bond for the prostitute in the hypothetical scenario.

The Meaning Maintenance Model (MMM) built upon these theories to argue that, in essence, anything that elicits uncertainty, dissonance, or inconsistency (i.e., schema threats, violated expectations) should cause the same sorts of defensive responses as thoughts of death, and as found in classic dissonance studies. The studies that have tested this theory are extremely interesting.

In one study, the only difference between participants was whether or not they saw a single experimenter or multiple experimenters that looked similarly, but never appeared together. The idea is that the two-experimenter condition would elicit uncertainty, and frankly, might be a bit unnerving. The results showed that when two experimenters were used in a manner that left the participants uncertain, participants showed heightened desired punishment of a prostitute in a hypothetical criminal case. In another study, similar results were found when participants read a story or heard a joke that made no sense.

In yet another study, participants who identified as liberal were exposed to playing cards that were either typical or unusual (in that they had black hearts and diamonds, and red spades and clubs). In the unusual card condition, liberal participants showed heightened political liberalism on a subsequent questionnaire.

Other studies have shown that similar events, such as reading nonsense pairings of words, heighten learning on novel tasks, even if the words are primed subliminally, such that participants cannot consciously see them. This suggests that meaning pursuit following psychological inconsistencies occurs at an implicit, unconscious level.

The basic idea of the meaning maintenance model is that when any cognitive expectation is violated, humans will react in a way that restores “meaning” or finds meaning. Meaning in this case is defined as a person’s mental representations of themselves, others, and the physical world. This includes things like structure and patterns, but also values, identities, and even religious beliefs. The notion that viewing unusually colored playing cards can impact our relationship with these factors is simply extraordinary.


Balcetis, E., & Dunning, D. (2007). Cognitive dissonance and the perception of natural environments. Psychological Science, 18, 917-921.

Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford University Press.

Greenberg, J., & Arndt, J. (2011). Terror management theory. Handbook of theories of social psychology, 1, 398-415.

Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., & Lyon, D. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology58, 308-318.

Heine, S. J., Proulx, T., & Vohs, K. D. (2006). The meaning maintenance model: On the coherence of social motivations. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 88-110.

Proulx, T., Inzlicht, M., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2012). Understanding all inconsistency compensation as a palliative response to violated expectations. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16, 285-291.

Proulx, T., & Major, B. (2013). A raw deal: Heightened liberalism following exposure to anomalous playing cards. Journal of Social Issues69, 455-472.