In a recent new book, psychologists argue that cognitive consistency is a basic principle of how we function. We seek to resolve any form of dissonance. Until we do, we feel the tension of hypocrisy. Is this hypocrisy an evolved strategy that fosters self-regulation?
Dissonance between two cognitions or two attitudes or an attitude and behavior, particularly those that are important to us, leads to uncomfortable feelings. Since the 1950’s with the work of Leon Festinger, hundreds of studies have focused on this foundational principle in social psychology known as cognitive dissonance.
Most recently, Bertram Gawronski (University of Western Ontario) and Fritz Stack (University of Würzburg) have edited an invited collection of chapters that highlight how fundamental cognitive consistency is across a wide variety of human functioning, including self-regulation and behavioral intervention. Among the contributions to this excellent book is the work of Jeff Stone (University of Arizaon) who presents the hypocrisy paradigm, explaining that we may use hypocrisy and dissonance to motivate behavior change.
Gawronski & Stack summarize the hypocrisy paradigm writing,
The rationale underlying the hypocrisy paradigm is to motivate people to bring their behavior in line with attitudes and beliefs to which they already subscribe. By emphasizing the rational side of dissonance reduction (“Practice what you preach”) rather than the irrational side that is often seen in dissonance-related attitude change . . . this approach provides several links to the literature on self- regulation . . . such as the possibility that people sometimes rationalize their impulsive behaviors instead of reclaiming control (2012, p. 10).
I have argued throughout my blog that much of the problem of procrastination is that we act impulsively, “giving in to feel good” in the short term while we abandon intended actions on our longer-term goals. We needlessly delay action on an intended goal in favor of a more pleasureable short-term reward. In particular, this short-term focus on mood—feeling good now—undermines our ability to self control our behavior.
Of course, we’re aware of this discrepancy between our intended behavior and our off-task activities, and this creates dissonance. Who doesn’t know the nagging guilt and negative emotions of an important task that has been needlessly delayed? Who hasn’t experienced the dissonance of the intention-action gap?
We can reduce this dissonance by rationalizing our choice, but this perpetuates our procrastination, perhaps establishing a habitual response. Is it also possible that we might use the dissonance to recognize that our behavior is falling short of our goals? This is a question addressed by Jeff Stone in his discussion of the hypocrisy paradigm.
Stone’s interesting contribution through the hypocrisy paradigm is that our dissonance may actually be a lever for behavioral change. We may be able to harness our hypocrisy to motivate self-regulation. He writes,
If we think of dissonance as a psychological warning system that evolved in part to let us know when our regulation and control of behavior is breaking down . . . then hypocrisy may represent a strategy for creating the warning that behavior is falling short of important prosocial standards and goals. When impulses lead people astray, hypocrisy puts people into the deliberate, reflective mode that allows them to bring their behavior back into line with their short- and longer-term goals for change.
Stone has a number of studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of hypocrisy awareness on behavioral change. For example, in a study conducted in 1994, Stone and his colleagues found that individuals who both publicly advocated safe sex and were later reminded of past failures to use condoms were more than twice as likely to buy condoms for future use. When given a choice, individuals preferred to practice what they preached.
In thinking about applications to self-regulation failure, particularly procrastination, it would seem that one route to change might be to harness our feelings of distress—that dissonance that betrays the hypocrisy as the gap between our intentions and actions—to fuel behavior change, to fuel on-task behavior.
As yet, I don’t know of any research directly linking the hypocrisy paradigm to procrastination, so we await empirical data to support this thinking. In the meantime, what do you think? Is it possible to see an upside to the dissonance we experience in the intention-action gap known as procrastination? Have you found fuel for change in hypocrisy recognition that has moved you back to practicing what you preach?
Stone, J. (2012). Consistency as a Basis for Behavioral Interventions. In Bertram Gawronski & Fritz Strack (Eds.) Cognitive Consistency: A fundamental principle in social cognition. New York: The Guilford Press
Stone, J., Aronson, E., Crain, A. L., Winslow, M. P., & Fried, C. B. (1994). Inducing hypocrisy as a means of encouraging young adults to use condoms. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 116-128.
Stone, J., & Fernandez, N. C. (2008). To practice what we preach: The use of hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance to motivate behavior change. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 1024-1051.