Cognitive dissonance and ... Carmen Miranda?

ResearchBlogging.orgi-e888b5e4cdf5e969359dff3649b2d309-Carmen_Miranda.jpgCarmen Miranda is probably best-known today as the former spokesperson for Chiquita bananas, but she was equally famous -- and outrageous -- as an actress, singer, and dancer in the 1940s and 1950s.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when people's actions contradict strongly-held beliefs. It's such a distasteful feeling that people will often invent convoluted justifications to account for their actions. For example, if a white employer who believes herself not to be a racist decides not to hire an African American job applicant, she might justify her decision by convincing herself that the applicant was unqualified for the job.

So what does this have to do with Carmen Miranda? Researchers have found that cognitive dissonance can affect a variety of human judgments, from estimates of statistical likelihood to social assessments, to self-image. What researchers Emily Balcetis and David Dunning wanted to know is whether it could affect the human perceptual system. That's where Carmen Miranda came into play. The researchers needed to come up with an unappealing way to measure distance -- in this case, the distance across a university quadrangle. So what they did was ask students to walk that distance, in full daylight, while dressed as Carmen Miranda: wearing a grass skirt, a coconut brassiere, and, of course, a giant fruit-laden headdress.

The key to the study was the students' belief that they had chosen to do this. Some of the students were simply told that they were participating in an experiment about their reaction embarrassment and then told to put on the costume and walk across the quad, after which they'd be quizzed about their reaction. Others were told they could either do the Carmen Miranda walk or some other (unnamed) embarrassing task. However, they were strongly encouraged to dress up in the fruity hat, and in fact, none of them chose the other task. So does dressing up as Carmen Miranda make you believe that the quads are wider than they really are? Here are the results:


The students who believed they chose to dress up as Carmen Miranda estimated the length of the quads as significantly shorter than those who were simply told to wear the costume. Another group of students was simply asked to estimate and walk the distance without the costume, and again, they believed the distance was significantly longer than those who thought they had chosen to wear the costume.

Balcetis and Dunning say that this misperception of the distance (the quads were actually more 365 feet long) is caused by cognitive dissonance. Since they chose to walk in the costume, these students convinced themselves their decision must be rational: after all, it's not a very long distance to walk.

In a second experiment, the researchers used a completely different activity to see if cognitive dissonance affects perception. As before, some students were led to believe they had a choice of activity to perform, while others were simply told to do it. This time, the activity was to kneel on a skateboard and push themselves up a hill using their hands. Before they started, they were asked to estimate how steep the hill was using two different methods: drawing the angle on a sheet of paper, and using a large protractor with a movable arm. Once again, the students who believed they had chosen the task estimated the hill as significantly less steep than those who were simply told to do it.

So whether or not you think you choose to do something can affect your perception of physical properties of the world.

This could be a handy parenting tool: if you want to take your kids on a day hike but you're not sure whether they'll enjoy walking the distance, give them a choice of two similar hikes. Since they "picked" the hike, they'll believe it's an easier task. Or at dinner time, you could offer your kids the choice of two vegetables. The possibilities are endless. And it's all because of Carmen Miranda!

Emily Balcetis, David Dunning (2007). Cognitive Dissonance and the Perception of Natural Environments Psychological Science, 18 (10), 917-921 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.02000.x

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Great parenting trick! Thanks!

Or at dinner time, you could offer your kids the choice of two vegetables.

When I was growing up, I knew a family that did essentially the same thing; they allowed the children to pass on one vegetable each meal. At one point, when they were moving to a new house, they disassembled the kitchen table that they used for family meals and discovered that the hollow metal legs were stuffed full of lima beans.

Carmen Miranda died on my fifth birthday. I have never been the same since that day. I speak fluent Portuguese, too.

More effective way to get kids to eat vegetables: leave the salad out before dinner and leave instructions that they aren't supposed to take anything from it until dinner time. Of course the children end up taking from it anyways (cue the The Fantasticks) That's what my family did and we ended up enjoying veggies. In fact, by the time we were around 12 years old or so the pretense was abandoned because we were eating almost the entire salad. So we started having a pre-dinner salad that was made specifically so we could pick at it before dinner.

Some people are embarrassed to dress as Carmen Miranda? How strange.

By Abby Normal (not verified) on 30 Oct 2008 #permalink

But here's the question. Would the same experiment work in Brazil where Carmen is a national heroine?
I sort of like Carmen. On the other hand, I bet those heels hurt. That hair, the slit skirt, I bet the students looked beautiful. Even the girls.
Gimme a rimshot! Thankyou thankyou.

"The key to the study was the students' belief that they had chosen to do this."

So these students were not read their Miranda rights?!!

Was Miranda herself read her rites by the officiating clergy at her funeral?

Thin king people want to know!

Phil, I can assure you most Brazillians don't even know who Carmen Miranda is. She is not, by a long shot, a 'national heroine' or anything like that; those who still remember her often do it with bitter taste as she was almost seen as a traitor/sellout in her time.

With that said, I believe the experiment would work just fine around these parts.

What about the anti-racist who picks the unqualified black over the white person and then finds out they can't do the work and then explains it away?

How come that example never comes up?

How to attract a more politically diverse crowd to a psychology blog?

A study of economics and warfare would probably help you a lot. On the warfare side some work on the alpha male problem would also be of use.

The study need not be of the years long variety. Two books would probably be enough. "Free to Choose" by Friedman and "Strategy" by B.H.L. Hart would be enough. BTW the Hart book is at its core about psychology.

A deep understanding of those two books would probably change you enough to affect your writing and outlook.

I will add that such a change in outlook is sure to drive away many liberal readers. So be careful what you ask for.

The deal is: the political outlook of the conservatives is basically a tragic one. Man is not perfectable. The best we can hope for is systems which make the most of actual human nature. We cannot eliminate greed, but we can harness it. We cannot eliminate the alpha male. We can keep him in check. Mostly.

"We cannot eliminate the alpha male. We can keep him in check. Mostly. "

I thought that's why we have football/rugby/hockey?

Thanks for those book refs, they sound fascinating.

By codesuidae (not verified) on 04 Nov 2008 #permalink