The psychology of "sour grapes": Even amnesics have cognitive dissonance

ResearchBlogging.orgLast week I mentioned that Greta had been discussing a study with her class that was related to the fable of the Fox and the Grapes. When most of her students hadn't heard the story, it provided the opportunity for a lengthy aside: our Casual Fridays study about which stories people had and hadn't heard.

Greta didn't bring up the story in class to embarrass her students about their apparent lack of knowledge of children's stories; she mentioned it because it's probably the easiest way to understand an important psychological phenomenon called "behavior-induced attitude change."

The fable says that the fox sees some delicious grapes in an orchard but can't reach them. After several attempts to get at the grapes, he gives up, saying "they were probably sour anyway."

"Sour grapes" is one example of behavior-induced attitude change, but it can also work in the opposite direction, improving our attitude towards things we feel we can have. In 1956, J.W. Brehm showed women a set of eight home appliances and asked them to rank them in the order of their liking, from most to least. Then they were shown two items that were rated close to each other and asked which one they would most like to take home with them. Finally, they re-ranked the entire set of appliances. This time, they consistently ranked the item they chose higher than before, and the item they didn't choose lower than before.

It might seem quite clear that these women are simply remembering which appliance they chose to take home and then adjusting their rankings accordingly. But a team led by Matthew Lieberman wondered if there was another explanation for their behavior. If people who don't remember which items they chose also show "sour grapes" behavior, then perhaps memory isn't involved at all. The researchers found 12 volunteers with anterograde amnesia -- who are unable to remember events that occurred even a few minutes ago. They also tested 12 people with normal memory on a modified version of Brehm's test.

First, everyone ranked two sets of cards with works of art printed on them. One set was 15 Monet paintings, and the other was 15 works of unknown aboriginal art.

They were distracted with an unrelated task for three minutes, then they were shown prints two pairs at a time (two prints on the right, two on the left). Most of these were prints they hadn't seen before. For each set of prints, chose which pair they preferred. Among these unfamiliar prints was a set of two pairs of prints from one of the sets they had ranked at the start of the experiment: the 4th and the 10th-ranked print, and the 6th and the 12th ranked print. They indicated which pair they preferred. Again they were distracted for three minutes with an unrelated task.

Finally they re-ranked both sets of prints. This chart shows how the process worked for the key prints in the experiment:


The key question is this: how much did the prints move up or down in the rankings based on whether they were accepted in the rankings? For amnesics, the preferred pair of paintings increase in ranking by an average of 1.13 positions, while the rejected paintings decreased by 1.2 positions. The result can be summed up in one quantity, the "spread": the change in ranking of the preferred pair of prints minus the change in the ranking of the rejected pair. For amnesics, the spread was 2.33, while for control participants with normal memory, the spread was 1.98 -- not significantly different.

The second set of prints, for which respondents were never given a choice of a preferred pair, was also re-rated as a control. Neither the amnesics nor the control group significantly changed their rankings of these prints (which were randomly selected to be the Monet paintings or aboriginal art).

The researchers believe the process of establishing preferences is separate from the process of forming memories.

To confirm this hunch, they repeated the experiment with 24 student volunteers, all with normal memory. Half of the students completed the study while a random series of three different tones was playing in the background. In addition to completing the task, they had to count the number of times the lowest-pitch tone was played. As in the first experiment, there was no difference in their change in rankings compared to the students who didn't have to count tones.

Rather than being a cynical, conscious process related to our memory for our actions, Lieberman's team says that behavior-induced "sour grapes" attitude changes aren't experience consciously. Instead, we genuinely feel as if that's been our attitude all along.

Lieberman, M., Ochsner, K., Gilbert, D., & Schacter, D. (2001). Do Amnesics Exhibit Cognitive Dissonance Reduction?: The Role of Explicit Memory and Attention in Attitude Change Psychological Science, 12 (2), 135-140 DOI: 10.1111/1467-9280.00323

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Interesting. What happens on subsequent iterations? Does repeated selection of the same preference continue to raise its ranking?

I thought the story of the fox and the grapes was the one where the fox saw his reflection in a pool and thought that other fox had larger grapes. Naturally, he dropped them and lost the grapes all together. Maybe it was a dog. If anyone else was confused, it may throw the results of the familiarity survey.


That's why we asked people how the story ended. If everyone had said they were familiar with the story, then we could have checked their reports on the ending to see if they were remembering the wrong story. But we got the effect without relying on the ending -- people's self-reports were enough to demonstrate that older people were more familiar with the story.


You appear to have conflated "The Dog and His Bone" and "The Fox and the Grapes". That is no surprise. Aesop's fables are short and easy to remember, but you may have heard a dozen or so at a time and not heard them, except for the cultural reference, for decades.

By freelunch (not verified) on 25 Mar 2009 #permalink