ReThinking with Adam Grant
The psychology of self-persuasion with Elliot Aronson
December 5, 2023
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.
My guest today is the legendary social psychologist Elliot Aronson. He's a pioneer of the study of cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable tension we feel when our attitudes and actions conflict. He co-authored a book on dissonance that I think should be required reading for all humans: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).
He also wrote The Social Animal, an award-winning textbook, beloved by generations of psychology students. Now in its 12th edition. Elliot is the only person ever to win the triple crown of awards from the American Psychological Association for research, teaching and writing, and he won the William James Award for Lifetime Achievement. He's 91 and I'd love to be as sharp any day as he is today.
There's so much I'm excited to talk about today. Uh, Elliot, you're a legendary teacher. I know that generations of students have admired your wisdom and also your kindness. And one of the things that you're famous for doing is inviting or maybe challenging your TAs to give a guest lecture. Why?
[00:01:25] Elliot Aronson:
I love teaching the introductory social psychology course, and it's always been a huge course. Like at the University of Texas, we would have about 600 students in there, and even at University of California Santa Cruz, we would get 300, 350 students. And I've always thought it would be a nice introduction for my TAs. They were leading sections, and I thought if they could get a chance to address a huge audience, it would sort of defang the entire process.
The undergraduates are very empathic of the graduate students who may be a little bit nervous at the beginning, and that shows, and the students are with them, you know, uh, it's a very nice experience.
[00:02:19] Adam Grant:
Well, it's something I started doing after, after seeing that you had role modeled it, and our PhD students just raved about it as a very meaningful challenge and also a, a chance for them to, to connect with the students on a different level. Now, I was reading a little bit about some of the students who had gone through this TA experience with you, and I came across a hilarious story from a former TA Larry White.
[00:02:44] Elliot Aronson:
Yeah, it was a rainy day and uh, there I am in the auditorium waiting for Larry, and he shows up, and he shows me his backside where he slipped in the mud and landed right on his ass.
And he is covered with mud and he said, “I, I don't, I don't know what to do. You know, if the students ever saw my backside, they would, would be laughing at me,” and, and I said, “No, no, no. What you have to do is show them your backside and tell them exactly what happened, and explain to them that you were nervous about the lecture. And, and that's one of the reasons why you were distracted and you slipped and fell. And then you turn around and show them your backside and they will love you for it.” And, uh, he did that and it worked exactly that way. The students gave him a standing ovation, and I think it was partly because of that pratfall.
[00:03:44] Adam Grant:
There's a great, um, coda to the story, which is he said a student came up to thank him afterward, and that's how he met his wife, Hester.
[00:03:55] Elliot Aronson:
Ah, ah. I did know that and I had forgotten. But it's a, it is a, a wonderful coda and it, I happen to know that it's a marriage that has lasted for quite a while.
[00:04:06] Adam Grant:
You know, I think about you, Elliot. Every time I make a mistake. I, I think your brilliant paper on the pratfall effect really changed the way that I think about mistakes. And I guess a, a personal example was, I remember, uh, right when I was getting ready to interview for a job at Wharton. Uh, I was invited to speak at a conference here about a month beforehand, and I arrived in Philadelphia and realized I had forgotten to pack pants.
Like, all I had was pajama pants and sweatpants, and it was, I think it was 10:00 PM and my talk was at 8:00 AM the next morning, and there was nothing I could do except I had a cousin who was in school here. He was bigger than me, but I borrowed his pants. And then I walked in to give the talk and I opened thinking of you with the story of how I forgot my pants.
And I really wanted to apologize for how ridiculous I looked. I felt like a clown. And it was the warmest audience reception I had ever gotten at an academic conference. So unpack this for me. What did, what did your research show about why this is effective?
[00:05:08] Elliot Aronson:
Well, what we think it showed is that if a person seems really terrific to begin with, he may be a little intimidating. He may make the people who are evaluating him feel not so good by comparison, but when he makes a pratfall, when he falls down or forgets his pants or something like that, it makes people feel closer to him. Now, the important thing to notice is if a mediocre person who has a pratfall simply seems that much more mediocre for having the pratfall.
[00:05:52] Adam Grant:
One, one of the things that I, I took away from this research was that although we're, we're often encouraged to, to humanize ourselves and to show vulnerability, we shouldn't forget to, to establish our competence, and it's a lot easier to get away with showing vulnerability if you're successful or if you have high status or if you have a track record of achievement.
It also reminds me of a, a recent paper led by Alison Wood Brooks, where a whole series of experiments showed that if you're successful revealing your failures on the path to success and even some of your current failures, uh, reduces malicious envy, so people are more likely to admire you as opposed to maybe, maybe being out to get you.
[00:06:32] Elliot Aronson:
I think that's, that's probably true. Yeah.
[00:06:37] Adam Grant:
I'm curious about how you think about the pratfall effect today in a world that seems to place conflicting pressures on people. On the one hand, we're supposed to be perfect and flawless. On the other hand, I think a lot of people prize authenticity and vulnerability. Uh, do you have other thoughts on the differences between a good pratfall and a bad pratfall?
[00:06:58] Elliot Aronson:
My main feeling is one should never fake a pratfall. You know, if you forgot your pants on purpose, and they, and for some reason the audience had a clue that that might have happened, I think that would be a disaster. You don't wanna fake it. Chances are we all have our vulnerabilities and it's good to reveal them in the normal course of events without the motivation to appear human.
[00:07:30] Adam Grant:
I know so many people who take pride in being rational, but what you taught me is we're actually much better at rationalizing.
[00:07:38] Elliot Aronson:
[00:07:38] Adam Grant:
I’d love to hear. How did you realize that? When did you first come to that discovery?
[00:07:43] Elliot Aronson:
I think we are rational beings. We are capable of rational behavior, but much more powerful is our desire to rationalize, our need to rationalize. Cognitive dissonance reduction is neutral. It's a tool. And it's, it has some uses.
It helps us sleep at night. You make an important decision, like a financial decision, like what kind of car to buy or what kind of house to buy or anything like that. And it's a big decision. It's an important decision. And if it's not perfect, then you're, “Oh gee, should I have bought the other one?” And dissonance reduction plugs in. You convince yourself it is the best house or the best car, or the best, whatever, the best woman that you married. Once you, you start reducing dissonance, you can sleep at night and that makes you a healthier person. It can also be l-used for self-deception. It can be used, um, to justify a war and to justify at sending more troops and more troops and more troops as you surge the war, which is gonna end up very badly anyway, and people get killed.
So when a person makes a mistake, uh, a bad mistake, a, a cognitive blunder, or causes pain to an innocent bystander for no good reason. I think that we try to justify that because the most powerful dissonance occurs when I do something that goes against my own self-concept, that belies my own self-concept, and that's the, the irony of it, that in order to make myself feel better, I then set that person up for even greater harm because I've now convinced myself that he deserved all the nasty things I had done to him in the past.
[00:09:48] Adam Grant:
That, that’s one of the dynamics I wanna talk more about. Um, I remember in, in Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), uh, you wrote about some chilling examples of self, self-justification to reduce dissonance. I was particularly struck by prosecutors who refused to recognize DNA evidence that exonerated people they had, they had put in prison. I mean, that's, that's unfathomable.
[00:10:09] Elliot Aronson:
That's the exquisite irony is that the prosecutor who refuses to reopen the case, he's not refusing to reopen the case because he’s a terrible person. He's refusing to reopen the case, be-because he thinks of himself as a good person and a competent person who would never, ever send the wrong man to prison. So if he sent somebody to prison for 10 years and then DNA evidence shows up that could exonerate that person, he refuses to look at it because he sees himself as a good and competent person who would never send the wrong man to prison for 10 years.
[00:10:59] Adam Grant:
Every time hear stories like this, I want to sit people down and say, “Listen, just because you're a good person doesn't mean you're not capable of doing a bad thing.”
[00:11:09] Elliot Aronson:
The mind is a terrific thing. That's part of what makes it so exciting to be a social psychologist, to be able to study these things and figure out the underlying reasons why people do things that would seem bizarre without a good theory that, that helps explain how that works.
[00:11:29] Adam Grant:
You're reminding me of when I was early in grad school, Phoebe Ellsworth said her definition of social psychology was all the forces that ruin your life every day.
[00:11:40] Elliot Aronson:
Hahaha. That’s very good. That's very good. Or, or enhance our lives every day. What we've been talking about is something that we could call a vicious circle and it can work in the other direction also. You do somebody a favor. One of my students, David Landy, did this as an experiment. You do something—
[00:12:03] Adam Grant:
Oh, this is Jecker and Landy. I love that paper.
[00:12:03] Elliot Aronson:
It’s, it’s a great paper and it shows that what's important is the giving. If you do a favor for someone and you don't particularly like that person or dislike that person to begin with, you, in effect, you're asking yourself, “Well, how come I did this great favor for that person? He must be a terrific guy. I think I see some really nice things about him. He really deserves the favor I gave him, really deserves all the things I did for him,” and therefore it increases the probability that you'll do nice things for him in the future, and that is one of the underlying dynamics of the Jigsaw classroom, which is a series of experiments I once did several years ago.
[00:12:58] Adam Grant:
Which I hope we're gonna get to. The, the idea that you, you don't have to like someone to do them a favor, but after you've done a favor for them, you're likely to convince yourself that they're worth liking.
[00:13:08] Elliot Aronson:
[00:13:08] Adam Grant:
Is, is such a, it's such a fun example of how sometimes dissonance can actually lead to good things, not just bad things, which…
[00:13:17] Elliot Aronson:
[00:13:17] Adam Grant:
I wanna ask you more about, but bef-before we go to the bright side, the dynamic that you raised around victim blaming, um, and the vicious cycle that ensues. It feels very timely. I think outgroup dehumanization seems to be on the rise lately. We've seen it with political polarization.
[00:13:33] Elliot Aronson:
[00:13:33] Adam Grant:
And you know, people on opposite sides of the political, well, uh, of the liberal-conservative divide, failing to see the humanity in each other. How does dissonance reduction help us understand this?
[00:13:44] Elliot Aronson:
I always think of Stanley Milgram's obedience experiment as a, a perfect instantiation of that process of one step at a time, because I think most of your listeners probably know about that obedience experiment where a person, one person was giving another person a series of electric shocks as part of an experiment, allegedly on learning.
And these were not real electric shocks, but the shock giver thought they were real. And every time the person who was supposed to be learning something made a mistake, he raised it by 15 or 20 volts and, and it got higher and higher. And the way I view that experiment is that each step was justified.
And if you give the guy 80 volts or 90 volts, or 120 volts, what’s to prevent you from giving him 135 volts? Because that's not much different from 120, and so one step at a time, you can be giving that person a shock level that you think might be lethal, and people are capable of doing that. As you know, in Milgram's experiments, we replicated many, many times. About two out of three people went all the way to the end, which was over 400 volts, which that they thought they were giving to a person who was complaining that he had a bad heart. Quite a powerful demonstration.
[00:15:26] Adam Grant:
If you had started the experiment at 400 volts, people say, no way, absolutely not.
[00:15:30] Elliot Aronson:
Yeah. Exactly, exactly. Imagine going, going up to someone and saying, “I'd like you to give that innocent person 400 volts of electricity.” You're looking at 'em as if you were crazy. But two out of three people, one step at a time, justifying each improvement. Each improvement. That's a strange use of the word improvement.
Each increase in voltage because it's not that different from the previous one. And you look at that, and you can see that that is a model for what seems to us as bizarre behavior and how it can come about. Um, it's a replication of the outgroup can always be vilified and we can always justify harming them in really important ways.
Whether the outgroup happens to be Israelis or happens to be Palestinians. It happens, and it's still happening, and it is part of human nature, but it, it's human nature that can be overcome by tuning into the possibilities of the virtuous circle, which could reverse some of the thinking, some of the, the rationalizing and justification that goes into the vicious circle, which produces all this negative stereotyping and negative behavior, and we're, we're doing it in this country.
[00:17:02] Adam Grant:
Thinking about the virtuous cycles, what does the psychology of cognitive dissonance teach us about how to, how to fight this kind of victim blaming and dehumanization and, and are there insights about how we can solve it?
[00:17:16] Elliot Aronson:
I go back to some of the research I did when we developed the notion of the jigsaw classroom. I was living in Austin, Texas at the time. I was teaching at the University of Texas. When the Texas schools were desegregated finally in 1971, most of us thought, gee, that will lead to great outcomes, a reduction in prejudice, because if people are segregated in schools and residentially, Black kids, white kids, Mexican American kids don't get to see much of each other, and therefore they can build up the stereotypes. But if you bring them together, it should result in good things. But we should have known better because it depends on how you bring them together. And when the Austin schools were desegregated, the kids from minority residential areas were simply bused into the schools, the, of the white middle class.
And they had prior, their prior preparation was not very good. And the classroom is a highly competitive kid situation where the minority kids were guaranteed to lose. They didn't know the answer when the teacher would stand in front of the room and ask a question. They tended not to participate after a while, which tended to exacerbate whatever existing stereotypes were there, and we were called in by the school superintendent.
I was asked if I had any ideas as to how we could change things 'cause there were fist fights breaking out. There was a lot of aggression. Far from being a good thing. It looked like desegregating the schools only brought people together who were gonna fight with each other. And what we did was on the spot, my graduate students and I invented a situation which forced kids to cooperate with each other, and we called it the jigsaw classroom because the way it was set up, we would have, uh, small groups of five or six people, different races and, and genders as diverse as we could possibly make each group. And they each had one piece of a puzzle.
Like if it was the biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, they each had a separate section of her life from childhood all the way to old age, and the only access you would have to the entire thing would be to listen to each kid report on his section. To make a long story very short, it forced kids to listen to each other. It forced kids to pay attention to each other, and within six weeks, that group was functioning like a really good basketball team where it didn't matter who put the ball in the hoop, you pass the ball around until you find the open man.
The results were spectacular. On the initial experiments, and every time we've tried to replicate it, it's come out in a very much the same way. Prejudice went down, liking for school went up, absenteeism decreased and general empathy increased because the individual kids, their individual differences became important.
[00:21:01] Adam Grant:
I’ve always thought that part of what's clever about your jigsaw classroom design is that there's not just a common goal. You actually have to rely on each other and help each other to achieve it.
[00:21:09] Elliot Aronson:
I like that too. In a jigsaw group, each kid had one assignment, like Eleanor Roosevelt’s early years. We had took time and everybody with Eleanor Roosevelt's early years met together outside of their jigsaw group, but in what was called an expert group, and they went over the material together. They shared it with each other. They talked about ways they would have of presenting it so that kids who might've been, had a little more difficulty with the presentation, were learning from the, the other people who had the same paragraph to report. And therefore when they went back into their jigsaw group they were armed, that would make it less likely that they would drop that fly ball.
[00:22:01] Adam Grant:
I was thinking about the jigsaw classroom recently when I was reading a paper by Shannon White, Juliana Schroeder and Jane Risen, where they studied, uh, Israeli-Palestinian teenagers at Seeds of Peace Camp, uh, which I'm sure you've been familiar with for a long time, and I was, I was stunned to read that just sharing a dialogue group, having that common activity, made participants 15 times more likely to develop a close friendship. And it seems like you anticipated that finding.
[00:22:31] Elliot Aronson:
It was always the hope. I wouldn't even call it the anticipation. It was the hope and it, it does work that way, especially with kids. The younger the kids, the easier it is to achieve that before the prejudices have hardened.
[00:22:49] Adam Grant:
Right. Uh, I, I was riveted by your finding that the people we like most are not necessarily the people we liked all along. But the people we started out disliking and then grew to like, is that part of what's going on in the jigsaw case?
[00:23:04] Elliot Aronson:
The mind is an interesting thing, and there are various theoretical ways to get at what's happening, but there's a consistency to all of that stuff, that these things are all interrelated in interesting ways that come to light afterwards. After a talk I gave at an APA convention, and a young woman came up to me afterwards and said, “Have you ever read Benjamin Franklin's autobiography?” And I said, “Yeah, a long time ago, 30 years ago or something.” And she said, “You ought to read it again. He anticipated that experiment.” The Jecker-Landy experiment.
[00:23:50] Adam Grant:
The rare book. The loan. Yes.
[00:23:51] Elliot Aronson:
Sure enough, it's right in there. He was in the Pennsylvania State Legislature. There was an older guy who seemed to have taken a disliking to him and was gainsaying any idea that Franklin had. And he wanted to win 'em over. And he heard that the guy had a rare book that Franklin might be interested in, and he asked him if he could borrow the book, and the guy lent it to him, and Franklin read the book, loved it, returned it to him in a week.
And after that, the guy became a lot friendlier and Franklin concluded if you can get someone to do you a favor, they’re gonna be your friend. I hadn't thought about that, certainly not consciously, when Jecker and Landy and I were, were designing that experiment.
[00:24:48] Adam Grant:
I, I always think about that and, and think, “Okay, but what, what happens if the person says no?” Uh, has that damaged the relationship?
[00:24:54] Elliot Aronson:
I would think so. You really wanna make sure they don't say no.
[00:25:00] Adam Grant:
So the key was the right ask.
[00:25:02] Elliot Aronson:
[00:25:02] Adam Grant:
I wanna, Elliot, I wanna come back to your point that it's much easier to overcome prejudice with kids than adults. This is obviously a major challenge right now. I, I've watched a lot of people on social media bullying and shaming other people for how they're using their platforms.
I've been thinking a lot about your work on the psychology of self persuasion. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about, you know, particularly with adults, how you would activate self persuasion so that people were likely to open their own minds as opposed to maybe shutting them down the way that, that most are, are trying to persuade right now.
[00:25:37] Elliot Aronson:
Everything we've been talking about so far is self persuasion. We can put people in a situation where they're motivated to persuade themselves of a, that a particular thing is true and that, and that, that results in a much more powerful persuasion than if I'm trying to sell you something, and we know we get that all the time on our email.
Ha. Look here, we've got this new thing for you from Amazon, or from God knows what publication wants us to subscribe to, and we just learn to ignore that attempt to persuade us. But to make a person, to put a person in a situation which is usually a dissonance situation where the motivation is to persuade yourself that a particular thing is true because that's helpful to you. That really works.
And in some of the work that we've done, for example, when during the height of the AIDS epidemic, when there was no cure for AIDs, they didn't even know what was causing it, and public health people realized that condoms… Using condoms if you're sexually active, using condoms is the best way to protect yourself and to protect your partner.
But people weren't using them. How do you get people to use condoms? Well, one of the things that I thought about doing was using self persuasion via cognitive dissonance and the way to do that, we developed a paradigm that we called the hypocrisy paradigm, but I could just as well have named it the Integrity Paradigm because what we did was we got sexually active college students to create and deliver a short lecture that was gonna be played to high school students in a sex education class. Okay. That was the cover story, and they talked about how important it was to use condoms. And the interesting thing is college students believed that condoms were important to use. They understood that. It's just that they weren't using them.
Only about 17% of sexually active college students were using condoms. We got them to deliver that, to make that videotape advocating the use of condoms every single time you have sex. And then afterwards, and we interviewed all of the students, but for half of them, we got them to think about whether they themselves were using condoms.
So we made salient the fact that for many of 'em, for most of them, almost all of them, in that condition, they had just gotten through preaching something which we then rubbed their nose in the fact that they themselves were not practicing, okay? Made them aware of their own hypocrisy. And people have a great desire to see themselves as people of integrity.
That's one of the things people think. We all think that we're smarter, that we're smarter than the average person, that we're more competent than the average person, that we're more moral than the a-average person, and that we have more integrity than the average person. Now you're confronting some people with the fact they're behaving hypocritically and they want to get back to, to behaving with integrity.
And how do you get back to behaving with integrity? You start using condoms, and that's what we found, that we found a sharp increase in the use of condoms. And six months later when a poll was conducted by us, but it seemed to be coming from someone else, six months later, the people in the hypocrisy condition were still using condoms. That was self persuasion rather than the persuasion that was being used by the public health center at my university, for example, giving lectures, showing videos about using condoms, giving out pamphlets, all of that stuff increased the use of condoms by about 2%, from 17% to 19%. Where was we were getting more than 60% using condoms six months later.
[00:30:33] Adam Grant:
[00:30:33] Elliot Aronson:
That was powerful data.
[00:30:35] Adam Grant:
I took two things away from that research. The fi—the first lesson was that if you want to convince somebody, you should get them involved in making the argument that you want them to believe.
[00:30:46] Elliot Aronson:
[00:30:46] Adam Grant:
Not just telling them the argument you want them to believe.
[00:30:49] Elliot Aronson:
[00:30:51] Adam Grant:
And then the, the second was that we should be careful about the arguments we make because when you're persuading someone else, the person you're most likely to convince is yourself.
[00:31:01] Elliot Aronson:
That’s absolutely right.
[00:31:06] Adam Grant:
Are you up for a lightning round with some short questions?
[00:31:09] Elliot Aronson:
I’m up for it.
[00:31:10] Adam Grant:
What is the worst piece of advice you've ever gotten?
[00:31:15] Elliot Aronson:
Haha. The worst piece of advice I've ever gotten was don't go to college. Go to work.
[00:31:20] Adam Grant:
Wow. I'm glad you ignored that one.
[00:31:22] Elliot Aronson:
Support your mother. Yeah. It was right after my father died. I was a junior in high school. My brother was already in college, so my aunts and uncles were saying, “Well, Elliot, when he graduates from high school, can go work at, for the Ford Motor Company on the assembly line. And the pay is really good. You can support his mother that way,” et cetera. And I looked at it and I thought, hey, that was a pretty good idea that I'd be making a couple of hundred dollars a week.
And my brother said, “Screw that. Elliot's going to college and uh, we can handle it.” And that was the end of it. My brother, he really did save me from a life working for the Ford Motor Company.
[00:32:08] Adam Grant:
Is there a favorite psychology book that you'd like to recommend?
[00:32:11] Elliot Aronson:
Either of the Nisbett-Ross books. I like them a lot.
[00:32:16] Adam Grant:
What is something you've rethought lately?
[00:32:20] Elliot Aronson:
Hahaha. I have to admit I haven't rethought very much lately. I guess when you get to be an old guy, you, yeah, you’re busy collecting the thoughts you do have rather than changing much. I don't think I've rethought very much.
[00:32:35] Adam Grant:
Elliot, is there a question you have for me?
[00:32:38] Elliot Aronson:
How does it feel to be at a, a psychologist in a business school rather than in the liberal arts department? What are the advantages? What are the disadvantages?
[00:32:51] Adam Grant:
Oh, I don't think anyone's asked me that before. When I got to Michigan for, for my doctorate in psychology, I wanted to be an organizational psychologist, and I, I felt like the more basic scholars were sort of looking down their nose at me like, “Why aren't you doing neuroscience or physiology work? Why do you care about people's jobs and, and doing applied research?” And coming to a business school has obviously changed that. I think there's an expectation that we're gonna do practical work. Uh, that was one of the big points of inspiration that I took from your work, was seeing how you went into the real world and said, “I wanna see if I can improve people's lives using the tools of psychology.”
[00:33:28] Elliot Aronson:
[00:33:30] Adam Grant:
If you were to make your Mount Rushmore of psychology, who would be on it?
[00:33:34] Elliot Aronson:
It'd be Kurt Lewin and uh, Leon Festinger for sure. I would put in B.F. Skinner and, uh, just for diversity, maybe Carl Rogers. Um, Paul Neal.
[00:33:53] Adam Grant:
What's the idea from psychology that has most been useful in your life outside of dissonance?
[00:34:00] Elliot Aronson:
Haha. What Gordon Allport wrote in Nature of Prejudice about what needs to happen in order for prejudice to be reduced. He actually listed all of the things that went into the jigsaw classroom. It wasn't just bringing kids together in the same school. It was sanctioned by authority. Working together toward a common, to achieve a common goal.
All of that stuff, I think was really an important, um, position that he took way back in 1954. And people ignored it because desegregation really didn't work the way it was supposed to.
[00:34:48] Adam Grant:
I guess one thing I'm curious about is how do you deal with cognitive dissonance personally?
[00:34:53] Elliot Aronson:
Me, if I'm making an important decision, especially one that involves other people, uh, and could cause pain to other people, I really have to ask myself, is this something I really believe in, or am I simply acting in a way that justifies a previous decision and helps me feel better about myself?
I think knowing about dissonance and knowing how susceptible I am to reducing dissonance and then finding out later that I was doing that… In some cases it's harmless. But in, in some cases it could be very hurtful, uh, to others. In the cases where, where other people's happiness is involved. Like when I was actively teaching, uh, I, I would make a decision, do I wanna work with this person or not?
And it was somebody who started to work with me and they were really, weren't panning out. And uh, I had to be sure that my decisions were based on specific instances that I could document if I had to, rather than I just didn't like the guy very much, or something like that. I would do a lot of questioning in advance of a decision, sort of trying out the decision one way and the other way, and seeing how that made me feel.
What are all the possible dissonance reduction, self-justification aspects that I really need to take into account? I would do a lot of that. When we first moved to Minneapolis and we bought a house, the first house we ever bought, and we didn't have any money, and so there were only two houses that we liked and that we could afford, and they couldn't have been more different. One was close to the university. It was my dream to live walking distance from campus so that my graduate students could come over at four o'clock in the afternoon. We could drink some scotch or coffee and, and talk research, but it didn't have much of a yard. The other one was out in the suburbs, but it had a big backyard and it was pleasant and okay, and it was near a lake.
We ended up buying the house in the suburbs, and I had a lot of dissonance about that because if I was living alone, I would've bought the one close to school. But given the fact that we had four kids, it was the best decision to make. But I still had a lot of dissonance about it.
This was in early December. I was in my office and I saw an ad in the newspaper about an old town canoe used, for sale, that somebody was selling, and I bought the canoe. I put it on top of my car on the luggage rack, drove home in December, and Vera, my wife was looking out the window of the kitchen as I drove into the driveway with the canoe on top of the car, and she burst out laughing.
One might say that the canoe sat in our garage doing nothing but taking up space for six months until I could use it. But I would say it did a lot more than take up space. It helped me feel better and therefore sleep better at night about having chosen the house in the suburbs 'cause we had this canoe.
[00:38:37] Adam Grant:
That’s a great story.
[00:38:38] Elliot Aronson:
It’s a simple thing, and yet it's really important and we do that all the time and we can ignore it. It doesn't matter. But there's so many dissonance reduction things that do matter, and those are the things we really have to scrutinize. And the more you know about dissonance, the less confident I am that my decisions are made for exactly the right reasons.
[00:39:06] Adam Grant:
That seems like the kind of intellectual humility we could all use more of. Okay. Finally, on the personal front, I loved this note from your son, Joshua. I'm just gonna read it to you and let you react. He said that you and your wife, Vera, have been really happy together for over 70 years. He says, “Really. They’re still completely in love. When COVID hit and they had to be quarantined together, just the two of them, it was as if they were given a second honeymoon at the age of 90.” So what advice do you have in this day and age about choosing a life partner, building a life together, and making love last.
[00:39:43] Elliot Aronson:
Hm. I don't give advice. If I were giving advice, I would say, “You wanna have a happy marriage that lasts, marry Vera!” Aha. Vera is magnificent and it was the happiest day of my life when I met her and we became friends and Maslow hired the two of us. We were his two favorite students, mostly Vera, little bit me. And we worked together and we fell in love and it was, she is beautiful. She is smart, she's has serenity.
I've never met anyone like her. The interesting thing to me is that when I was 20 years old, I was convinced that I would never get married. And whenever I was dating a woman and we started to get a little bit serious with each other, I would make that announcement: “Hope you realize that I'm never gonna get married!”
Because my parents were very unhappily married. I, I always thought of marriage as an unnatural state of affairs to be spending your whole life with one other person and, you know, trying to keep out of each other's way and making mistakes and getting on each other's nerves and embarrassing each other.
Y’know, it, it didn't seem right to me. And then when I was 21, I met Vera. When I was 22, we got married. If I were giving advice, I would say learn how to communicate, learn about interpersonal communication. Learn not to judge or criticize when there are disagreements, and there will always be disagreements, you know.
A lot of people will say, will think that a good marriage is one where you never argue or never disagree. Of course, you're gonna argue and disagree. How can two people live together without disagreeing about things? But the idea is to do it civilly and with care, and it's how you argue and how you discuss things. That's really important. How you disagree. Yeah, and she's my best friend. She has always been my best friend. Josh was wrong by the way. It's only been 69 years, not 70. I've been very lucky. Lucky with the choice. Lucky that she loved me as much as I love her, which astonishes me. And lucky that we're, we're both relatively, um, healthy in our nineties, so that it's lasted a long time and will continue, I hope.
[00:42:27] Adam Grant:
That's beautifully put. And, uh, it sounds like, uh, she forced you to overcome some dissonance in order to get married.
[00:42:34] Elliot Aronson:
She didn't do anything. You know, when I made that pronouncement to her, she just sort of smiled. She knew it wouldn't last, I think.
[00:42:46] Adam Grant:
Well, Elliot, I can't thank you enough for taking the time to share your wisdom today. I've long looked up to the way you do your work as a psychologist, a teacher, a mentor, but I think I have even greater admiration for how you live your life.
[00:43:02] Elliot Aronson:
Well, thank you. It was a pleasure talking to you. I really enjoyed it.
[00:43:07] Adam Grant:
I assure you the pleasure was all mine and I can't wait to share it with our listeners.
[00:43:13] Elliot Aronson:
I can't wait to hear, hear what I had to say.
[00:43:23] Adam Grant:
I think the major lesson of Elliot's work is that the world needs more rationality and less rationalizing. Rationalizing is searching for justifications after you've reached an opinion or decision. Rationality is seeking the best logic and data before you commit and staying open to changing your mind.
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, Banban Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact checker is Paul Durbin, original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
I, I remember reading it, not by chance alone, that Festinger had quite a line about Maslow.
[00:44:19] Elliot Aronson:
We were in a bar having a drink, and he said, “By the way, Elliot, how'd you ever get interested in psychology?” And I said, “Well, I, you know, I happened to wander into this class being taught by this guy, Abraham Maslow,” and he goes, “Maslow. Maslow was the guy who got you interested in psychology? That guy's ideas are so bad, they're not even wrong.” But of course what he meant was you couldn't test them, and he was absolutely right.
[00:44:49] Adam Grant:
Did, did Maslow have an equally devastating comment on Festinger?
[00:44:52] Elliot Aronson:
Well, it was devastating. It wasn't quite as clever. He said, “Well, uh, who are you working with out there at Stanford?” And I said, “Oh, this guy, Leon Festinger.” He said, “Festinger? Fat bastard. How can you stand him?”