Some examples of psychological experiments that demonstrate our own misperceptions of our reasons. This is generally referred to as “attribution theory” in psychology, sometimes “cognitive dissonence theory”.


1)      First, the inefficiency of debriefing. Individuals in two groups are put through an experiment in which they are asked to judge the difference between real and phoney suicide notes. One group is told that they are good at telling the difference. The other group is told that they can’t tell the difference. (All one-on-one.) Later, each group is “debriefed” and informed that the experiment itself was phoney, that the suicide notes were all fictitious, and that the experimenters were reading from a list when they told the subjects that they were right or wrong in judging the genuineness of suicide notes.

          Some weeks later, under completely different circumstances, subjects are given questionaires in which they are asked whether or not they think they can tell the difference between genuine and phoney suicide notes. The ones who had earlier been told that they could (but then debriefed) tend to say yes, and the ones who were told they couldn’t (but then debriefed) tend to say no. The debriefing “didn’t take”. The difference is caused by the exerimental situation itself. Nevertheless, none of the subjects would attest to the fact that their experimental experience had affected their confidence.


2)      More complicated. A group of students are run through a moderately painful experiment involving electric shocks. After the experiment is over, they are told by the experimenter that the recording device wasn’t plugged in, and the data was lost. Could they please go through it again. The rest of the experiment only applies to the students who agreed to do it again (but almost all of them would agree, if asked in “the right way”, i.e. by someone in lab coat with a clipboard). Now we divide the subjects into two groups:


Group A: “The experiment is for a very important study on cancer pain, and we hope that the results ease cancer patients’ treatments.”


Group B: “The experiment doesn’t really mean anything, it’s just an exercise, but I’d like to get the full set of data.”


Later, people from the two groups are asked “How unpleasant was the pain in the experiment.”


Which group reports that the pain was more severe?


Which group do you think would report the more severe pain? The group that had a good reason to experience the pain (Group A), or the group that did not (Group B)? Write your answer on your hand (to prevent cheating) and then scroll down. Show your hand when you come to class.
















Group A reports that the pain was more severe. You might think that they would think it was less severe because they were more highly motivated to endure it. But attribution theory reasons as follows:


We observe our own behavior, and we have a theory about the kind of person we are. When we have to decide what our motives were, we use our behavior plus our theory to infer our motivations and/or our experience.


Our self-theories are something like the following “I’m not the kind of person who would put up with serious pain for a trivial reason. But I am the kind of person who would put up with serious pain if it really would help other people.”


Next premise: “I did put up with pain, under (A-serious or B-trivial) conditions. Given what kind of person I am and the motives I had, was the pain serious or not?” The two groups come up with different answers about how bad the pain was because they had been given different reasons to endure the pain.


3) We interpret the personal and sometimes emotional meaning of our own bodily states. I ‘ll discuss the example of the swinging bridge in class. Here’s another. It can be demonstrated by experimental setups in which a subject is slipped a drug that will cause a particular bodily reaction, such as arousal or calmness. We can misdescribe the drug’s effects to the subject, or we can describe them correctly. If we misdescribe the drug’s effects, then the subject will tend to interpret the drug’s effects as his own emotional reactions to the situation. If we correctly describe the drug’s effects, then the subject will discount those effects as “personal reactions”. So under some circumstances, people can be wrong about their own emotions.


Examples: We give a drug that causes a slightly elevated heart rate to two people who are about to go to sleep. We tell one the true effects of the drug. We tell the other some dummy fact (the drug will protect him against colds, for example). Who goes to sleep more easily? The first person, who was told about the true effects of the drug. The reason seems to be that the second person recognizes his own increased heart rate, interprets it as a sign of wakefulness, and “diagnoses” himself as wide awake. The first person recognizes the increased HR as a drug effect, not a sign of personal wakefulness. Similar effects from the swinging bridge case …