Alone Together three years on: Is social media changing us?

technology-disconnect-s from

You are not alone – Oprah Winfrey

Alone Together (1)

Three years ago, I watched social psychologist Sherry Turkle’s TED talk (2015) and then read her book: Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, (2011) which prompted me to write a blog called: Alone Together: Is social media changing us?

Rereading my blog, I see that my opinion hasn’t changed and on checking, neither has Turkle’s. She now consults on reclaiming conversation ™ to stop the flight from face-to-face conversation.

I am not so sure we don’t want to talk face to face at all, rather it’s just technology gives us the option to avoid those particular prickly peeps we’d rather not see face to face if we can.

Added to that, I don’t believe that technology is taking us to places we don’t want to go. We have no idea what we are doing online or where we need to be, and I am tired of hearing technology described as an unstoppable force outside of our control as if it were freak weather or a meteorite zooming towards earth about to destroy us all. Economics is often the driver of technological advancement and human decisions drive economics.

Glorious technology

Our behaviour online and towards technology reflects us in all our glory – the good, bad and the ugly – along with all our hopes and fears. I do not believe that we expect more from technology and less from each other. Instead, I believe that we turn to technology to plug the gaps and find solace in those moments when we feel alone, afraid, unloved, and indeed sadly, sometimes, unloveable.

Life can be crushingly hard, and many of us know that there are certain people in our lives with whom we will never have the rich, robust and trusting relationships Turkle believes have been eroded by digital technology. Some people are just not up to the job. It may be the same with our friendships online but the hope is there.

Many of us just want to get in and out of any given, often potentially stressful, situation – work, meetings, the playground, the hospital, the dinner table, events with relatives – without saying or doing anything to cause any bad feeling. So that when we do finally get to our tiny slivers of leisure time we can use them to fill ourselves up with what makes us feel better, rather than analysing what we didn’t get right.

If that means staring at a tiny screen then what’s wrong with that? One person I know spoke of their phone, and the access it gave them to an online friend, a person they hadn’t met at that point, as an Eden between meetings. And, why not? Whatever works.

That is not possible now

Turkle says that we use online others as spare parts of ourselves, which makes me believe that she hasn’t really engaged with people on Twitter in a normal way in conversation, and she hasn’t ever met people who do that offline either. Many people make new friends on Twitter and meet up #irl a long time afterwards and then only occasionally. Their relationships are mainly based online. Rather like families who live a long way away from each other. It doesn’t mean it’s less real or not important. It just means they are physically not there which might be difficult but we don’t want to not have any contact with these people because we love them. Maya Angelou said something really beautiful about this when she was on the Oprah show one time. She said:

Love liberates it doesn’t bind. Love says I love you. I love you if you’re cross town. I love you if you move to China. I love you. I would like to be near you. I’d like to have your arms around me. I’d like to have your voice in my ear. But that is not possible now. So, I love you. Go.

We want to be in contact with people whom we love and appreciate, and who love and appreciate us in return. Those people who make us remember the best bits about ourselves. We like people who like us. It is that simple and these people are not always in our daily lives. It’s not for nothing that vulnerability expert Brene Brown says that people armour up everyday to get through the day.

To cultivate the sorts of relationships Turkle feels that we should be having without our phones takes not only a lot of time and energy (and Brene Brown books) but a fearlessness which is not easy. Our greatest fear is social rejection and a robust conversation can leave us badly bruised. Online it is slightly easier because if a person drops out of your life, then you have some control over the day to day reminders unless you turn stalker, which is understandable as the grief of any online loss feels just as real. However, know this:

You are not alone

When we seek answers to our problems emotional like grief, or physical, spiritual, legal, fiscal. Technology really does say: You are not alone.

In real life, difficult relatives and tough-love friends don’t make the best agony aunts and may make us want to keep our questions to ourselves. We may forgo the embarrassment or shame by keeping our anonymity and seeking counsel elsewhere. Giving and receiving advice makes the world go round. In the book Asking for a Friend, the history of agony aunt columns is given over three centuries, and even today with all our technology, they remain as popular as ever.

But, if we can’t wait for our favourite agony aunt or uncle, a quick google/bing or peek round Quora can give us the reassurance we need. No, we are not shoddy, terrible people. Our thoughts and feelings are completely normal. The article What’s wrong with Quora? says that we may prefer a dialectic communication (a chat) say on Twitter, but we don’t use it in the same way as the didactic Q and A on Quora. We may never join Quora or Mumsnet but plenty of us (lurkers) use these and similar forums to find answers and feel better about the difficult circumstances we often find ourselves in.

It is reassuring to know that someone somewhere has already asked the question, either under a real or false name, and some other lovely human has written something underneath which just may help.

I don’t really believe that anyone of us is afraid of having a regular conversation because we have a phone. Turkle mentions research done on teenagers a lot, but they are specific user group and shouldn’t be taken as representative of the general population nor the future. How many teenagers want to talk to anyone? The teenage years are torture. As adults, however, because of the way society is set up, we often have to spend time with people we wouldn’t choose to, at work or in families. In the past we may have tried harder, felt shittier, been robust or at least tried to tell ourselves that, nowadays, it is more acceptable, a relief even, to be alone together, and to save our thoughts and feelings for those we love and who love us in return, wherever and whenever they may be.

Conclusions: The limits of the social animal on social media (9)

Personifications of social media sites

[Part 9 of 9: The Social Animal on Social Media, Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8]

Social media may be changing the way we do business and how we connect with others, but I don’t believe it is changing us fundamentally as humans. My theory, after writing this series, is that social media reflects the way we behave, and we behave the way do because we are human. And, because we are human, we just can’t get enough of social media, which really isn’t our fault, it is just the way we are made.

Social media not only lights up the nucleus accumbens, the part of our brain which deals with rewards, but does so randomly, which is called a variable interval reinforcement schedule. Rats or birds who have been trained to get rewards randomly will work harder for rewards, and take longer to give up checking once all rewards for the behaviour is removed. We are the same, we will randomly check all our social media for a very long time, before it no longer rewards us.

One reason is that, social media is much easier on us than the face-to-face contact of daily life and that in itself is a reward for we much prefer people who are nice to us without us having to make a massive effort. For once we are tangled up with other people – as we have seen throughout this blog series – we conform and betray ourselves, we behave aggressively and act with prejudice, all so we can avoid feeling rejected. Then, we feel so bad about our shoddy behaviour that we have to find ways to feel better by reducing our cognitive dissonance and the gap between who we are (good people) and the things we do (behave badly towards other, or towards ourselves, like when we agree to do favours for people we don’t like).

We all need connection

It really isn’t our fault. Brene Brown, Professor of Sociology, says, that we are neurobiologically wired to want to connect with our fellow human beings. We all want to feel that we matter. So, of course we would choose social media. Why not choose the quickest and easiest way possible to feel connected to others? It seems like less of an emotional investment, but as this series has demonstrated, it really isn’t.

It might have been okay if social media had stayed as it began: easy and quick ways to share pictures, videos, texts between groups of friends, or networks for sharing interests across time and space. But once, we realised that anyone could be a star in the land of digital culture, then we all spent more time there trying to be loved or trying to make money – it amounts to the same thing, after all: money=influence, influence=feeling loved and valued.

And, then once news could get delivered the way we liked it, via, for example, the Huffington Post who serve up the same article with two different headlines and then they go with the headline which attracts the most hits (aka A/B testing), we never stood a chance. Web media started giving us what we want, right around the clock which encouraged traditional news outlets to try and keep up. Consequently in-depth coverage and accuracy seems to have suffered.  Facts are cherry-picked for nice looking memes which can remain unsubstantiated assertions because the rest of the facts don’t get checked half as much as what the crowd says. Journalism is engaging in groupthink.

Limits on friendship

Marketer, Marcus Sheridan, wrote a funny blog called Chris Brogan unfollowed me on Twitter and now I hate my life. How many of us measure our worthiness by the amount of un/followers we have on Twitter or friends on Facebook? How many of these people do we actually know?

Dunbar’s number, proposed by an anthropologist of the same name, postulated a limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is. In reality the number is a series: 5 – 10 close friends, then 5-10 x 3 = people you might have to dinner, and so on, until you reach a maximum of 150 (for a wedding or party) of close people you know who are there to celebrate an event in your life. Dunbar’s number is tiny compared to the numbers seen on Facebook.

I’d rather be anywhere than here

Google Designer, Jake Knapp wiped social media and email off his iPhone because he felt that by constantly checking social media apps he wasn’t present in his present moment, which is so true. If we are constantly distracted by our apps, or eager to share or capture a moment, then we are not really present in that moment.

This got me thinking, if we are constantly looking at other people’s moments and memes on social media, then when we get to experience that moment for ourselves, aren’t we having a second hand experience? Will the landscape remind us of a photograph? Will an emotion remind us of a meme? Are we experiencing what we feel we should rather than what would make us feel good?

Get nuanced

Meditation teacher davidji, has said that those voices who are ranting on Facebook are usually the loudest voices (not normally the most accurate or uplifting, just influential) and they have an impact on us. We react to what other people are saying and doing online instead of following our own agenda. daviji believes that we need to get nuanced, and know what we are feeling, so we do not get hijacked by other peoples’ opinions. Otherwise we don’t stand a chance of not being influenced, and this is why we are endlessly fascinated by people who influence us. We want to know how they do it so we can wrestle back our power or try influence others so we can be heard.

I still believe that social media has the capacity to augment us, even though I have seen throughout this blog series the many ways it can diminish us, but that is because we are human, who haven’t yet realised that we all count and are all connected anyway. Social media just can’t do that for us. It is not a brave new world, it the same old world on a small screen. To find a brave new world we have to do that ourselves, and we have to start by looking inside ourselves, instead of inside our phones.

Liking, loving and interpersonal sensitivity: The social animal on social media (8)

Personifications of social media sites

[Part 8 of 9: The Social Animal on Social Media, Part 1,
Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7Part 9]

Being liked is one of our fundamental needs as shown in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and also a major topic of research in the field of social psychology where much research has been given over to: How should we behave so people like us more?

The fear of not being liked, or rejected, causes us to conform and sometimes betray ourselves. Sometimes we get aggressive, and other times we need to reduce the cognitive dissonance between what we believe we are like and our actions which have caused suffering either to ourselves or to other people.

Elliot Aronson in his classic text book, The Social Animal, asks: How do we pick our friends? And, says that we pick them for similar beliefs and interests, skills, and abilities and competencies, and quite simply, we pick people who like us.

We also like people who give us maximum good feelings for minimum effort. A recent social media study shows us that when we receive positive feedback about ourselves from Facebook likes, our brain lights up its reward area, the nucleus accumbens, in a way that a money reward does not.

So, it is no wonder many of us spend time on social media in search of validation.

However, if praise is too lavish, we tend to mistrust it, and view it as manipulation. Indeed we saw in Part 5, if someone gets us to do them a favour, we are more likely to like them because we convince ourselves that they are worthy of the favour, even if they are not. This is because it is much easier for us to believe rather than admit that we are chumps who got duped, again. And so, it makes sense that a like or heart is a great reward without having to get involved with people who might want to manipulate us.

Physical attractiveness

We like attractive people because the way they look is an aesthetic reward. Research shows that the anterior insula, the part of our brain which lights up when we eat food or find a life partner, things which are biologically important to us, is also used to appreciate aesthetics.

Many studies show us that attractive people are more likely to succeed in life because we are hard-wired as babies to prefer beautiful people . This is enforced by our culture as we are constantly fed images of beauty from Walt Disney to the American stereotype of beauty with nice white teeth. And we are constantly bombarded by advertising as to what is good and bad and how we should improve ourselves to become more attractive, more likeable.

Consequently we treat people who are more attractive, better, which is known as the halo effect. We assume them to be nicer and more intelligent that they are, simply because they are attractive, which is a self- fulfilling prophesy because when you treat people well they respond well. And, then people who mix with attractive people are viewed as more likeable and more attractive and so we want to be perceived as attractive by attractive people, and be with them.

There are many articles too on how to be more attractive on social media to gain more followers and to become more popular.

It is cyclical. Research show that we are more likely to be attracted to befriending people who share our opinions. We all want attractive and intelligent pals, and if they are like us, they socially validate us.

However, if we perceive that people don’t like us, we are less ready to like them. Even, if we have no proof. Research done by social psychologist, Ray Baumeister, has shown that it is enough to for us to anticipate being rejected, and we will begin to make unhealthy choices and start to believe that we are worth less.

As Aronson says:

The greater our self-doubt and insecurity, the more we like people who like us. The needier we are, the more willing we are to befriend anyone who likes us.

Matthew Liberman, author of Social: Why our brains are wired to connect, says that these feelings of being liked or being rejected are exacerbated by social media which leads to approval seeking anxiety.


So, it makes sense that to reduce our anxiety we don’t want to be friends with people who are perfect. We prefer our people to be human and not too perfect.

Aronson did an experiment where researchers were recorded answering questions. In the first instance they answered the questions perfectly. In the second the same only, at some point they threw coffee down themselves. In the third instance they answered the questions in a mediocre manner. Ditto, the fourth plus the coffee trick.

Everyone preferred number two – smart but still human, which has become known as the pratfall effect. We prefer it when we meet people who are vulnerable. In the same way, we like it when our friends fail as it gives us a holiday from own self-esteem issues.

Gain-Loss Theory

But how do we measure our liking for people? Aronson developed his gain-loss theory to find out, and discovered that we feel more strongly about other people when their liking for us changes. So, if there is an increase or decrease in the rewarding behaviour we receive from another person, it will have more effect on us than if someone constantly likes or dislikes us.

Obviously, we like best of all the people who started out behaving negatively towards us who have changed to behave more positively towards us. Inversely, we like least of all a person who starts out behaving positively towards us and becomes negative towards us. This is often demonstrated by twitter spats between celebrities who go on to become firm friends or deadly enemies.

The triangle of love

How do we fall in love? Apparently, proximity and similarity play a role, whilst psychologist, Robert Steinberg, has defined love in a one-to-one relationship as made up of three factors: Commitment, passion, and intimacy which he calls the triangle of love.

  • Intimacy refers to feelings of closeness and connectedness for the experience of warmth in a loving relationship.
  • Passion refers to romance, physical attraction, and sexual consummation in a loving relationship.
  • Commitment refers to the commitment needed to maintain that love.

Steinberg says that in order to keep love alive, people in long term relationships need to keep all three sides of the triangle going. This means that they must be authentic and work at communicating well with each other.  However, this is difficult to do, given that we are so afraid of rejection.

Our loved ones have the power to really hurt us with their comments in the way that strangers’ comments don’t. Our loved ones can make us feel so vulnerable. Conversely, our loved ones’ compliments do not carry half as much weight a stranger’s compliments, perhaps because our we have heard our loved ones’ compliments before – familiarity, it seems, really does breed contempt.

Professor of Sociology, Brene Brown says that being vulnerable, which she defines as: exposure, risk, uncertainty is our best measure of courage, in whatever area of our lives. People who are willing to be authentic and risk rejection, are those people who live most whole-heartedly, and most happily, without regrets.

Brown say that connection is the reason for our existence and if we want connection then we need to live whole-heartedly, which means that we must be ready to be vulnerable and risk rejection, for it is the only way which will enable us to find our way back to each other.

[Part 9]

Prejudice: The social animal on social media (7)

Personifications of social media sites

[Part 7 of 9: The Social Animal on Social Media, Part 1,
Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 8Part 9]

When you have an intact, healthy sense of worth, you value other people. You know who you are, which means you can accept others as they are. When you are not sure that who you are is good enough, you will do your darndest to prove that you are better than someone else.  – Iyanla Vanzant

We have all experienced prejudice, or been prejudice towards someone else at some point in our lives. Social psychologist Elliot Aronson, in The Social Animal, defines prejudice as:

A hostile or negative attitude towards a distinguishable group of people on the basis of generalisation derived from faulty or incomplete information.

Prejudice behaviour can be based on gender, race, sexuality, religion, class, location, looks, intelligence, and so on. The list is a long one.

Spiritual life coach Iyanla Vanzant said on Supersoul Sunday that prejudice – she was talking in particular about racism – is a form of dishonesty, and has in the US historically taken the form of : I am superior because I said so. And even today, sections of US society still function on some dishonest assumptions. If certain groups of people look and behave differently, then they are inferior and deserve less. Vanzant said that the US must have a conversation about this dishonesty and find a different way of living together, otherwise more tragic acts of violence will occur.

Subtle prejudice

We all like to think we are educated and thus, we know that prejudice is wrong. However, Aronson says that sometimes we fool ourselves and behave in a prejudice manner even though we don’t believe we do. We engage in subtle prejudice. For example, when people deny that racial or sexual discrimination continues to be a problem, and behave antagonistically towards any group which encourages conversation around these discriminations.

Men may behave in what they deem to be chivalrous manner, and provide protection and affection to women which really is just prejudice. They are judging women to be weaker and crossing boundaries. This behaviour is not chivalrous, it is just patronising. It is benevolent sexism.

Aronson’s research shows that people will engage in prejudice behaviour if they can deny it. Otherwise, they may try to justify their words and behaviour. For example, citing the Bible and referring to family values instead of acknowledging their prejudice towards people who are gay or bisexual.


Stereotypes facilitate prejudice and deny someone their right to be seen as a unique individual with their own positive or negative traits. Instead, we attribute characteristics and we self-attribute characteristics negatively and positively.

Apparently, this is left over from our decision making abilities back when we were living in tribes. We saw very few outsiders and when we did, we immediately had to decide if someone was friend or foe. So, we used stereotypes as shorthand to categorise the people we meet and imply lots of information about them.

Because, stereotypes encapsulate a lot of information and are a handy short cut when communicating, they are regularly used and new ones created today by mass media.

Think how the media normally describes: the single mum, the banker, asylum seekersthe WAG, or how Islam and Muslims has been confused, simplified and represented by the press since since 9/11.

Research shows that thanks to advertising and TV women are still taught to feel that they are less important than men, and behave in silly ways.

We tell stories about others and about ourselves to encapsulate information, which can be negative like stereotypes, or they may be just a way of identifying ourselves with labels or things that we do. For example, I am: female, computer scientist, yogini, mum, cat lover. These are our social identities.

However, like stereotypes, social identities can be used negatively. And, then once we believe something about someone or about ourselves, we take that as truth, as reality. For our beliefs create our reality.

Causes of prejudice

Evolutionary psychologists believe that we are basically predisposed to favour our own tribe family, culture, and to fear outsiders. However, as the film Zootopia so aptly demonstrates, if we all just decide to believe that we are biologically programmed to behave a certain way, then nothing will ever change.

We have to take responsibility for our prejudices.

Aronson has a list of reasons as to why people are prejudice:

  1. Economic and competitive: If resources are scarce and people are competing for the spoils then this will breeds prejudice. One example is how Chinese immigrants were treated very badly during the Californian Gold Rush and railway construction.
  2. Displaced aggression: If people feel that they have been treated badly, then they will seek to retaliate and blame others. Like Hitler’s horrific behaviour towards Jewish people, blaming them for World War I.
  3. Maintenance of self-image: It is easier to live with ourselves if we think of other people as sub-human – like the slave trade.
  4. Dispositional prejudice: some people are prejudice towards others because they have learnt that from their parents and/or it is prevalent in the culture within which they live. When this is so entrenched, it is difficult to find another way of thinking.
  5. Comformity: People are prejudice because it is a social norm and everyone behaves the same way. We are conformists for so many reasons.

Prejudice on social media

Prejudice online is not new. Even as early as 1995, feminist Jude Milhon was urging women to toughen up online when faced with bullies and abuse.

In this series we have seen that social media facilitates aggression and hatred. People will conform and only say what they think others want to hear online. Or, they will find liked minded people in order to vent their anger or justify their behaviour.

It is very easy in a tweet to encapsulate an argument and misrepresent what someone has or hasn’t said in order to prove a point. This can stir up emotion and because people respond more readily to information which causes a reaction, this can quite easily escalate towards aggression, argument, and all the other bad behaviour we witness online.

However, not all is lost, social media can be used for change because people reach out and support one another more easily than they could do in the real world, crossing groups and providing inter-group support.

Reducing prejudice

Aronson says that if you engineer society to facilitate inter-group support – if you set up different groups of people so that they have equal status and equal contact between them, then prejudice is automatically reduced. This is because regular exposure to the groups of people you might have prejudice towards reduces the dissonance of beliefs you may hold. And, a proper mixture of people reduces the need for anyone to reach for their social identity and band together. Interdependence forces people to work together and get to know people.

Other research has show that if we reduce competition in class and make winning a dysfunctional activity, kids learn to work co-operatively, instead of operating a zero sum approach to life.

Only by getting to know people do we learn to empathise with them and empathy is key. We learn empathy and we can teach empathy. However, we can’t just wait for the next generation, as Iyanla Vanzant said, we need to be honest about the dishonesty behind prejudice and we need to question the beliefs we hold in order to discover truth. We need honest, empathetic conversation. Once we do, we will be better equipped to advocate the next generation into a more equal world, one without prejudice.

Part 8

Self-justification: The Social Animal on Social Media (5)

Personifications of social media sites

[Part 5 of 9: The Social Animal on Social Media, Part 1,
Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 6Part 7, Part 8Part 9]

I have been stuck on this blog, for a while, as I try to talk about the ways in which we justify ourselves, social animals on social media.

I guess I am stuck because I don’t want to pick examples of people who are self-justifying on Twitter or Facebook. Speculating in a gossipy fashion just makes me feel unscientific and a bit grubby. However, speculating in a gossipy fashion is what we do, all of us, even if we don’t realise it, and we are great at finding ways of reducing that feeling of grubbiness, which is the subject of this post.

Elliot Aronson in his classic text book: The Social Animal says that we are all amateur social psychologists. We spend a lot of our day watching other people, speculating on their motives, creating theories about them, whilst reformulating other stories and theories in order to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. In fact, professional social psychologists do exactly the same, only in laboratory style conditions, with specific outcomes.

So, it is no surprise that with all that going on, it can be exhausting to live in our busy world. Not only do we have to figure out what is going on but as we saw in Part 4,  we are also constantly forced into making hundreds of decisions a day, big and small, and then we have to live with the outcomes.

How many times a day do we second-guess ourselves? How many times a day, do we make a decision, feel happy with it, and then later on, criticise ourselves as we learn more. Or, we do something and wish we hadn’t, and then we have to live with it, which can sometimes leave us feeling awful.

Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory postulates that we try to organise our attitudes and beliefs so that they do not contradict each other and we can avoid feeling awful (or feeling dissonance). Sometimes when new beliefs we have adopted are so dissonant with our existing ones, we will tell ourselves all manner of things in order to reduce the dissonance.

Aronson uses the example of buying a new product like a vacuum cleaner, or entering a new relationship with someone, and says that research shows that we quickly reorganise our thoughts to emphasise the positive attributes and ignore the negative aspects of whatever we have chosen.  If we have a choice between two people, or two vacuum cleaners, we make a decision, then emphasise the negative attributes and ignore the positive bits of the option we didn’t choose. In this way, we can not only justify our decisions as the right ones, we also make ourselves feel happier and committed to the person or product we are taking home.

Once we are committed to a decision, or course of action, we stop thinking about it and get on with our lives. If a decision is irrevocable and we have managed to reduce dissonance by focusing on the positive and ignoring the negative, then frequently, we become more certain that we have made a wise decision, but if not, then really there is nothing we can do about it. We embrace the decision as a fact of life.

So, people who need us to commit to something, such as politicians or salespeople, will try their hardest to encourage us to commit and get a decision made in their favour.

One way is ask people for a small favour. It is effective because having agreed to a favour, then a decision is made and so it becomes no longer a question of deciding but one of following through. One example given here is how residents in Indiana (USA) were called and asked if they would hypothetically volunteer three hours of their time collecting money for the American Cancer Society. Three days later,  the same people were called again and asked to volunteer. Of those responding to the earlier request, 31% agreed to help. Without the foot in the door approach only 4% of a similar group of people volunteered to help when asked directly.

In the above example, even if you didn’t want to collect for the American Cancer Society, it would be easy to feel ok about it because it’s a good cause and in that way you could reduce your dissonance.

However, sometimes we end up doing and saying things which we don’t feel are for a good cause, but we do them anyway and then feel dissonance and then we need to square that with ourselves using internal and external justification.

In one experiment, Festinger demonstrated how these justifications work, by paying one group $20 to tell a lie, and another group $1 to do the same. Those who were paid $20 could more easily say that they told a lie and got $20 – an external motivation. Those group who were paid a dollar, claimed that they believed in the lie, because it is easier to believe a lie than justify being honest and telling a lie for only $1.

Lies for money is ok, we can justify that, and little white lies are ok, because they are a way of not hurting someone’s feelings. But, it is a slippery slope which easily leads to people behaving immorally, unless they are exposed to just the right amount of temptation which causes them to be fanatical about behaving with good morals.

However, when people voluntarily choose to act in ways that cause them suffering (dissonance), they resolve this dissonance by valuing whatever it is they receive. Gangs, secret societies and American fraternity houses sometimes have painful or degrading initiation rites in return for belonging. And, then people may tell themselves that it was worth the pain, because life is so much better now.

Interestingly, squaring things with ourselves don’t have to make us look good – just consistent. For, cognitive dissonance is about staying faithful to the beliefs we have, even when evidence suggests that it is a mad belief to hold, which is why it can take a long time to leave a cult or an abusive relationship. Life’s commitments require a lot of emotional investment and risk.

So, how do we stop this potentially destructive behaviour? The best way I have seen so far is Byron Katie’s The Work, which gets us to question our beliefs by asking: Is it true? when we are right in the middle of feeling uncomfortable. If we can question our beliefs before we take them on board, then perhaps we don’t need to rationalise them with all the others things we think, and then we can start questioning them too, until we don’t need to square things with ourselves at all. And once we live harmoniously with ourselves, it is then a simple step to live harmoniously with others.

[Part 6]