The DIGNITY Series: A Scientific Explanation

by Editors

This is the seventh of a 10-part series examining the loss and possible recapture of dignity in our public lives and political discourse. (Read the series from the beginning here.)


By Stanley Baran

7. A Scientific Explanation

In 1954 two psychologists, Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril, produced what many consider the classic cognitive dissonance experiment, “They Saw a Game,” in which students from Dartmouth and Princeton recounted two widely different versions of a particularly brutal football game between the two schools. For Dartmouth students, Princeton’s players were the malefactors. For Princeton students, Dartmouth’s gridders were the evil-doers. “In brief, the data here indicate that there is no such ‘thing’ as a ‘game’ existing ‘out there’ in its own right which people merely ‘observe’” wrote the researchers, “The game ‘exists’ for a person and is experienced by him only insofar as certain happenings have significances in terms of his purpose.” Many who study dissonance theory, however, identify a different piece of research as more instructive because it deals with our attitudes toward a more vulnerable class of people than those matriculating at exclusive Ivy League universities.

In November, 1945, Harvard psychologists Gordon Allport and Leo Postman delivered a talk to the New York Academy of Sciences on the role of rumor in the just-ended World War. But theirs was not a study of historical happenstance. “At the present time,” spoke Dr. Allport, “there is reason to suppose that we may be headed for another critical period of rumor-mongering, since we anticipate sharp clashes between minority groups of Americans and majority groups during the coming years of social readjustment.” Through a series of clever experiments they demonstrated that rumors found their basis and longevity in people’s preexisting attitudes and beliefs. Allport and Postman’s most famous test involved a drawing of a confrontation on a passenger train. In it, two men, a well-dressed African-American and an overall-clad white man, are standing in the aisle. The white man holds a straight razor in one hand and points at the Black man with his other. The Black man’s hands are at his side. A description of the scene is passed from one who has seen the image to another who has not, and in something akin to the kids game of telephone, that person is asked to describe as “accurately as possible what you have just heard” to the next person, and he or she to the next, and so on, until the description has passed through six or seven retellings. The psychologists ran the experiment more than 40 times, using people from all walks of life. In a finding they themselves called “the most spectacular of all our assimilative distortions,” by the time the description had moved from actual viewing to final recounting, “in more than half of our experiments, a razor moves (in the retelling) from a white man’s hand to a Negro’s hand.”

Because “Black men are ‘supposed’ to carry razors, white men not,” as Allport and Postman explained, people reconfigured the “reality” of the drawing to reduce their psychological discomfort (their dissonance). They did this through selectively perceiving and remembering what they had heard, leading the researchers to conclude, “Each subject finds the outer stimulus-world far too hard to grasp and retain in its objective character. For his own personal uses, it must be recast to fit not only his span of comprehension and his span of retention, but, likewise, his own personal needs and interests. What was outer become inner; what was objective becomes subjective.” The I is preserved.

Contemporary psychologists have added to thinking on dissonance reduction by expanding people’s “personal needs and interests” to include their motivation to hold socially “correct” attitudes. Among the first to do so were social psychologists Richard Petty and John Cacioppo. In the 1980s they offered their Elaboration Likelihood Model of information processing, which while accepting the idea that people may indeed want to be correct in the attitudes they hold, argues that some of us are more willing to find the correctness in those attitudes than are others, or to use the first word in the theory’s name, people bring varying degrees of elaboration to the attitudes they hold. Those who take the central route of information processing are willing and able to engage in message elaboration, examining different facets of an idea, challenging evidence, questioning personally held assumptions. Those taking the peripheral route avoid elaborating on the information before them, relying instead on other cues in the information environment, cues which may or may not have anything to do with the issue at hand. All of us take the peripheral route at times, especially if the matter before us has little personal import. But we all have a more or less individually characteristic route that we are willing to take when processing information, especially information that potentially challenges our existing attitudes. Some of us are generally willing to scrutinize information; some of us habitually travel the peripheral route. Some of us are willing to dignify the words and ideas of others (even if after elaborating them we reject them); some of us simply retreat to the peripheral route.

Psychologists who believe that people want to a) hold the right opinion, b) reduce, or even better, eliminate dissonance, and c) not have to think about things too much, call this the heuristic model of information processing, the use of simple decision-making rules allowing people to deal with the world without much cognitive effort. A central route processor, for example, might be a long-time Republican who examined Barack Obama’s rhetoric, tested it against the candidate’s public service record, examined both in light of his or her own life-experience while adjusting for personal biases (years of commitment to the Republican Party, for example), and based on this scrutiny either did or did not vote for Obama. A peripheral route processor would rely on a heuristic—I’m a Democrat, he’s a Democrat, I’m voting for him; I’m an American, he has a Muslim name, I’m not voting for him.

Read part 8: Leaving the Reality-Based Community (click here)


Stanley Baran is Professor of Communication at Bryant University. A Fulbright Scholar, he is the author of Introduction to Mass Communication: Media Literacy and Culture and Mass Communication Theories: Foundations, Ferment, and Future. He writes frequently on the media, popular culture, and our understanding of ourselves and our world. He will happily provide citations for this series’ quotations and statistics. Simply e-mail him at

Text copyright 2009 Stanley Baran