In 1957 Leon Festinger released his seminal work on cognitive dissonance, and ever since, the topic has proven a fascinating lure for psychologists and social scientists.  

Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that humans are capable of holding multiple conflicting beliefs (cognitions) in parallel, e.g. “I know that smoking is bad for me, yet I smoke anyway.”

However when doing so a negative state, much akin to mental anguish, is produced.

Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance for this anguish, and just like physical anguish we do everything within our power to mitigate it.  

Except, there’s no such thing as cognitive Ibuprofen (that I know of), so how do people counter the effects of cognitive dissonance? Well, there’s really only two ways. They change their reality, or change their beliefs.

Let’s look at your typical smoker as an example.

  • Changing your reality: Although there’s an insurmountable amount of evidence linking smoking to an early death/cancer, how often have you heard a smoker tell you that it’s not that bad for them? They may dispute the evidence, cite alternative evidence (“My father smoked every day of his life and he lived to 90.”), or try and mitigate the facts; “I smoke rollies/lights/slims/organic tobacco, which isn’t so bad for me.”  
  • Changing your beliefs: The alternative to changing your reality, is to accept the evidence, but adapt your belief system so that you just don’t care enough to quit. You might convince yourself that you’ll give up when you’re older, so what’s the harm? Or that you’d rather “live fast, die young.”

Whichever approach you select, the end result is that you’ll continue smoking, and dissonance is reduced to an acceptable level. So, how does this relate to social media?

Well, cognitions are pliable. They can be enforced, or repressed through the use of cognitive modifiers, and it just so happens that social media makes use of a couple of crackers.

Statement writing

Remember those after school detentions, spent writing lines up on the blackboard as punishment for some minor childhood infraction?

Turns out, your teacher was onto something…

As far back as 1956, prominent social psychologist Edgar Schein had identified how prisoners of the Chinese during the Korean War were required to author pro-communist/anti-capitalist propaganda as part of their indoctrination process.

The act of writing was the first step towards believing – and the Chinese technique proved incredibly adept at persuading American POW’s to join their cause.

Public endorsements

You may hold a personal belief, but until you commit to sharing it with those around you that cognition will remain a fairly flimsy thing.

When a cognition is publicised, it gains traction and becomes more influential (incidently, this is why, if you’re thinking of quitting smoking, it’s a good idea to tell as many people as possible).

Professor Cialdini, author of the best selling book on cognitive influence techniques, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, terms this process ‘consistency’ – a state of balance between our internal cognitions and our externally projected ones. 

So, that’s the theory behind us, what does this mean for your business?

It means that social media isn’t just an acquisition tool – it’s a retention tool!

If you can persuade your customers to leave positive reviews on social media sites like Facebook or Trip Advisor, they will value your product/service higher.  

That can’t be right.

How can an action taken by your customer long after they’ve experienced your product have any effect on their valuation of your product? Told you. Time travel!

Theory’s all well and good – but as anyone who know me knows, it’s all about testing your assumptions, so I put the hypothesis to the test.  

Let me set the scene – it’s a typical Wednesday afternoon and I’m walking around our office HQ giving away free flapjacks (freshly made by our top chef, Rodney).  

In exchange for these delicious bites of goodness, I only ask one thing – the lucky punter’s email address. On receiving this, the subject is randomly entered into one of four test conditions:

  1. Control condition - subject was required to rate flapjack.  No other actions were required.
  2. State condition – subject was required to write an anonymous product review before rating flapjack.
  3. Auto-share condition – subject was required to post a pre-written product endorsement on one of their social media profiles before rating flapjack.
  4. Manual-share condition – subject was required to author a product endorsement and post it on one of their social media profiles before rating flapjack.

 If our hypothesis were to hold up, then the subject’s valuation of the flapjack would increase with each condition, and guess what?  

The results of the study indicate that significant cognition change resulted from all treatments, with the manual-share condition triggering a 37% increase in product value rating over the control condition.