Couple Therapy
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(206) 718-3664

(253) 256-5133

parke@parkeburgess.com



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THE LOLLIPOP TEST

A Whimsical Experiment

Parke Burgess

 

This experiment was designed to gather data about cognitive dissonance especially as it relates to the problem of free will. If most people generally agree that the laws of cause and effect can be determinative but also believe that they have free will at least some of the time, what kind of cognitive dissonance will they experience when these two beliefs are in conflict?

The Test

This experiment was conducted informally, using Survey Monkey to administer a three-question survey to randomly selected Americans with no demographic parameters (n=114), plus my Facebook friends (n=30), with a total n=144. For finer-grained analysis, 5 incomplete surveys were thrown out, rendering a total n=139.

The following is the exact presentation of the set-up and three questions. For each respondent, the order of the multiple-choice options was randomized. All respondents were required to answer all three questions to complete the survey. Once a respondent went on to a subsequent question s/he did not have the option of changing an earlier answer.

This survey has one far-out hypothetical situation followed by three quick multiple-choice questions. It should require no more than a couple minutes of your time.

SET-UP: Somebody walks up to you holding four lollipops and says, “You get a free lollipop, but you only have one second to choose!” You see in her hand a cherry, orange, grape, and lime lollipop. Within one second your hand reaches out and you grab the cherry lollipop and the person immediately walks away. You chose the cherry lollipop. Remember that.

Now imagine that there are one hundred parallel universes, each one exactly identical in every conceivable detail to this one, right up to the moment your hand grabs a lollipop. Freeze-frame that instant just before you decide which lollipop to grab in all these 100 parallel universes. You still have four choices; in the very next moment you will choose one of them.

QUESTION 1: Across the 100 parallel universes, which lollipop do you choose?

(1) I choose cherry every time.

(2) I choose different flavors in different universes.

(3) I choose some other flavor than cherry every time.

(4) I don’t know.

 

QUESTION 2: Which reason below best matches your answer to Question 1?

(1) If all universes are exactly the same in the instant before I decide, I am bound to make the same choice.

(2) In the instant before I decide I still have four choices; I am free to choose any of them.

(3) The universe is random, so whatever I do in parallel universes will be random.

(4) None of these.

 

QUESTION 3: What do you believe about your own free will?

(1) I am always able to exercise free will in my life.

(2) I am sometimes able to exercise free will in my life.

(3) I am never able to exercise free will in my life.

(4) I’m not sure.

  

What Happened?

Here are the answers to the three questions:

Q1: Across the 100 parallel universes, which lollipop do you choose?

Answer Options

Response Percent

Response Count

I choose cherry every time.

41.7%

60

I choose different flavors in different universes.

38.9%

56

I choose some other flavor than cherry every time.

9.7%

14

I don’t know.

9.7%

14

answered question

144

skipped question

0

 

Q2: Which reason below best matches your answer to Question 1?

Answer Options

Response Percent

Response Count

If all universes are exactly the same in the instant before I decide, I am bound to make the same choice.

27.9%

39

In the instant before I decide I still have four choices; I am always free to choose any of them.

45.7%

64

The universe is random, so whatever I do in parallel universes will be random.

10.7%

15

None of these.

15.7%

22

answered question

140

skipped question

4

 

Q3: What do you believe about your own free will?

Answer Options

Response Percent

Response Count

I am always able to exercise free will in my life.

51.1%

71

I am sometimes able to exercise free will in my life.

36.7%

51

I am never able to exercise free will in my life.

5.8%

8

I am not sure.

6.5%

9

answered question

139

skipped question

5

 

How Do You Get Cognitive Dissonance From That??

Here’s where it gets interesting. I expected and found that a lot of folks would choose answers across the three questions that didn’t hang well together logically. For example, if a person says that they believe that they were “bound to choose” and also responds that they “always” have the ability to exercise their free will—well, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In fact, 21 of the 139 respondants, or 15%, chose that pair of answers.

I made two decisions to help me map the answers people gave on the survey to my theme of cognitive dissonance. First, I took the logical consistency (or lack thereof) between any two answers given by a single respondent as a good measure of cognitive coherence or dissonance. In other words, I assumed that if one person holds two beliefs that are not logically consistent, that person experiences some degree of cognitive dissonance, even if the inconsistency is not conscious.

The second decision was that, for my current purposes, it would be sufficient to judge the logical consistency between any two answers given by the same person to a first approximation. A skillful philosopher could probably make a credible argument for logical consistency between any two answers on this survey. I am assuming, however, that few of those who actually responded were (a) skillful philosophers and (b) had given the matters under scrutiny much deep thought prior to taking the survey. Therefore, I decided to take the most obvious and intuitive evaluation of the logical consistency of any given answer-pair at face value.

For the purposes of this analysis, I threw out the three non-committal responses on the survey (i.e., “I don’t know,” “None of these,” and “I’m not sure”) because their logical consistency with other answers could not be evaluated. I also threw out “I choose some other flavor than cherry every time” because it became evident that there were two possible interpretations of what this statement means that would have different implications for logical consistency. Of the remaining 21 answer-pairs, I grouped them into two categories. The first category comprised the most coherent/least dissonant answer-pairs; and the second included answer-pairs deemed most dissonant/least coherent. Let us consider each group in turn. 

 

Fig. 4: Most Coherent/Least Dissonant Pairs. To the left of the dividing line is found one logical direction for each pair, showing the proportion of instances in which a person who chose the first answer also gave the second. To the right, this sequence is reversed for the same answer-pair. The right-most column gives the percentage of respondents in the survey that selected this answer-pair.

In pairs 1, 2, 3, 9 and 10, I judge the collection of “cherry every time,” “I am bound,” “sometimes free will” and “never free will” to be logically consistent with one another. In pairs 4, 6, 7, 11, and 12, I judge the collection “different flavors,” “free to choose,” “always free will,” and “sometimes free will” to be logically consistent with one another. In pair 5, I find “different flavors” consistent with “the universe is random.” Nothing rules out pair 8, because it is possible some other process (including a random one) could cause different flavors in different universes even in the absence of free will. Indeed this shows up in pair 13, where “the universe is random” is paired with “never free will.” I think all of these cases are fairly obvious and self-explanatory—again, to a first approximation. One can of course quibble about any of these judgments until the cows come home, which they are bound to do eventually...or aren’t they?

Fig. 5: Least Coherent/Most Dissonant Pairs

 

The answer-pairs of this group don’t make any sense, at a first approximation. In pairs 1-3, it is not obvious why you would choose cherry in all universes if you had total freedom to choose (pair 1), if the universe were truly random (pair 2), or if you were always able to exercise your free will (pair 3). A clever person might argue that “if cherry is my favorite flavor, I could easily choose it in all 100 universes with perfect freedom.” But what are the chances that you would never play with another flavor in 100 opportunities if you were truly free? This fails the first-approximation parameter: you would need a fancy set of arguments to overcome the more obvious answer that you would choose different flavors in different universes, at least occasionally.

In pair 4, there is an obvious inconsistency between choosing different flavors in different universes and offering as your rationale that you were bound to choose the same flavor because all the universes were exactly the same in the moment before. The remaining pairs are fairly obvious and self-explanatory in their inconsistency, at least to a first approximation.

Taken all together, we find that more than three-quarters of the answer-pairs selected by the respondents were logically consistent and therefore likely involved no cognitive dissonance. On the other hand, fully 24% of responses included obvious inconsistencies between pairs of answers. This suggests that about one-quarter of the time people were experiencing cognitive dissonance as they answered these questions, whether they were conscious of it or not.

Fig. 6: Concentrations of Coherent/Dissonant Pairs. The first two rows represent the number of people who selected responses paired between two of the three questions. The bottom row subtracts the dissonant from the coherent responses.

 

Figure 6 shows how the coherent and dissonant pairs were distributed between the three questions. The balance reflects the extent to which coherent answer-pairs predominated over dissonant ones for each pair of questions. We can see that the greatest coherence occurs between questions 1 and 2, and the worst between questions 2 and 3. The coherence between questions 3 and 1 is only slightly better.

When we look at the full triad—that is, when we string together all three of the answers given by each respondent—the issue of cognitive dissonance becomes significantly more apparent.

Fig. 7: Coherence/Dissonance Among Triads. Null results include triads that include “I don’t know,” “None of these,” and “I’m not sure,” plus the spurious “some flavor other than cherry” response.

 

Here we see that nearly as many respondents created a dissonant triad as created a coherent one. In a head-to-head comparison, the coherent triads had a relatively slim 54% to 46% advantage over the dissonant triads. By far, the most common dissonant triad was “cherry every time” to “bound to choose” to “always free will.” Here we see coherence between Q1 and Q2, but Q3 proves doubly dissonant (that is, dissonant with both Q1 and Q2).

If I were to speculate, I would guess that these respondents chose “cherry every time” because their scientific understanding most strongly suggested it. When asked to offer a rationale, they gave the logical one (“bound to choose”). But when they were asked about a resident belief about the world, they reflexively chose “always free will.” This triad illustrates a common understanding that even when we objectively know that we do not have free will, we almost invariably feel like we do have free will.

This undoubtedly activates cognitive dissonance whenever the issue comes up, even though it may be entirely unconscious. But even when it is conscious, we may not feel that we can resolve the dissonance. It may be, rather, that no resolution is possible. It may simply be that it is objectively true that we do not have free will (at least some of the time), but subjectively compelling that we do have free will most or all of the time. Perhaps the closest to resolution that we can hope to achieve is to allow ourselves to be fully and exquisitely conscious of the cognitive dissonance. Perhaps we can come to appreciate it like we do such things as the acrid aroma of the marigold, the bitterness of dark roast coffee, or the aching dissonances that provide spice and poignancy to a passage of Mozart.