Balance Theory, Dissonance Theory, and Transactional Analysis

  Dr. C. George Boeree


If you recall, distress can be based on several possibilities:

1.  Incorrect anticipation, as when, for example, you reach out to shake someone's hand -- and yours passes right through his!

2.  Uncertain anticipation, as with roaches and mice and the like.

3.  Conflicting anticipations, where you expect two or more things at once.

The first two are based on problems in the relations between "mind and world," that is, between your understanding of reality and your perceptions of it.  But the last one involves relations within your mind and can occur even without active involvement with the world.  When you have conflicting anticipations, it almost doesn't matter what the world has to say, and distress, therefore, can be something very internal, very personal.

Although we tend to assume that adaptation will involve learning new ways to deal with difficult reality, or at least learning to accept reality as it is, it is also quite conceivable, regardless of the source of our distress, that adaptation will involve a denial or distortion of reality and actions that keep the problem at a distance instead of solving it.  In other words, adaptation can also serve to separate us from reality.

I call this psychological self-defense.  It involves lying to oneself, but, like physical self-defense, it is not necessarily something that must be avoided at all cost:  We often, in this difficult life, need to defend ourselves from inevitable confusion.  Keep this in mind.

Balance theory

Fritz Heider, a social psychologist with a Gestalt background, developed a theory about these things called balance theory or "P-O-X" theory.

Let's say you are the parent of a small child.  Your baby comes home from kindergarten one afternoon bearing a gift.  You tear into the crude wrapping and find --surprise! -- a clay ashtray.  It is easily the ugliest entity in the universe, and you don't smoke.  But your little artist stands there before you with a smile as broad as all outdoors and eyes sparkling with unbounded pride.

You say to your child "oh thank you so much; it's so very beautiful; you sure are good at art; I love it; we'll put it right here in the display case with the antique crystal collection!"  What folks who haven't gone through this don't understand is that you meant every word.

Fritz Heider looks at it like this:  You are the person (P); your child is the other (O); the clay ashtray is the third element in the triangle (X). And there are several relations among them:

 There are two kinds of relations operating within the triangle:

1.  Unit relations:  Things and people that "belong together," that in some fashion make a good Gestalt.  Perhaps you remember from introductory psychology some ideas about perception -- that we tend to "group" things because of similarity, proximity, common fate, and so on:  So, two collie dogs walking together side-by-side, in the same direction form more of a unit (gestalt) than a duck and a cow, 100 feet apart, moving in different directions.

In reference to people, we can think of them as belonging together if they share nationality, religion, social status, family membership, etc. -- that is, if they can be subsumed by some social construct.  We see things as belonging to people if they are possessions or property or actions and the like.

2.  Sentiment relations:  Our evaluations of things and people; loving, hating, accepting, rejecting, worshiping, condemning, etc.  Heider simplifies matters for our purposes by limiting sentiment to liking and disliking.

In our example, we have a positive sentiment relation towards our child, and our child has a positive unit relation with the clay ashtray.  The last side of the triangle to be filled-in is our sentiment relation to the ashtray.  It is at his point that Heider makes his prediction:  It will be positive.

Heider says that our minds tend to seek out a balanced state when dealing with such situations, wherein the relations among person, other, and thing are "harmonious."  Three positive relations are harmonious.  So are two negative relations with one positive relation:

        "I don't like John.
        John has a dog.
        I don't like the dog either."

These latter triangles are less happy, but no less balanced.

On the other hand, we tend to avoid unbalanced states.  Two positive relations with one negative one is unbalanced:

        "I love my child.
        She made this ashtray.
        I hate the ashtray."

In these triangles, the relations are stressed to change.   We will tend to adapt by convincing ourselves that one of the relations is other than it is.  You might convince yourself that your child didn't really make the ashtray; you might decide you don't really like your child as much as you thought; or you might decide you like the ashtray.  In the broader picture, we do see parents balancing the triangle by "losing" the ashtray or, more sinister, communicating their disappointment, using threats or guilt, and otherwise pushing the child to be the child they would have liked to have had.

There is also the unbalanced triangle with three negatives:

        I don't like John;
        I don't like dogs;
        John doesn't like dogs.

Sometimes we do feel that we should not share even negative feelings with someone we dislike, but it is understood that this is a weaker form than the preceding one.  Heider felt that negatives are less powerful than positives in the formula generally.

Heider didn't restrict his balance theory to triangles.  If, for example, we have a person and a thing and we look at the unit and sentiment relations between them, we can also see harmony or the stress toward change.  "This is my book and I like it" is balanced, as is, in a less powerful way, "this is not my book and I don't like it".  On the other hand, "this is not my book and I like it" is unbalanced, and we might tend to buy, borrow, or steal it.  "This is my book and I hate it" is also unbalanced, and we might tend to sell it, give it away, or burn it.

Going back to the p-o-x triangle, imagine this unbalanced situation:  John likes a painting by a woman he hates.  He might decide that he didn't like the painting as much as he thought.  He might decide that he didn't hate the women as much as he thought.  He might even figure that she didn't really paint the picture.  All of these options, you can see, are distortions or denials of reality.

There is another option:  He may attempt to repair the imbalance by differentiation, developing a new contrast!  That is, he may come to the conclusion that the woman is a good painter but has a horrid personality.  Before, John really has only one contrast here:  good versus bad, applicable to painting, personality, and whatever else.  Now he has two contrasts:  good versus bad painting and good versus bad personality, so good people can lack talent and nasty people can have it.  By doing this, he is expanding his construct system, loosening up his stereotypical way of thinking.  Heider says this is probably not used as much as defensive techniques!


A theory that is similar to Heider's but focuses on somewhat different concerns is Leon Festinger's  cognitive dissonance theory.   It has a very simple central principle:  "An individual strives to produce consonance and to avoid dissonance."  We experience  dissonance  when we become aware that our actions contradict certain beliefs about ourselves.   Consonance,  as you might imagine, is the peaceful absence of dissonance, synonymous with Heider's "harmony."

If I consider myself an honest person, that belief implies that I don't lie.  Yet I catch myself in the middle of a lie.  This is dissonant.  Or I know that I love my parents.  This implies that I write them more than once per year. Yet once a year is exactly how often I write.  This, too, is dissonant.  Or I don't do things to harm myself.  Cigarettes are bad for me.  And I am at this moment dragging on a cigarette.

Dissonance, like imbalance, is "stressed to change."  I might change my behavior, quit smoking, for example. I might change my belief that I don't do things to harm myself, which is at least honest.  But the weakest link in this example is the connection between the two: the idea that cigarettes are bad for me.  I have personally told myself such things as "it keeps the weight off," "the anxiety would kill me sooner," "the research had flaws," "cigarettes are just a scapegoat for industrial pollution," "they'll discover a cure soon," "I only smoke a few packs a day," and "it won't happen to me."   One way or another, we tend to change our beliefs -- "fix" them -- in an effort to reduce the dissonance:  We lie to ourselves.

Most of the research done on dissonance involves a matter of  inadequate justification,  that is, the reasons for doing something just weren't good enough:  I lied to my friend.  This is normally dissonant with my belief that I, as a good friend, do not lie -- unless I have "a real good reason" (i.e. an adequate justification), like saving his life, or maybe saving his feelings.  Without such a "real good reason," there is inadequate justification.

Insufficient rewards

The most obvious example of inadequate justification is  insufficient rewards -- the subject of the most famous cognitive dissonance experiment:

Festinger and Carlsmith had volunteers do a dull, miserable task (such as adding up columns of numbers or stacking spools) for hours at a time.  As they were about to leave, the volunteers were asked to tell the next volunteer that the task was actually fun, and were offered money to do this.  Some were offered, say, a dollar.  Others were offered a twenty.  After they did their dirty deed, the experimenter came running after them, saying that he forgot to have them fill out a form.  Embedded in the form were questions concerning how much they enjoyed the task.  If they had lied to their fellow volunteer for a twenty, they said that the task was boring as hell.  If they had done it for a buck, they actually said that the task wasn't so bad!  In other words, there was insufficient reward to justify the lie.  So they fixed the dissonance by lying to themselves about the task!

One moral to the story is that, if you want to change a person's beliefs, use as little reward as you can get away with.  If you give them too much, they will know why they did it:  for the reward.  If you give them just barely enough to get them to do it, they will need to convince themselves that they did it for other reasons, such as they really wanted to.  People are strange.

Why not go all the way, then:  If you can get someone to do something dissonant for nothing, they should really go out of their way to convince themselves things aren't dissonant at all.

Deci had subjects working on jigsaw puzzles for hours late at night.  Some had been told they would be paid; others thought they were volunteering.  He gave them breaks during which they could loaf or continue puzzling.  The salaried subjects tended to loaf; the unsalaried subjects tended to continue with their puzzles.  They had convinced themselves that they were enjoying themselves.

But notice that there is an alternative interpretation:  Puzzles are enjoyable, at least modestly so.  Could it be that it was the salaried subjects that had done the dissonance-fixing?  Could they have convinced themselves that, since they were being paid to do this, this is work  and they could not possibly be enjoying themselves, and so would need to loaf at the first opportunity?

This second interpretation has sinister implications.  Think about how we encourage children to study for gold stars, smiley face stamps, and grades.  Think about how we make a job worthwhile by paying higher salaries.  It is possible that the more external rewards we provide for something, the weaker become the natural internal rewards.  Notice the difference between  your enjoyment of a book you chose to read and one assigned to read!  We will see this idea again.

Insufficient threat

Another version of inadequate justification is  insufficient threat -- if you do not do something you would  like  to do, even though the threat was weak, you will tend to believe that you didn't really want to do it in the first place -- the “sour grapes” syndrome.

If you are not doing something you would like to do because you have been threatened, you will experience some dissonance, naturally.  But the stronger the threat, the weaker the dissonance; the weaker the threat, the stronger the dissonance.  Doing something improper for a hundred dollars makes sense;  so does going against your desires when threatened with disembowelment.  Here's an experiment:

Freedman left a fancy, shiny, absolutely irresistible toy robot with a bunch of young children.  Some were given a gentle warning not to touch.  Others were given stern warnings.  Later, another adult gave the children permission to touch the robot.  The kids who received the mild warning left it alone; the ones who were threatened went right to it.  Other experiments show that the children who were given the mild warning actually change their evaluation of the robot downward.

Again, there is an alternative view, still in keeping with cognitive dissonance, that suggests that the threat raises the evaluation of the robot:  the “forbidden fruit" syndrome.


Dissonance helps us to understand the distortions we engage in when we feel  guilty:   (1) I am nice; (2) I do x; (3) x is not nice.  Am I therefore not nice after all?  Or did I not actually do x?  No:  x is not so  bad,  i.e. we rationalize.

Davis and Jones had people individually watch a live interview, then asked some to tell the interviewee that he looked stupid.  The experimenters found that those people rated their victim as generally less attractive.

Soldiers have, of course, been taught for millennia to denigrate their enemies -- see them as sub-human trash that one can "waste" with impunity.  It is simply too painful for most people to think of themelves as killing nice people!

Glass asked subjects to shock other subjects (for the usual, made-up, "good reasons") and found that people who thought of themselves as good were even  more  likely to "put-down" their victims.  Beware the self-righteous!

Bersheid, using the same basic situation, told some of her subjects that they would be trading places with the person they were shocking.  This is presumably a less dissonant dilemma, so less to fix, so less derogation of their "partner."  Soldiers also often learn to respect their enemy.

The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said "my memory says that I did it, my pride says that I could not have done it, and in the end, my memory yields."


The flip-side of guilt is  temptation:   Not doing something despite the possibility of a decent reward.  As we said, if someone tempts you to do something dissonant -- e.g. immoral -- and you accept, the larger the reward, the weaker the dissonance, and vice versa.  What happens if you decline the reward, if you resist temptation?  Now we would expect that the larger the reward, the larger the dissonance.

Judson Mills did the definitive experiment in temptation.  He set up a game for children which was easy -- and most useful -- to cheat at.  Some of the kids were offered big prizes; some were only offered little ones.  Of course, some of the kids in each group cheated, and some did not.

Prior to the game, Mills had asked the kids individually for their attitudes towards various things -- including cheating.  As you might expect, most kids had negative attitudes toward cheating, but mildly negative.  After the game, he asked for their attitudes again.  Those who had cheated for the big prize didn't change their attitudes toward cheating.  Those who didn't cheat for the little prize didn't change their attitudes either.  Those who did cheat for the little prize showed more lenient attitudes than before.  And those who didn't cheat for the big prize became more severe.

        Cheat -- big prize -- no change in attitudes
        Didn't cheat -- little prize -- no change in attitudes
        Cheat -- little prize -- more lenient attitude (guilt!)
        Didn't cheat -- big prize -- more severe attitude (temptation!)

The moral of the story is that those who have been sorely tempted are the most likely to"crack down" on the very thing they had been so sorely tempted by!  This leads to interesting hypotheses about blue-nose prudes, law-and-order extremists, and homosexual-haters.

Excessive effort

One more way we get "inadequate justification" is through  excessive effort:   The harder you've worked at something you discover to be dissonant, the more dissonance you will feel, and therefore the more you will try to "fix" it.  "I worked hard for X; X is worthless; I don't do worthless things; therefore X couldn't be worthless.

An experiment by Yaryan and Festinger went something like this:  Subjects volunteered for a "techniques of studying" experiment.  They were asked to study a list of word definitions in preparation for an I.Q. test, but were told  that only half of them would actually take the test.  One group of these students were told to glance over the list and that it would be available to them during the test; the other group was told to memorize the list because they would not be permitted to take it with them.  After they glanced at or memorized the list, they were asked to estimate the odds that they would be one of the people chosen to actually take the test.  The glancers estimated--as they had been told--50 %.  The memorizers--facing the prospect of having done all this work for nothing--exaggerated their odds, despite the fact that they had been told the odds in advance!

In the ordinary world, we see this idea being used to increase loyalty:  Fraternities, military organizations, and primitive tribes put pledges, plebes, and pubescent boys through hell.  Afterwards, who would say to themselves "I went through hell and it sure wasn't worth it?"

One curious example familiar to students:  We sometimes remember our toughest teachers in a very positive light -- whether their toughness actually contributed to our learning or not!

This can work in reverse as well:  If something is too easy,  we may devalue the goal.  For example, we may take a course in which it is easy to get an A, and then claim that the course was worthless -- which may not be true at all!

Intensifying dissonance

One thing that can intensify dissonance is  irrevocability.   Once something is done, and you can't "take it back," you had better be happy with it, even if you have to distort reality to do it.  Even negative thoughts will feel uncomfortable.

Knox and Inkster asked people at a race track to estimate their favorite horse's odds.  Some of these people were waiting to place their bets; others had just placed them.  Before betting, people gave odds similar to those in the forms; after betting, they were considerably more confident.

Now, I must add a caveat here:  I suspect that there are quite a few people who, like me, know they did the wrong thing after ever decision they make, people who seem to have trouble fixing dissonance or even find themselves drawn to increased uncertainty.  I, for example, always  know  I bought the wrong pair of shoes soon after I've put the first scuff marks on the soles!  We'll come back to these folks later.

Another thing that intensifies dissonance is  choice:   Choosing from a large number of alternatives seems to require that we be happier with our choice than choosing from a limited number.  If I have few alternatives, I am not so free to vary; I can understand less than total satisfaction because I literally didn't have the choice.  If I have many alternatives, I could have made a better choice.  A car bought from a large lot will be defended by its new owner with more vigor than one bought from a small lot.  A "successful" bachelor will be more likely to see his bride as the epitome of womanhood than one with a more modest past.

There are two little techniques for keeping dissonance to a minimum that show up neatly here:   selective attention  and  selective memory.    We will pay attention more to information that supports our choice, or remember such information more clearly.  This is a useful skill, to say the least.

One experiment looked at people who had just decided to buy a particular car.  They were told that they would have to wait a few minutes for certain paperwork to be done, and that they could look through a catalog of car ads while they waited.  What they weren't told is that they'd be videotaped, and someone would later time how long they looked at what ads.  What the researchers found was that people would look longest at the ads for the car they had decided on, and  least  at ads for  similar  cars.  In other words, they really wanted to confirm their choice, and ignore the close possibilities.

The exceptions

I mentioned that some people not only cannot seem to fix dissonance, but actually seem to make things worse for themselves.  In Hans Eysenck's theory, he suggests that  introverts  are what they are because they can't seem to deny or otherwise ignore traumatic events--they don't have the nice protective devices that the extravert has.  If an  extravert  drops his pants at a party, the next day, when you bring it up, he might say "Yeah?  No kidding?"  If the same thing happened to an introvert, he would remember it, relive it, for decades afterward.  So I would suggest that introverts are the exception to dissonance-fixing phenomena, though not to dissonance itself.

Eysenck also has a second dimension of temperament called  neuroticism.   He sees this as a matter of "sympathetic hyperactivity," that is, emotional over-response.  It is, in fact, the traditional understanding of neurosis that it involves great anxiety.  Anxiety, the distressful anticipation of distress, is quite similar to dissonance.  So I would suggest that high neuroticism would exaggerate the introvert (as well as extravert) pattern in regard to dissonance and dissonance-fixing.  Oddly, this fits well with certain psychopathologies and with certain Freudian interpretations of those psychopathologies.  Perhaps one of you will do a dissertation on this!


As cognitive dissonance researchers themselves have pointed out, the most significant dissonance occurs when we have incongruency between our  self-concept  (or self-image) and our actual  behaviors.   This is abundantly confirmed by therapist-theoreticians such as Karen Horney, Carl Rogers, George Kelly, Albert Bandura, Viktor Raimy, and many others.

An occasional lie to support our egos might not be so bad.  But lies  breed  lies:  "Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!"  And before you know it, your self-concept and your actual behavior are so far apart that you are faced with nothing  but  problems.

As Carl Rogers would put it, the more the incongruency between what you believe yourself to be and what you really are, the more you find yourself faced with  threatening situations,  which in turn encourage you to distort things some more....

Freud talked about this at great length:  The poor  ego  ("I") is surrounded by the often-conflicting demands of three powerful entities:  reality,  the  id  (representing our biological drives), and the  superego  (representing parental -- i.e. society's -- demands).  For example, a man might be so angry that he would like to beat his kids.  But that's not right, he's not that kind of father, and besides, his wife would take the kids and leave him....

When all those pressures get to be too much, the ego feels overwhelmed, like it's about to be washed away.  We all too often feel like we're about to lose control, go out of our minds, go crazy, die....

This is  anxiety,  and not too different from strong dissonance.  To deal with it, the ego sets up  barriers  against reality, the id, and the superego, which are called the ego defense mechanisms, or  defenses,  for short.

Freud, his daughter Anna Freud, and later Freudians, elaborated on some two dozen defenses.  But we'll leave those to courses on personality theories, and focus instead on the two defenses that Carl Rogers focused on:

Denial  -- a term also used by the Freudians -- is to refuse to attend to certain phenomena, to push them into the background and avoid making them "figures."  Some students never pick up their tests, for example.  Or a widow sets a place at her table for her late husband and has conversations with him.

Rogers includes in denial what the Freudians call  repression  -- the "denial" of memories.  You almost drowned as a child, but now you can't seem to remember it -- or, in fact, the whole weekend.  (But you  do  have a fear of open water -- i.e. you can never  completely  deny reality!)

Notice that we are talking about selective attention and selective memory again!

We can symbolize denial (and repression) so:

It is primitive, difficult, yet still  close  to the "surface" of awareness.

 Distortion  is a bit more sophisticated, more automatic, and harder to spot.  It could be symbolized so:

We "sneak around" the threatening phenomena -- perceptions or memories -- with little lies, misperceptions, misconceptions, ....

This is also known as  rationalization.   When students fail a test, they occasionally go to great lengths to  explain  their failure:  Bad prof, misleading questions, weird book, the party last night -- anything other than reasons which threaten their self-esteem (stupidity, laziness, alcoholism...).  Mind you, sometimes the excuses  are  the reasons -- sometimes it  is  the professor!  Which makes distortion easier to engage in and much more dangerous in the long run!

Note that sometimes we create the reason, in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  For example, a student may get drunk the night before the exam.  When he fails, he can say to himself that it was the hangover, not his stupidity.

Therapists have a hard time with people who distort heavily, such as paranoids and histrionic personalities.  Sometimes, the web of lies becomes so complex that it can easily include the therapist!

Taken to the extreme, distortion becomes what the existentialists call  conventionality  or "busy-ness."  We don't notice problems because we are so caught up in our own conventional little lives.  War?  Starvation?  Pollution?  Injustice?  Inhumanity?  In a minute... right now, it's time for  Wheel of Fortune!   Conventionality can be drawn so:

With conventionality, no-one has to anxiously block experiences or invent rationalizations.  The problems remain unconscious (ignored) because they have become a part of the social background.  Whenever we feel that something  must  be the way it is, or that it is only natural or rational, when we say that of course we must have war, or of course there have to be rich and poor, or of course this must be forbidden and that absolutely required, we may be facing a society-wide defense!


We've been talking about dissonance-fixing as mostly a matter of subtly or massively altering your self --your beliefs, attitudes, feelings, whatever.  You can also reduce dissonance by changing things "out there."  For example, "I'm a clean person; a clean person keeps a clean house; my house is a pig sty."  The dissonance can be fixed by cleaning the house.

But how about this:  "I deserve slavish attention from my spouse;  my spouse won't give it to me."  Presuming your attitudes don't change, it may be necessary to change your spouse!   We can get rid of that spouse and try another (and another, and another...).  Or we can manipulate the present spouse, make them feel guilty, badger them, beat them, whatever it takes.  I call this  social dissonance  and  social dissonance-fixing.

Someone who has made a detailed study of this is the social psychiatrist Eric Berne, the inventor of Transactional Analysis and the author of Games People Play,  among other books.  Berne has a Freudian background and so uses Freudian terminology.  He elaborates the ego by seeing it as having three "ego-states" which correspond to those three forces it must deal with:  The aspect of the ego that is most intimate with reality is the  adult;   the aspect most intimate with the id is the  child;   and the aspect most intimate with the superego is the  parent.   The adult's strength is reason; the child's is play, which may become hedonistic abandon; and the parent's strength is morality, which may become self-righteousness.   He draws the ego like this:

If we put two egos next to each other, we have a diagrammatical representation of social interactions, which he calls  transactions.   There are  complementary transactions,  like these:

They might represent transactions like "Aren't kids awful?" "They certainly are!" (a), "Let's play!" "Oh goodie!" (b), and "George, straighten up!" "Yes my little passion flower!" (c).  Sometimes we don't agree on what transaction we are performing, in which case we have a  crossed transaction:

"Now Martha, let's take a look at our finances."  "Snookums wanna cuddle?" (a), and "Now Martha, let's take a look at our finances."  "Alright.  Then you'll have to quit your stupid hobbies!" (b) are examples.  These are certainly not happy transactions, and we often find them in troubled relationships.  But there is one more:  Under the cover of a regular complementary transaction, we may have a simultaneous  ulterior transaction.

A cowboy on a dude ranch says to a female visitor "Come, let me show you the barn."  To which she responds "Please do!  I've always loved barns, since I was a little girl!"  Although it is conceivable that they do share a bizarre fascination with barns, it is more likely that they are flirting like crazy.  Under the cover of adult-adult, they are playing child-child.  They are, in Berne's terms, playing a  game.

Berne and his students have come up with hundreds of games.  Just to give you a taste, here are a couple of scenarios involving the avoidance of responsibility, a very common theme for games:

"See what you made me do"

Mr. and Mrs. White are engaged in a little foreplay.  When things have warmed up a bit, Mrs. White suddenly says "I hope little Johnny's asleep."  Mr. White loses his temper at this and shouts "Now you've done it!  You've broken the mood!  I might as well go to sleep!"

Actually, says Berne, this is a little game that Mr. and Mrs. White play on a regular basis.  By going through this game, Mrs. White gets to avoid the sex she's never really felt comfortable with and Mr. White gets to avoid the humiliating failures he occasionally experiences, while neither has to admit their reservations!

Me, I'm always writing the great book, except that I never have quite enough time, and the constant interruptions....  It's wonderful when you don't trust your own abilities to be able to blame your lack of success on the intrusions of others!

"If it weren't for you"

A woman complains about her unrewarding, self-sacrificing life as a housewife.  "If it weren't for you" -- she says to her traditional, authoritarian husband -- "I could've gone to school and really made something out of myself!"

In reality, she went to a great deal of trouble to find this joker in order that she wouldn't have to face what she most feared:  going to school and facing the world of business.  He, of course, is playing his own little game:  By playing the "bad guy," he gets what he wants as well.  Games are usually little social contracts between the players.  They have manipulated each other into maintaining the status quo while evading the dissonance (anxiety, guilt) involved in taking responsibility.  It is easier to play roles than it is to face the challenges of life.

More social dissonance and dissonance-fixing

The sociologist Erving Goffman places the whole of dissonance and dissonance-fixing outside the person and into the social interaction.  He sees people as actors playing certain roles in a play.  This metaphor is the basis of the  dramaturgical approach  to social psychology.

For example, in a social get-together, no one should  lose face.    If John insults Mary, for example, the group will feel her loss of face as something akin to a dissonance.  Mary or someone in the group will have to challenge John:  "What did you say?"  "You didn't mean that, did you?" "And what about your family?" etc.  If John wants to remain in the group, he must make amends ("fix the dissonance"):  "Just kidding, you know!" "Ah Mary, you're such a good sport!"  "Jeez, what a jerk I am!" or just "I'm sorry!"  Mary (hopefully) accepts his apologies and forgives him, John (hopefully) thanks her, and life goes on.  This pattern -- insult, challenge, amends, acceptance, thanks -- is quite real:  Try sometime not to play the game like this!

There are lots of variations, of course:  The offender can "challenge" himself; amends may be repeated; someone else may make the amends, even the offendee; and so on.  Insults can be ignored, winning lots of face points for the person secure enough to do this.  But if there are no amends made, the group will either break up or expel (or even hurt) the offender.

The rules can, however, be manipulated.  For example, it doesn't matter who does the insulting -- it has to be fixed.  So, you can insult yourself!   A truly ugly person says "I'm so ugly!"  and everyone is obliged to respond with "Nah!" "Beauty is in the eye of he beholder," and "You have a great personality!"  Or a truly dumb person says "I'm so stupid" and everyone has to say "Nah!"  "You're good with your hands," and "who needs an I.Q. anyway!"  They must give this person face.

What is more threatening is  aggressive face work   such as snubs and digs:  People with status often insult others with impunity -- they can afford to.  Academics do this all the time by trying to suggest that their tastes are impeccable with dialogs like "Did you watch the concert on PBS last night?" "No, I don't own a TV."

We can go one step further and combine the previous two techniques:  An attractive, slender woman says to her chubbo friends "I'm getting so fat!  I can barely fit into my size five anymore!"  The smartest guy in the class says "Jeez, I only got a 95!"  This is clever:  They are insulting you by "insulting" themselves, so you can't touch them.  Sounds a bit like a game,  doesn't it?

Copyright 1999, C. George Boeree