I’ve been thinking recently about how my background and research in psychological science influences my life as an author (and also about what results in fields like Behavioral Economics might be able to teach us about storytelling). I am sure there is a series of posts in there somewhere—but this is a tiny thing that has affected my life as a READER, so I thought I would share.
Several years ago, I noticed that sometimes I will buy a book in hardback right after it comes out, because I am super excited about reading it… and then, somehow, a year later, I still haven’t read it, even though I’ve read like 165 other books in that time period, many of which I was not as excited about to begin with. It’s not that I don’t want to read the ignored book—it’s just that every time I go to be To Be Read pile, it seems to lose out to another book. And then, after a while, I can’t quite remember why I was SO excited about reading it in the first place.
And then I realized—at least in part—why I think this was happening.
Back in the 1950s, Leon Festinger proposed a concept called Cognitive Dissonance, which basically refers to a discomfiting state in which our actions and beliefs don’t line up. The basic idea is that the human mind has a variety of ways of reducing dissonance—one of which is to (subconsciously) change the belief so that it is more in line with the action. So, for example, we see effort justification, where you value an outcome more if you have to put more effort into achieving it. In other words, it’s kind of like your mind goes “Hmmm… I seem to have put a ton of effort into obtaining X. X must be really awesome, because I would only put that much effort into getting something that was really awesome.” And then, without even realizing you’re doing it, you end up LIKING X MORE than you otherwise would.
One of the classic experiments of cognitive dissonance involves a choice task, where participants are asked to rate a bunch of “prizes” on how much they like them. Later, they are offered a choice between two prizes that they initially rated as equally appealing. Then, after participants finally make their choice, they’re asked to rate all of the prizes again. And basically what happens is that participants, on average, like the thing that they chose MORE than they did before they chose it, and they like the non-chosen item LESS. (This effect even persists with monkeys and children).
All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that a few years ago, I realized my To Be Read pile was recreating this experiment almost exactly. Every time I chose to read Book A and not Book B, Book B would become a little less appealing, even if I chose Book A because I was in the mood for that particular genre, or because a friend wanted to talk to me about it, or because Book B was longer and I didn’t have enough time to finish it, or because Book B was a hardback and wouldn’t fit in my purse, and NOT because I just wanted to read Book A more. But then, after not-choosing Book B, the next time I came back to my TBR pile, I would choose Book C over Book B, too… and so on and so forth until I didn’t really want to read Book B at all.
If/when I finally get around to reading Book B (usually because I’ve taken it on a trip and read all of the books I have with me), the result is, more often than not, “WHY DID I WAIT SO LONG?!”
At least part of the answer: cognitive dissonance. Not choosing the book—for whatever reason—made me feel like I wanted to read it a little less.
In an attempt to circumvent this effect somewhat, I now divide my To Be Read piles into much smaller piles, so that when I choose a book, the number of books I’m not choosing is a lot smaller. I also frequently swap books in and out of the “active” TBR pile, so that I don’t “not choose” a specific book a bunch of times in a row. Using the library also helps with this quite a bit, because I feel pressured to read the books before their due dates! (And because, with library books, my TBR pile changes over completely quite frequently). Also, when I travel, I try to select books that have lost recent battles, knowing I will read ALL of them when I’m on the road.
And now, I need to stop blogging about psychology and go do some!