It’s Not So Bad: Cognitive Dissonance and Cheap Games

All else being equal, do you enjoy the games you pay full price for as much as the ones you buy on sale for cheap? While it of course first depends on the game, a certain well known theory in psychology suggests that paying $60 for the new Tomb Raider game when it came out last March, for example, might lead to your enjoying it more than waiting to buy it for $15 a few months later.

Back around 1959, Leon Festinger and one of his ambitious undergraduate students, Merrill Carlsmith, conducted an experiment at Stanford University.1 For an hour straight, subjects carefully removed and replaced a bunch wooden spools from a tray over and over again and meticulously twisted rows and rows of wooden dowels on a rack. It was, in other words, a stupefyingly boring series of tasks.2

"Now, match three spools of the same kind and they'll disappear in a delightful little explosion of color and sound." said no experimenter ever.

“Now, match three spools of the same kind and they’ll disappear in a delightful little burst of color and sound.” said no experimenter ever.

For an hour they had to do this. But at the end of the experiment, the researcher pretended to be in a bind, saying that he needed someone to describe the task to the next subject waiting to take his turn at the boring tasks. But the thing is that the subject had to really sell the tasks and make them sound super fun and interesting –a service for which the researcher offered to pay. Depending on which experimental condition the subject was in, he was offered either $20 or $1.

Subjects then went and met with the person who they thought was the next subject, but who was really another experimenter demanding to know what was so great about what they were going to be doing. The subjects then dutifully lied through smiling teeth about how much fun the tasks were going to be. Boy howdy! Twisting knobs! SO MUCH FUN, MAC!3 Then, some time later, the subjects were asked to fill out a form and rate how enjoyable the boring spool moving and knob twisting tasks really were.

The results? Those who had been paid $1 to lie about the tasks rated them as more fun than those who had been paid $20. Festinger and Carlsmith theorized that this was because of what they called cognitive dissonance –a state of mental tension brought on by holding two contradictory thoughts at the same time. People are motivated, the researchers said, to eliminate this tension by abandoning or changing one of the thoughts.

In the case of the experimental subjects who were paid a paltry $1 to slump their shoulders and lie, the two incompatible thoughts were:

  1. Man, those tasks were f’ing boring.
  2. I was willing to lie to a fellow student for next to nothing.

Subjects were unable to do anything about #2, but Festinger argued that they were able to remove the cognitive dissonance by deluding themselves that #1 wasn’t true. Thus, they really did think that the tasks were enjoyable.

What about those in the $20 condition, you ask? Good question. Festinger argued that $20 was quite a bit of money –in the 1950s, $20 could buy as much as $150 can buy today, and these were college students. Those subjects were able to convince themselves that this bribe was sufficient reason for them to lie. “Those tasks were boring” and “I was paid a huge wad of cash to tell a lie” did not necessarily create much cognitive dissonance.Perhaps, at most, it would get them to insert “harmless” before “lie.”

So with this in mind, let’s get back to video games. Earlier this year I bought the new Simcity game. Unfortunately it was so wrought with bugs, server problems, and broken promises that publisher Electronic Arts offered customers a free game on which to gnash their teeth. With my credit, I chose Dead Space 3. I thought this was a pretty awesome deal, since the game had been selling for a full $60 just a few weeks earlier. I was getting it for free.

Now, I really liked the first two Dead Space games, but after just a few hours of tromping through another space station fighting more necromorphs, I was completely bored. I didn’t like it. I stopped playing.
This made me think about the subjects in Festinger’s experiment, and whether or not I might be feeling the LACK of cognitive dissonance. Or more to the point, if I had paid $60 for Dead Space 3, would I have convinced myself that I was enjoying it, rather than face the fact that I had decided to spend all that money on a full priced game? Even worse, would I have gone online to tell people who didn’t like the game that they were wrong and that all their arguments were invalid?

Probably. A little, at least. Research on cognitive dissonance theory and consumer choice exploded4 in the 1970s and researchers found that shoppers were generally willing to change their attitudes towards purchases in order to confirm their belief that they were worth the price.5 Researchers have also found that cognitive dissonance after purchases (a.k.a., “buyer’s remorse”) can be reduced by getting directly involved with the purchasing decision (as opposed to just following the advice of marketing material or salespeople) and taking more time to make the decision.6 Probably because shoppers can more easily convince themselves that they were well informed and not duped.

In the case of full priced video games, “I thought this was worth spending $60 on” and “I’m not liking it” are bound to cause some mental tension. Absent generous return policies, you can’t do much about having paid full price for a game. But it’s comparatively easy to convince yourself that you’re enjoying it more.

C’mon, admit it. I’m not the only one. You’ve done this before, haven’t you?


1. Festinger, L. and Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-210.
2. Kind of like grinding for crafting materials in MMOs, but that’s a related topic for another day.
3. This is how I assumed people in the 1950s talked based on that one episode of Leave It to Beaver I saw.
4. Not literally.
5. For a review, see Cummings, W. and Venkatesan, M. (1976). Cognitive Dissonance and Consumer Behavior: A Review of the Evidence. Journal of Marketing Research, 13(3), 303-308.
6. Hasan, U. and Narseen, R. (2012). Cognitive Dissonance and Its Impact on Consumer Buying Behavior. Journal of Business and Management, 1(4), 7-12.

12 thoughts on “It’s Not So Bad: Cognitive Dissonance and Cheap Games

  1. Your application is backwards based on the experiment you provided. The test subjects were asked about the job after receiving a high or low payment. They were not asked if they enjoyed the $20 more because they lied for it versus earning it “honestly.” You applied this to your being “paid” DS3. The better question (based on the test you provoked in your article), is how do you feel about SimCity (the boring task piece).

  2. Apply the cognitive dissonance theory to games with monthly fees and you can see why people feel so compelled to keep playing MMOs well after they stop enjoying the games. Admitting that you think a game is actually pretty lame after you’ve paid a year of monthly fees and invested thousands of hours of your time is pretty hard. Many people who quit talk about these games like recovered drug addicts talk about hard drugs.

  3. I think the confusion here is that the two anecdotes are too similar. The second one isn’t really about Simcity, that’s just the setup for the story and opportunity to mention two games. The author omits any feelings on it purposefully.

  4. “Anonymous User” has it pretty much. The Simcity game is irrelevant. The two conflicting thoughts/feelings were “Dead Space 3 is good enough to pay $60 for” and “I’m not enjoying Dead Space 3.” I got the game for free, so I didn’t have the first thought so I didn’t have any cognitive dissonance.

    In an earlier draft of this article I actually did talk about Simcity and the fact that I had paid $60 for it and thus might have convinced myself I enjoyed it more. But I cut that part out because It wrecked the flow of the article and I thought the experience of getting bored with a cheap game in the absence of cognitive dissonance was more interesting. So I took it out except to mention it was how I got Dead Space 3 for free.

  5. It’s a shame you can’t get Deadspace 3 free and a full price copy at the same time and then play them both from the neutral perspective. I got the impression from reviews and blogs that Deadspace 3 wasn’t very good anyway, so maybe not the best game to test this theory on.

    I have met current and recovering WoW players who were amazed I could just give it up when it stopped being fun. It’s a computer game, you play it until you don’t like it and then you stop playing it.

    I also play League of Legends and have never put a penny into it, so that’s as free as free-to-play gets, but despite being pretty poor at the game I play it a lot as it’s fun to play.

    Perhaps I needs to take a Psychology course to understand these article properly

  6. There aren’t really any parallels between the experiment covered here and a video game. The experiment covered a boring, mundane activity that none of the participants actually deliberately chose to do. Yes, they could have gotten up and left the room at any time, but there’s a world of difference between participating in a psychological study and choosing a game to play.

    The overall thesis here also discounts the importance of money relative to the individual. When I was a teenager I shopped bargain basement bins and even if I only played a game for 4-5 hours before I was bored of it, if it was only $5-10, I really didn’t protest much. If I’d paid $60 for a game as a teenager, I might have felt some pressure to rate it as more enjoyable. Now as an adult, paying $60 for a game isn’t really a hardship, so the price point doesn’t factor into my overall assessment of the game. Granted that may be because I’m an extremely careful shopper and read both “professional” reviews and amateur ones before I buy anything from a new IP.

  7. I think it depends on what gamers define as “value” to them. After all, value is pretty subjective. Yet it can be warped by bias. There are times where I have bought DLC and it made me “Wow, did I really do that? Have I let my hardcore collectivist attitude drive me that bad?”

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  9. I agree with Atomic Suplex that the poor quality of DS3 is a factor not fully considered in the experiment.
    I’m sure this dissonance applies to a lot of people, but I wonder if it changes for people who play a lot of games. When I pop a $60 disc in the tray and start playing a bad game, I may be annoyed at wasting $60, but my gaming time is more valuable then that, and I won’t hesitate to shut it off and play something else. Equally, some of the games currently spending the most time in my rotation are free ones.

  10. How can games stop being fun? Ok I get patches, updates, dlc’s and expansions. But I have seen people describe it as game stopped being fun without game changing in any way or form. People stop HAVING fun with the games. So since it is feature of a person not the game I see no problem with dropping games I don’t enjoy anymore.

    And about remorse. It works only if the clause of I paid some sum of money for it is enough to cause psychological tension. More often than not that fact that I don’t have enough to get what I want/need is what causes tension. The tension of spending 60 bucks can be front loaded (you feel tension before purchase) and you only go with it once there is no more remorse. That ay if you don’t like it eventually its two things generally happen: Either I convince myself that I got all the fun the game had to offer or that I misjudged my sources when making decision to buy that game (I made a mistake).

    Or is there general idea that people are not really comfortable with the idea that they can make mistakes?

  11. I find it’s reverse for me: If I spend $60 for a game that sucks I’d return it right away; if I spend $10 for a game that turns out to be good, I’d be more delighted to have it. And more inclined to play it.

    I think what it comes down to is how much is your time worth? It’s interesting that neither the experiment or the game(s) produce any true value.

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