“I read Playboy for the articles”


Zoe Chance and Michael Norton have a delightful book chapter on the very creative ways in which people justify their questionable decisions. They report an experiment in which male participants were given a choice between subscriptions to two sport magazines. One covered more sports while the other had more featured articles. More interestingly, it was also mentioned that one of the magazines had a swimsuit edition (cf. figure : it should be noted that I only browsed through covers of swimsuit editions in order to find an illustration for this post). Want to take a guess at which magazine the participants preferred?

Boys being boys, they tended to pick the one with the advertized swimsuit edition, irrespective of its other features. This would hardly make the headlines (it's the reason there are swimsuit editions in the first place). More to the point, people felt compelled to justify their choice in a way that would be more acceptable than "I want to look at hot girls in bikini"…

As a result, when asked how much they valued the features of the two magazines, they tended to say that the feature on which the magazine with the swimsuit edition was stronger was the most important feature-whichever that feature was.

The paper is well worth a read because it also provides a concise summary of the experiments documenting the many ways in which people justify their morally dubious decisions.



Even though they don't mention it, all of this research fits in very nicely with Jon Haidt's proposal that moral reasoning is mostly designed for post-hoc rationalizations and persuading other people of the rightfulness of our decisions, rather than for making morally sound decisions.

All of this research might be taken as showing that people are hypocrites only concerned with alleviating their own conscience rather than making morally good decisions. Thus, Chance and Norton conclude that "We would likely not want to be the partner, roommate, or subordinate of a person comfortable sacrificing truth for personal happiness." However, even those rather lax moral standards that we are so good at finding our way around are better than nothing. I'd much rather be friend with someone who at least realizes that some of her decisions are questionable and tries to provide justification for them than with someone who doesn't care at all. The first person may sometimes face a decision that she would find so hard to justify that she just doesn't make it. Moreover, these justifications may play an important role in smoothing relationships. Most people will never live in complete agreement with their moral standards-I doubt it would be a desirable outcome in any case-but by offering justifications for their failures, they can at least implicitly acknowledge them as such and offer other people the opportunity to question them.



Chance, Zoe and Michael I. Norton. "I Read Playboy for the Articles: Justifying and Rationalizing Questionable Preferences." In The Interplay of Truth and Deception, edited by M. S. McGlone and M. L. Knapp. Routledge, 2008

Hat tip: The Economist through Mind Hacks


  • comment-avatar
    Olivier Morin 15 November 2009 (20:52)

    Fascinating stuff! (Being the guy who checks the number of readers for this blog every week, I must congratulate you on your choice of topic and picture…) I have an empirical question: would subjects who chose their magazine on the basis of its cover, not of its content, show more interest for sport and sport magazines than subjects who chose their magazine on the basis of its content, irrespective of the cover? For example, the subjects of the first group (those who were influenced by the cover girl) might be more, and not less, ready to spend money on another sport magazine (cover undisclosed) or suscription, or declare greater interest in sports, etc. This, of course, is a straightforward prediction of cognitive dissonance theory, but a quite counter-intuitive one, as it predicts that those subjects who pay less attention to the sportive content of the magazines would profess more interest in sport. My bet is on the counter-intuitive prediction.

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    Hugo Mercier 16 November 2009 (16:41)

    Interesting prediction, but I’m not sure that would actually work. A strong hypocrisy manipulation might do something. For instance, one could tell participants that they say feature X is very important, and then give them an opportunity to act on this basis by buying another subscription. But it’s not clear why people who have rated feature X as more important not because they like it but as a pretext would feel more compelled to act in a manner that is coherent with their disclosed preference. Moreover in this case cognitive dissonance is likely to be weak because the lie is very mild and has no bad consequences for anybody (not directly at least).

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    Neuro Skeptic 25 November 2009 (17:12)

    This reminds me of a classic experiment finding that people will invent reasons why they perceive a certain face as more attractive than another – even if they don’t [url=http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2005Sci…310..116J]Johansson et al 2005[/url]

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    Jap Dhesi 30 November 2009 (15:53)

    Surely all this experiment shows is the classic social desirability bias. Men don’t want to appear to be so superficial as to “read” magazines because there are skimpily clad women in them.

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    Dan Sperber 30 November 2009 (19:58)

    Right, Jap, “men don’t want to appear to be so superficial as to “read” magazines because there are skimpily clad women in them,” but are they just being hypocritical or are they deluding themselves about their own motivations (which would be more interesting)? Even if it is mere hypocrisy, it is not inconsequential either from a cultural, or from a psychological point of view. Hypocrisy,” to quote la Rochefoucauld, “is the homage which vice pays to virtue.” As such, it reinforces culturally sanctioned ‘virtues” and it put people – in the present case, men – in a dilemma: either they can find some apparent justification for their choices, or their choices become less comfortable, to the point where, sometimes, they end up changing them.

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    Jap Dhesi 3 January 2010 (13:05)

    I agree Dan it would be much more interesting if they are deluding themselves even though hypocrisy is a valid subject of investigation. Although the two are not mutually exclusive; people don’t like being hypocritical which itself might lead to self-delusion.

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    Paul Thiem 24 April 2010 (01:39)

    great pic… but I’d rather see a brunette. 😀