Spreading of Alternatives Without a Perception of Choice

"Spreading of Alternatives Without a Perception of Choice," by Kurt Munz and Vicki Morwitz.

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Choosing something improves a person’s attitude toward it, a classic example of behavior affecting attitudes. Three studies re-examine the causal role of behavior in this “post-choice spreading of alternatives” phenomenon, demonstrating that neither the behavior of choosing nor the self-perception of having made a choice is required for it to occur. A rationalization process similar to the one that follows from actively choosing can occur whenever someone merely accepts an outcome as a true state of affairs. When a person accepts an externally assigned outcome, the negative features of that outcome no longer seem as important, allowing attitudes to improve. People normally accept outcomes they have personally chosen, but they may also accept outcomes they neither chose nor could reject. Thus, we question the causal role of behavior in a classic phenomenon. This finding contradicts explanations for post-choice spreading based on self-perception theory, where people learn their attitudes from their own voluntary behaviors. Though future work would be needed to confirm, we also discuss potential implications for cognitive dissonance theory, suggesting that agency over choice may not be prerequisite for dissonance, as previously believed. Relaxing this prerequisite expands the scope of phenomena to which dissonance theory could potentially apply.