Festive Cognitive Dissonance
Today I thought I was experiencing an interesting episode of cognitive dissonance. That term gets thrown about quite a bit, so I figured I’d check it in the dictionary to make sure I had it right.
Sure enough, my dictionary defines cognitive dissonance as psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.
That pretty much describes it, except technically, I didn’t hold the incongruous attitudes—I was just reading about them.
Incongruous Idea Number One was encountered in an article about how businesses, because of the recession, were being forced to cut back on Christmas parties.
A lot of my friends say that they aren’t too bothered by that. They would rather their employer just give them the money that they would have spent on a Christmas party. Their attitude is “I see my co-workers day in and day out. No offense, but I’d rather celebrate Christmas with people I associate with by choice.”
Nevertheless, the office Christmas party is pretty much a social institution and apparently during the boom time, extravagant parties became de rigeur.
But times have changed. John Thain, who used to be the CEO of Merrill Lynch was quoted in the article as saying “Everyone is pretty sensitized to the fact that excessive consumption or excessive anything is not acceptable.”
He should know. In his last year at Merrill Lynch he earned $84 million. That’s $40,385 per hour if he worked a normal work week (but a more reasonable $9500 per hour–if he worked 24 hours a day all year). He also made headlines because he had a $1400 wastebasket in his office.
A lot of firms are showing this new sensitivity to excessive consumption.
Goldman Sachs, still feeling bad about wanting to pay $16 billion in bonuses after getting a government bailout, announced with some fanfare that they have cancelled their Christmas party for the second year in a row.
So the picture looks pretty bleak and some companies are worried about the devastating effect on morale that Christmas party cancellation will have.
One wonders about the morale of the people who won’t be going to a company Christmas party because they don’t have a job.
Then I happened upon Incongruous Idea Number Two. It took the form of an article on out of control spending on high school balls and proms. The article called the prom support business a ‘recession proof industry.’
The article didn’t say if companies in that industry are still having Christmas parties, but it did say that parents are spending large on end of school parties, proms and balls. You would think that modern parents would have enough to worry about already, but now they have to make the cruel decision—fork out a lot of money or let your kid be consigned to the world of the irredeemably uncool.
This is current news in the southern hemisphere, where it is the end of the school year and where the recession is as persistent as in the north. But the market for high school formal attire alone grew by nine percent, and that is just in Sydney.
A survey of kids revealed that girls spend on average $1300 and boys spent $840 on prom prep and bling. Clearly there is an untapped market for accessories for the boys.
Where is the money going? In addition to fancy gowns, other must have items on the shopping list include makeovers, artificial tans, a photographer and a limo. And these dos aren’t held in the school gym. Fancy downtown hotels are doing proms in the ballrooms where they have wedding receptions. In fact because more people graduate from high school than get married, the hospitality industry is thinking that the prom business will be bigger than their wedding business.
Think about that for a minute.
The article continued by saying that for 77% of the kids surveyed, prom planning was the number one thing on their mind when they started their last year of high school. So much for having your whole life ahead of you.
And here is where it gets really interesting and where the cognitive dissonance with Incongruous Idea Number One comes in. The article talks about a book called Prom Night: Youth, Schools and Popular Culture by Amy Best. The book states that the growth of the prom industry was the result of “the rising purchasing power of youth culture.”
A guy who is cashing in by starting a prom franchise business agrees. “. . . teenagers of today have more expendable cash than previous generations . . . and far more sophisticated tastes.”
From a psychological perspective, I may have crossed over from cognitive dissonance to post-traumatic stress disorder after trying to process that statement. One has to ask where this expendable cash is coming from. Unless McDonalds is paying more than we think, it’s got to be coming from the parents whose companies are cancelling Christmas parties.
Am I the only one who sees a problem here?
And that’s before we even begin to address the question of “far more sophisticated tastes.”