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Festive Cognitive Dissonance

December 8, 2009

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.”

11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2009 9:06 am

    As someone who has boycotted most a) office Christmas parties and b) prom opportunies, I propose banning the whole lot.

    That said, the two have more in common than it might appear. Is not the point of both to snog people in a drunken stupor and be embarrassed about it the next day?

    May I add another category to the genre “excessive”? American weddings. (I say “American” because European brides appear to display much more taste and moderation than their Bridezilla sisters across the pond.)

    • December 9, 2009 10:03 am

      Don’t get me started on weddings. A friend of mine is the manager of a historic home that plays host to several weddings a year and he always has wonderful stories.

      My current favourite? The wedding procession that was just a little disorganized because the bride insisted that her dog be the ringbearer.

  2. December 10, 2009 8:10 am

    The most recent wedding reception I attended about four years ago, had over 500 people, and was in a mountain-top restaurant accessible only by cable-car – all paid for by the bridal couple or parents. The enormous costs of this reception can only be imagined.

    Sadly, the bridal couple divorced after less than 18 months. But each is now happily domiciled with Another.

    Talk about a bad return on investment!!!

  3. December 10, 2009 5:54 pm

    I didn’t go to a single school dance.

    I can understand why prom is more recession proof than a holiday party. Prom is both rite and ritual, holiday party might just be ritual.

    There’s gotta be as many if not more coworkers who have become friends as there are high school juniors and seniors whose friends are not classmates.

  4. December 12, 2009 6:58 pm

    Far more sophisticated tastes.

    That statement reminds me that I’m grouped in with a generation who likes glittery vampires, music made possibly only with auto-tune, the expectation of a *new* car at one’s 16th birthday, more horrid music, and the incessant need for approval over the Internet.

    Not that I don’t partake in the last one, but!

    Also, here’s some cognitive dissonance for you: If so many seniors are concerned about prom planning rather than their futures, isn’t it a little concerning how so many college graduates can’t get jobs?

  5. December 27, 2009 2:40 pm

    I’m feeling a bit cognitively dissonant about that $1,400 wastebasket.

    After all, the money was paid to a company who produces wastebaskets, who, in turn, used part of it to pay their workers. Part of that part then turned into expendable cash for their kids.

    Ergo, buying expensive wastebaskets helps the poor. In a way, my tax money if well spent if it goes towards ridiculous bonuses for the fat cats. After all, they’ll just blow it on expensive junk, thus paying the salaries of the workers who produce it.

    So on the one hand, I guess I should be mad about that wastebasket, but on the other hand I can’t quite get my ire up over stuff like that.

    • December 27, 2009 8:47 pm

      I hadn’t thought of that. Similarly, if executive salaries were cut, there would no longer be a market for $1400 wastebaskets and more workers would be out of job. But then again, how large a work force is needed to produce wastebaskets in that price range.

      • December 27, 2009 11:30 pm

        I guess the $1,400 don’t just go to the company who produces the darn wastebaskets, but also to its supply companies and their workers. There may be a whole chain of companies involved in producing components for such basket. Bottom line, a chunk of the 1,400 bucks will go to pay workers’ salaries, and part of it may end up in the pocket of the wastebasket company CEO, who, in turn, will spend it on gilded toothpicks or something.

        Our tendency is to look askance at the greedy big shot for buying a second yacht he doesn’t need; for spending all this money on “himself.” But in the end, the money (or a good part of it) will go to paying the salaries of those who have less; those who’d be out of work if the greedy big shots at Goldmann had not gotten their outrageous bonuses and used them to buy second yachts and stuff.

        On the other hand, it’s precisely those greedy bastards that brought down the economy. I don’t know. It all seems to be very complicated. Far more complicated than getting upset over expensive garbage receptacles.

        • December 28, 2009 10:17 am

          True, but isn’t that all really just an ex post facto justification of a system which may or may not be deeply flawed? If we could design an ‘optimal’ economic system, I don’t think that people at the bottom of the food chain assembling 1400 wastebaskets would be dependent on the whims of the people who, because of luck, connections or rapacity can afford them?

          What I haven’t been able to discover is what abou that stupid wastebasket made it so expensive. Was it made of ivory? Endangered wood? Carved by a craftsman? All those questions add further complexity to the question.

  6. December 28, 2009 1:03 pm

    Perhaps it was signed by Barry Bonds. Who knows. (Yes, it’s a “who” sentence, but somehow a period feels more appropriate than a quesion mark.)

    As is the case with government, there probably is no such thing as an “optimal” economic system, only a best of the bad ones. Both Marxism and capitalism sound perfect in theory. Add in the human nature component, and either way you’ll end up with a wealth disparity between the rich and the poor that makes the Grand Canyon look like a hairline crack by comparison. In order to even out the disparity, more and stricter laws are needed, i.e., ever-growing government interference, which is precisely what the United States was designed to prevent from happening.

    Not easy.

    • December 28, 2009 3:14 pm

      Who indeed. Period or comma, I’m not sure!

      Yes, it is the human element that derails these perfect systems. I think Darwin might enter into it somewhere, too.

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