Fortifying Words, Corrosive Numbers

What makes young people open to the idea of divorce? What makes them resistant to that idea? Psychologist Daniel R. Stalder of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater offers illuminating answers to these questions in a new study of how “cognitive dissonance” affects marital thinking. “Cognitive dissonance,” Stalder explains, “is a psychological discom-fort created by an inconsistency or contradiction among one’s thoughts or behaviors that one is then motivated to reconcile.” Stalder expects to find such dissonance in a modern world in which, “despite the popular-ity of marriage and despite vows and desires of lifetime commitment, many marriages end in divorce, with serious consequences for marital partners and their children.” To identify more precisely how such dissonance develops and how young people deal with that dissonance, Stalder analyzed how the thinking of 81 single undergraduate psychology students toward divorce reflects two very different influences: 1) reminders of the binding significance of “traditional (divorce-inconsistent) wedding vows”; 2) comparative statistical information about divorce rates in twenty-first-century America. Randomly selected students were exposed to one or both of these influences; then all responded to a 16-point survey about their attitudes toward divorce. Stalder’s subsequent analysis finds significantly “less acceptability” toward divorce among students who had been exposed to both influences than among students who were only exposed to the divorce statistics: that is, students who were reminded of the vows and exposed to “social-comparison (divorce-rate) information” were significantly more resistant to divorce than were students who were exposed to the divorce-rate statistics but had not been reminded about wedding vows (p < 0.05). Since religious doctrine and ritual typically reinforce wedding vows and regularly remind worshippers of the weight of these vows, it is not surprisin
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