When gift-giving produces dissonance: Effects of subliminal afﬁliation priming on
choices for one's self versus close others
Sasha Y. Kimel
, Igor Grossmann
, Shinobu Kitayama
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA
University of Waterloo, Canada
Received 14 December 2011
Revised 19 April 2012
Available online 23 May 2012
Subliminal afﬁliation priming
Past research on cognitive dissonance indicated that people from independent (e.g. European-American) and
interdependent (e.g. East-Asian) cultural backgrounds show different patterns of choice justiﬁcation: where-
as choice made for oneself afﬁrms the independent view of the self, choice made for close others afﬁrms the
interdependent view of the self. We hypothesized that interpersonal choice considerations may be temporal-
ly accessible even among habitually independent European-Americans. The present research provides the
ﬁrst experimental evidence that choice justiﬁcation varies as a function of both subliminal afﬁliation priming
and the target of choice (self vs. close others). Results from three studies indicate that subliminal priming of
afﬁliation increases justiﬁcation of a choice European-Americans made for a close other, while decreasing
justiﬁcation of a choice made for the self. Implications for theories related to cognitive dissonance, subliminal
processing and cultural meaning systems are discussed.
© 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Behavioral scientists have studied the psychological processes in-
volved in decision-making and choice justiﬁcation for over 50 years
(Brehm, 2007). In his classic experiment, Brehm (1956) asked partici-
pants to choose between two similarly attractive items and found that
participants increased their liking for the chosen item while decreasing
their liking for the rejected item. Subsequent studies have suggested
that such choices can threaten one's image of the self as competent
and thus, evoke “cognitive dissonance”. To reduce this dissonance, par-
ticipants justify their choice by liking the chosen item more and the
rejected item less (Aronson, 1968; Festinger, 1957; Steele & Liu, 1983;
Steele, Spencer, & Lynch, 1993).
Despite cognitive dissonance being a staple in social psychology, it has
recently been found to vary greatly across cultures (Heine & Lehman,
1997; Hoshino-Browne et al., 2005; Imada & Kitayama, 2010; Kitayama,
Snibbe, Markus, & Suzuki, 2004). These variations have been explained
by different degrees of an orientation towards interdependence and so-
cial harmony (Kitayama & Uchida, 2005)amongpeoplefromEast-
Asian and Western cultural backgrounds (e.g. Heine & Norenzayan,
2006; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Oishi & Diener, 2001; Triandis, 1989).
In East-Asian cultures, there is a greater emphasis on maintaining
harmonious social interactions and ﬁtting-in (Morling & Evered, 2006).
As a consequence, worry about making a potentially inconsiderate choice
may result in choice justiﬁcation when making a decision for close-
others. In contrast, in Western cultures, there is a greater emphasis on
self-expression, autonomy and being unique. Thus, worry about making
choice justiﬁcation when making a decision for one's self (Kitayama et
al., 2004). Consistent with this reasoning, Hoshino-Browne et al. (2005)
found that European-Canadians justify choices they make for themselves,
but not ones they make for their friends. In contrast, Asian-Canadians jus-
tify choices they make for their friends, but not ones they make for them-
selves. However, there is an important gap in this literature: it is possible
that socioecological factors unrelatedtosocialorientation(e.g.language,
geography) have contributed to different choice justiﬁcation patterns
across cultures (Oishi & Graham, 2010). Indeed, experimental evidence
linking different patterns of choice justiﬁcation with psychological ten-
dencies representing social orientation (e.g. afﬁliation; Markus &
In order to address this limitation, we drew from social cognition re-
search on conceptual and motivational priming (Bargh & Chartrand,
2000; Bargh, Gollwitzer, Lee-Chai, Barndollar, & Trotschel, 2001; Higgins,
1996; Srull & Wyer, 1979). By taking people from the same socio-
ecological background and presenting them with subtle cues associated
with an interdependent mind-set (e.g. Brewer & Gardner, 1996;
Traﬁmow, Triandis, & Goto, 1991), one can examine its effects on choice
justiﬁcation experimentally. Indeed, evidence is growing that even
though European-Americans are habitually more independent (or less
interdependent), priming them with interdependent concepts explicitly,
temporally promotes interdependent behaviors (for review, see
Oyserman & Lee, 2008).
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48 (2012) 1221–1224
⁎Correspondence to: S.Y. Kimel, University of Michigan, Psychology Department,
530 Church Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109‐1109, USA. Fax: + 1 734 647 9440.
⁎⁎ Correspondence to: I. Grossmann,University of Waterloo,Department of Psychology,
200 University Avenue West, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3G1.Fax: +1 519 746 8631.
E-mail addresses: email@example.com (S.Y. Kimel), firstname.lastname@example.org
The ﬁrst two authors contributed equally to this research.
0022-1031/$ –see front matter © 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/jesp
Building on this work, we examined howchoice justiﬁcation is mod-
erated by both an interdependent social orientation and the target of
choice (self vs.close others). To activate an interdependent social orien-
tation, we used a subliminal procedure for priming afﬁliation. Bargh and
colleagues have demonstrated that when European-Americans are sub-
liminally exposed to words linked to afﬁliation and interdependence
(vs. neutral words), they subsequently mimicked interaction partners
more (Lakin & Chartrand, 2003) and were more cooperative (Bargh et
al., 2001; see Chartrand, Maddux, & Lakin, 2005, for review). This proce-
dure is not only powerful but it also reduces possible demand effects
(Bargh & Chartrand, 2000).
Here, we report three studies. In Study 1, we subliminally primed
European-Americans with afﬁliation (vs. neutral) words to examine
whether this would decrease choice justiﬁcation after making a choice
for oneself. In Study 2, we sought to replicate the results from Study 1
using different choice-items while examining whether European-
Americans primed with afﬁliation would display more choice justiﬁca-
tion when spontaneously making a choice for themselves (vs. a close-
other). Finally, in Study 3 we examined priming effects for participants
who were explicitly instructed to make a choice for a close-other and
not for themselves.
In Study 1, we examined our prediction that subliminally priming
European-Americans with afﬁliation (vs. neutral) cues would result
in less choice justiﬁcation when making a choice for themselves.
46 European-Americans (14 males, 32 females; M
=1.35) at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor were recruited
to participate in a “music survey”in exchange for $8.
Procedure and stimuli
Upon arrival for the alleged “music survey,”participants were unex-
pectedly asked to participate in another unrelated study on “visual acu-
ity”for an additional $2. All participants agreed to do so. Following the
procedure used by Lakin and Chartrand (2003), participants were
instructed to quicklyand accurately respond to brief ﬂashes on different
sides of a 15 min screen using keys labeled “left”/“right”. After six prac-
tice trials, participants were randomly assigned to the: a) Afﬁliation-
prime or b) Neutral-prime condition. In the afﬁliation condition, partic-
ipants were cued with the words afﬁliate,friend,partner,together.In
total, 80 trials were presented, with the four words each appearing 20
times in a random order. In the neutral condition, participants were
cued with the words neutral and background 40 times in a random
order over 80 trials. The words were presented for 62 ms, followed by
“XQFBZRMQWGBX”for another 62 ms.
Next, participants completed the standard free-choice dissonance
paradigm (Brehm, 1956; Steele et al., 1993) which was disguised as a
music marketing survey sponsored by a CD company. Our procedure
was closely modeled after previous studies by Kitayama et al. (2004).
First, participantsviewed a binder of30 popular CDs that had been pre-
tested to reﬂect college students' preferences and selected 10 that they
would like to have but did not already own. They then ranked them by
preference. Next, during an alleged music survey, the experimenter
interrupted participants to say that the company was offering them
free CD but that there were only two left in stock, from which they
could pickone to keep. In each case, the two CDs were the ones that par-
ticipants had rank-ordered as their ﬁfth and sixth favorites. After addi-
tional ﬁller tasks, participants were told that the company was
interested in music preferences when customers leave a store and
thus, when CDs are no longer visually present. Participants ranked the
10 CDs again according to their preferences at that very moment.
Finally, they completed demographics and were probed for generalsus-
picion as well as awareness of the primes using the recommended fun-
nel interview procedure (Bargh & Chartrand, 2000). Using this method,
participants only mentioned random letters or non-English words and
not the actual primes. According to Bargh and colleagues, this suggests
that the primes were indeed subliminal (Bargh & Chartrand, 2000;
Chartrand & Bargh, 1996).
In line with previous work (Hoshino-Browne et al., 2005; Steele et
al., 1993), we deﬁned degree of choice justiﬁcation or the “spread of
alternatives”(SA) for each participant in terms of the increase in lik-
ing of chosen CD plus the decrease in liking of rejected CD. Consistent
with other researchers, ranking was used as the measure of liking
(e.g. Kitayama et al., 2004; Lee & Schwarz, 2010).
Consistent with our predictions and with previous research, par-
ticipants in the neutral condition showed a choice justiﬁcation effect
signiﬁcantly greater than zero (M= 1.78, SD= 2.10, t(26) =4.40,
pb.001). Importantly, this was not the case in the afﬁliation condition
(M=.42, SD= 1.98, t(18)b1, ns). The results of an ANOVA indicated a
signiﬁcant difference between the two conditions, F(1,44) =4.87,
=.1. We found no gender effects (Fsb1, ns).
The aim of Study 2 was to conceptually replicate the ﬁndings in
Study 1 using different choice-items. Further, we examined the effects
of afﬁliation priming when participants spontaneously made a choice
for themselves versus for close-others. This quasi-experimental method
was used in order to observe naturally occurring choice behaviors. We
predicted less choice justiﬁcation in the afﬁliation (vs. neutral) condi-
tion for those who made a choice for the self and more choice justiﬁca-
tion in the afﬁliation (vs. neutral) condition for those who made a
choice for a close-other.
79 European-American undergraduates (33 males, 46 females;
=1.61) at the University of Michigan were rec-
ruited to participate in a “toy and game survey”in exchange for $8.
Procedure and materials
We used a conceptually similar procedure to Study 1 with two
modiﬁcations. First, we adopted toys as choice-items (see Fig. 1 for
examples) to increase the likelihood of spontaneous choice for friends
since toys are often purchased as gifts. Second, we determined if par-
ticipants had spontaneously made the choice for themselves or for
signiﬁcant others by having them indicate if they planned to give
the toy as a gift to someone else.
One third of the participants chose the toy for themselves (n= 28)
and the other two-thirds chose it for a close-other (n= 51). Thus, our
attempt to increase the likelihood of choice for friend by adopting
toys as choice options was successful. Preliminary analyses indicated
no gender effect (Fb1, ns) or gender-related interactions (Fsb2, ns).
A2(afﬁliation vs. neutral)×2 (self‐choice vs. other-choice) ANOVA
with SA as the dependent variable showed a signiﬁcant interaction
between condition and type of choice, F(1,75)=5.33, p=.02, η
Consistent with Study 1, participants who reported making a self-
choice showed greater choice justiﬁcation in the neutral (M=3.75,
SD=2.37) versus afﬁliation condition (M=1.93, SD =2.20, F(1,26)=
4.33, pb.05, η
=.14). However, other-choice participants showed a
1222 S.Y. Kimel et al. / Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48 (2012) 1221–1224
reversed trend, with more SA in the afﬁliation condition (M=2.45,
SD=2.7 8) than in the neutral condition (M= 1.35, SD =2.73;
F(1,49) = 1.82, ns). Further, and consistent with previous research
(Hoshino-Browne et al., 2005), in the neutral condition self-choice
participants showed substantially greater choice justiﬁcation than
other-choice participants (Ms= 3.75 vs. 1.35, F(1,37)= 6.42, p=.02,
=.15). Although the trend was reversed in the afﬁliation condition,
the effect was statistically trivial (Ms= 1.93 vs. 2.45), Fb1.
Because Study 2 was a quasi-experiment in which participants retro-
spectively reported whom they had made the choice for, there are ambi-
guities in the interpretation. Although participants might subsequently
report that they had made the choice for their friend, they may have ac-
tually made the choice for themselves. This may explain, in part, why we
failed to obtain strong evidence for the prediction that those making a
choice for a close-others would show greater justiﬁcation in the afﬁlia-
tion (vs. neural) condition. Study 3 was conducted to address this.
In Study 3, we explicitly instructed participants to make a choice for
a close-other. We predicted that European-Americans who made a
choice for someone else would show greater choice justiﬁcation in the
afﬁliation (vs. neutral) condition.
77 European-American undergraduates (35 males, 32 females;
=1.53) at the University of Michigan participated
in exchange for $8.
Procedure and materials
Participants were asked to make a choice for a close-other. Follow-
ing previous research (Hoshino-Browne et al., 2005), participants
chose a close-person (e.g. cousin, siblings) that they would want to
give a toy to and then ranked the toys according to this person's as-
sumed preferences. Participants were then told that the survey spon-
sor was providing one toy to give as a gift and that the chosen one
would be mailed to their close-person.
Consistent with the results from Study 2, participants in the afﬁliation
condition (M=2.21,SD =2.11)showed a substantiallygreaterjustiﬁca-
tion effect than those in the neutral condition (M=1.15, SD=2.27)
when explicitly choosing for a close-friend, F(1,66)=20.13, pb.05,
=.06. We found no gender effects or gender-related interactions
In the present studies, we found support for our hypothesis that af-
ﬁliation orientation inﬂuences choice justiﬁcation. When European-
Americans were primed with afﬁliation, they justiﬁed choices made
for themselves less (Studies 1–2) than choices made for their friends
(Studies 2–3). This pattern is analogous with that typically found
among more interdependently-oriented East-Asians. By manipulating
social orientation directly, we provide the ﬁrst experimental evidence
for what cultural psychologists have proposed but have not yet tested.
The present research provides a direct demonstration of how subtle
social cues can moderate choice justiﬁcation by showing that
dissonance-related behaviors can be either increased or decreased
among European-Americans depending on the target of the choice (e.g.
self or other). Further, it contributes to a recent debate on the ‘reality’
of cognitive dissonance in the free-choice paradigm. Some researchers
have suggested that dissonance may be based on methodological arti-
facts such as non-random selection of chosen vs. rejected items and cul-
tural differences in preferences for consistency (Chen & Risen, 2010).
However, this argument cannot explain why afﬁliation versus neutral
priming increased close-other related choice rationalization among
European-Americans. Instead, our ﬁndings suggest that important psy-
chological mechanisms are in fact at play.
We have hypothesized that when making a choice for the self, people
justify it in order to reduce concerns about their own competence. Our
results suggest that priming an interdependent social orientation re-
duces the salience of this concern. Indeed, previous research suggests
that in individualistic cultures, greater interdependence is negatively re-
lated to pursuit of self-centered rewards (Kitayama & Park, 2012) and
that reminders of values beyond one's immediate self (e.g. social life) al-
lows one to transcend egocentric concerns (Crocker, Niiya, &
Mischkowski, 2008). Future work should examine in further detail why
interdependent motivations produce these choice justiﬁcation effects.
Our ﬁndings broaden the priming literature in two important
ways. First, we found that subliminal cueing of interdependence
via afﬁliation words leads not only to interdependent behaviors
(e.g. mimicry, cooperation; Bargh et al., 2001; Lakin & Chartrand,
2003) but also to changes in such complex processes as those in-
volved in choice justiﬁcation. Second, we provide initial evidence
that social orientation can be activated using a subtle subliminal
procedure. Future work should explore whether subliminal priming
of independence-related concepts (e.g. competition; Weyers,
Mühlberger, Kund, Hess, & Pauli, 2009) would lead to comparable
shifts in choice rationalization among East-Asians.
One important limitation of the present work is that, although the
participants across our three studies were reasonably comparable,
some of our studies involved different choice items while one made
use of a quasi-experimental design. Therefore, future work would
beneﬁt from concurrent manipulation of both afﬁliation orientation
and the recipient of choice (e.g. self and other). Further, the ﬁeld is
still uncertain about how subliminal afﬁliation priming works. For in-
stance, it might be due to semantic concept accessibility or, instead, to
direct changes in afﬁliation motivation (Custers, 2010; Higgins,
1996). Future work should address this question.
To conclude, we wish to emphasize that European-Americans are
capable of behaviors reﬂecting interpersonal considerations. Thus, one
could argue that the portrait of European-Americans as independent
and self-centered is somewhat exaggerated. Nevertheless, it is striking
that other-oriented behaviors became evident only when individuals
were primed with afﬁliation. This suggests that,in independent cultural
contexts, these behaviors may be seen as discretionary. We believe that
this should be considered during social engineering efforts to improve
the pro-sociality of public service professionals (e.g. doctors,educators).
Fig. 1. Example toys for Study 2.
1223S.Y. Kimel et al. / Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48 (2012) 1221–1224
This research was supported by the International Max Plank Re-
search LIFE Fellowship, and by the University of Michigan Rackham
Predoctoral Fellowship both awarded to Igor Grossmann and NSF
grant 2007:BCS 0717982 awarded to Shinobu Kitayama. The views
presented here are not necessarily those of NSF.
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