They’re Coming to Save Us. Any Minute Now.

The term Cognitive Dissonance first appeared in 1956 and was coined by Leon Festinger to describe the mental stress caused by holding two incompatible beliefs at the same time. Festinger and his fellow researchers had infiltrated a doomsday cult that believed the world was ending, and that they were going to be rescued. Some group members sold their homes and some left marriages and jobs to go and meet a spacecraft and travel to the planet Clarion. On the designated night, their expected mode of transport did not appear. The clock ticked. Some of the group began to look worried. Goodness, what to do?

One member of the group realised he’d been a fool, slunk home, and begged forgiveness. The rest doubled down. They proclaimed that they had just received another message. It said that they had spread so much light, that the God of Earth had decided to spare the planet from destruction.

There are still plenty of examples of this ‘doubling down’ to be witnessed. We wonder why facts are not persuasive and where some groups find credulous followers. Are human beings that stupid? we ask, as we watch the news. We wonder why people who should admit they have messed up, find it so hard to do so. We think they are embarrassed. It is far more likely they have simply adjusted the two incompatible thoughts in their head – and made themselves OK.

This is because it is hard for us to say, I have made a mistake in my thinking. Mark Twain famously noted, ‘it is easier to fool the people, than to convince them that they have been fooled.’ Why? Because then we would have to admit we were fooled. It is easier to double down. Conmen and scammers understand this very well.

But it must be stated that we all experience cognitive dissonance, and that we are all capable of deluding ourselves to resolve some mental stress. We put ourselves at further ease by only being around people who agree with us and selecting media that supports our thinking. It can be very comfortable.  

Of course, we could apply critical thinking to our assumptions. We could expose ourselves to ideas that go against our well-watered opinions. We could just look at ourselves occasionally and ask, could it be me? Did I contribute to that problem? Did I make a mistake? What spaceship to Planet Clarion have I been waiting for? But that would be – uncomfortable. And who wants that?

Some years ago, a colleague convened the Cognitive Dissonance Club to ponder this human habit. It was also a good excuse for lunchtime beers. We have been talking lately because he’s going through quite a bit of cognitive dissonance. He was working on a project where his considerable brain was not welcome. After a career in which he was valued for constructive criticism, it was confusing to suddenly be viewed as an obstruction. He won’t be going back, and I pity the organisation that has just lost him. Moreover, I pity the public that assumes this organisation is managed with safety in mind, and employs wise, careful people.

He is, as always, prepared to ask the hardest question; is it me? I am fairly certain the answer is no, but I do suspect he was in the wrong place. It is optimistic to think that all managers want to be challenged or hear about potential problems. If you enjoy thinking you’re right, then being warned about problems causes cognitive dissonance and cognitive dissonance, we know, is unwelcome mental stress. Knobs will be adjusted to make the picture right and end the annoying fuzziness. My old colleague had become annoying fuzziness. This organisation is on a dangerous path, and no-one will be arriving from Planet Clarion to fix the mess.

In the meantime, we need to reconvene The Cognitive Dissonance club. We all need a beer, urgently.