Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 43;   October 24, 2012: Fooling Ourselves

Fooling Ourselves

by

Humans have impressive abilities to convince themselves of things that are false. One explanation for this behavior is the theory of cognitive dissonance.
Three Card Monte, Jaffa, Israel

Three Card Monte, Jaffa, Israel. Three Card Monte is a con game, usually played on street corners. For an explanation and demonstration, see the video at YouTube, by MisMag822. One of the fundamental principles of many con games is clever exploitation of cognitive dissonance. These games establish in the "mark" a desire to prevail based not on knowledge of the game, but rather on avoiding the unpleasantness of the reality that the play of the con artist is superior to the skill of the mark. Photo courtesy Wikipedia, by ZioDave.

When we simultaneously hold two conflicting beliefs, values, or emotional responses, we're said to be in a state of cognitive dissonance. The theory of cognitive dissonance predicts that in such states, we're driven to resolve the dissonance, sometimes in unexpected ways. Aesop's fable of the fox and the grapes is a classic example. Upon discovering some grapes hanging out of reach, and failing to retrieve them after much effort, the fox decides they aren't worth eating, whence comes our metaphor, sour grapes. The fox resolves the dissonance between its desire for grapes and its unwillingness to acknowledge its failure, by removing — without evidence — the desirability of the grapes.

Here are two examples of applying cognitive dissonance theory to workplace behavior.

If you can't do it, we'll find somebody who can
Upon being told that a task is impossible, some supervisors respond with this threat: Do what I ask, or I'll replace you. But it's far more sophisticated than a simple threat. In adhering to the position that the task is impossible, the subordinate would risk a demonstration that someone else is more capable. Since most people would find that outcome deeply troubling, the supervisor is here attempting to place the subordinate in a cognitively dissonant state. For the subordinate, the two conflicting thoughts are (a) the task is impossible and (b) my supervisor is implying that someone else can complete the task, and is therefore more capable than I.
There are at least Some organizations remain
committed to failed
efforts even though
they've clearly failed
three ways out. First, the subordinate can let the supervisor find a replacement, which could potentially lead to demonstrated success and the subordinate's termination. Second, the subordinate can look for alternative employment, while pretending to accept the impossible task. Third, the subordinate can decide that the task is possible. Most choose the latter, because the first two choices are so unpleasant.
Good money after bad
Some organizations remain committed to failed efforts even though they've clearly failed. Two common explanations for such behavior are that the advocates of the effort have a personal interest in continuing the effort, or that they've "lost their objectivity." These mechanisms sometimes apply, but cognitive dissonance can also be important.
Persisting in failed efforts can arise from dissonance between two ideas. First, there is the cherished vision of long ago, namely that the now-failing effort would produce dramatic success. Second is the thought that the effort is indeed failing. To resolve this conflict, advocates of failed efforts can accept failure, and then find a way to believe that their vision capabilities remain powerful, which can be difficult to prove. Alternatively, they can reject the evidence of failure. Many choose the latter, and for them, the project continues. To make that choice, they must find justifications, some of which are both transparently self-serving and transparently incorrect.

Three common explanations of the resolution behavior associated with cognitive dissonance are stupidity, lying, and hypocrisy. All are valid at times, but they're probably overused. Cognitive dissonance is at work at least some of the time. Go to top Top  Next issue: Managing Non-Content Risks: Part I  Next Issue

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