Cognitive dissonance

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.

Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency. An individual who experiences inconsistency (dissonance) tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and is motivated to try to reduce this dissonance — as well as actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it.

When we mess up, particularly on big issues, our self-esteem is threatened, we feel uncomfortable.

Two choices:

  1. Accept that we were wrong. Our judgement was faulty. This is difficult to do. It threatens us. We realise that maybe we are not always as smart as we think we are.
  2. Denial. Reframe the evidence. Filter it. Spin it. Ignore it. This way we can carry on under the comfortable assumption that we were right all along. What evidence?!

There are big examples of this. The Iraq war and it’s weapons of mass destruction. The guys that started that war knew there were probably nothing as early as 2003 but after months arguing for war based on WMD it was difficult to just acknowledge that this was bad judgement. Not that the lack of WMD means that the intervention in Iraq was a mistake in itself, but it did weaken its legitimacy given that WMD was central to its justification.

It is worth noting that there is a relationship between the ambiguity of a failure and cognitive dissonance. When an aeroplane goes down, it’s difficult to pretend that the system worked just fine. The failure is too catastrophic. The physical world says you are going wrong!

Most failure is however not like that. Most failure can be given a makeover. It can be justified. It’s a one-off, unique, we did everything we could. There are statistics that can be manipulated to justify our case.

Physical failure we cannot talk away. We however have to find ways to make “justifiable” failure unthreatening within our organisations because if we don’t we can no longer learn from it.

Cognitive dissonance happens to good, motivated people. We are wired for it. Its a coping mechanism. So accept it is there and make your culture so open and honest that it minimises the need for people to “cope” through denial.

This will greatly increase your chances of capturing those valuable learnings in your incident management software blackbox!

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