Cognitive dissonance and its effect on programmers

Daniel Irvine
Aug 22, 2017 · 3 min read

I want to explain cognitive dissonance by way of a topical example. I’ll explain how I believe the Google Dudebro, James Damore, has been trapped by his own dissonance. Now my theory could be completely wrong on this — he could simply be an asshole instead — but I like to think that he’s just a bit confused.

When I first read Jame Damore’s memo, my first thought was “what happened to him?” Something must have triggered this shockingly ill-considered outburst. It was a reaction, not an action.

Unfortunately this is a common pattern in software. But thankfully you can learn to spot it.

The tell-tale sign is the irrational argument cobbled together by a normally rational person. An argument containing logical fallacies to which the author seems completely blind, and results in an absurd, contrary, extreme point of view.

It’s a mental ‘lashing-out’ that occurs as a result of cognitive dissonance between their ego and the real world.

The reaction is the most visible part of a process, but here’s what came before it:

  1. Someone says or does something unintentionally horrible, such as making a sexist or racist remark. The unintentional part is important. If someone is intentionally a jerk, then none of this applies.
  2. They are called out and reprimanded for their behaviour.
  3. This person is confronted with the reality that they did something wrong. This conflicts with their own internal belief that they would never do anything wrong — they are, after all, a conscientious person with strong morals.
    This is cognitive dissonance: on one hand they believe that they never do anything wrong, and on the other hand is the fact that they actually did something wrong.
  4. The cognitive dissonance can be resolved in two ways: either the person realises that they are not perfect, or they invent an argument to prove that reality is wrong. In our scenario, this person double-downs on their original position. They seek out an argument which ‘proves’ that they were never wrong in the first place, and present it as a cold, hard fact.

That’s why when I see this pattern I always ask myself “what happened to this person?” These kinds of outbursts don’t come out of nowhere.

Dealing with the mess

Google now have a serious challenge ahead of them. Picking up the pieces is a difficult thing.

There’s an analogy here in the software craft community, which I wrote about last week. One of our founding members, Bob Martin, stood up for James Damore in a post on his widely-read blog. This post caused a huge amount of shock and condemnation from within the community.

Faced with being told he was wrong, Bob decided the best thing to do would be double-down on his original approach and has since posted another two blog posts in which he claims he was never wrong but simply misunderstood. The word ‘sorry’ does not appear once in either of these blog posts.

This stance makes the problem much, much worse.

A better solution would have simply to have posted: “I’ve reflected on my previous posts and I realise now that I’ve made a horrible mistake. I’m sorry. I’m working on improving myself.

This would have given the community and Bob a place to repair from. Unfortunately we now faced with the daunting task of severing ties.

Can Google truly recover from James Damore? For many outsiders, Google’s culture is clearly toxic and shows no sign of changing.

Building a culture of ‘sorry’

It’s important to teach employees that it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as we are humble enough to admit them. It’s okay to be ignorant, as long as we are prepared to listen. It’s okay to have an opinion, as long as we’re willing to change it.

This kind of course-correction is critical for healthy teams.

Agile, XP, and software craft came at a time that the software industry had spent decades trying to fix its high rate of project failure. While we’ve made great progress by focusing on code quality, now it’s time we focused on fixing toxic team culture.

For managers, team leaders and individuals alike, it’s critical to spot root causes before they become uncontrollable messes. In order to do that, you need to understand the emotional responses which surround those root causes.

So next time you’re faced with a bruised ego, which path will you choose?

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