He Who Says A Does Not Have to Say B

When reality contradicts our beliefs and worldviews, we have several ways to resolve this cognitive dissonance. Most people tend to creatively reinterpret reality to make the experiences fit into their mental model picture. Yet, it is more helpful to use the discrepancies as a source of insight and adjust one's worldview. Especially for leaders whose worldviews and beliefs affect many others.

On Decem­ber 21, 1954, at mid­night, a dev­as­tat­ing flood was to wipe out all life on Earth. That was the prophe­cy of Dorothy Mar­tin from Chica­go. She had received this warn­ing from extrater­res­tri­als through tele­path­ic con­tact. But there was also hope: Aliens would come with their space­ships and save Dorothy and her sect, the “Seek­ers”.

Most peo­ple back then did ignore this improb­a­ble prophe­cy. Not so Leon Fes­tinger, a 35-year-old psy­chol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta. He also doubt­ed that the world would end on this date. But he was curi­ous how the peo­ple of this sect would deal with the fact that no space­ships would come to save them. So he infil­trat­ed the sect with a few asso­ciates in the run-up of this apocalypse.

How did these peo­ple, some of whom had sold their homes and quit their jobs in the hope of immi­nent sal­va­tion from doom, process such dis­ap­point­ment? Did they fall away from their faith and scare the hell out of Dorothy Mar­tin? Far from it. After a brief moment of hor­ror, the sect found a remark­able way out of their predica­ment. They rein­ter­pret­ed what had hap­pened: Their unshak­able faith had saved the world.

When real­i­ty con­tra­dicts one’s own con­vic­tions, humans are capa­ble of amaz­ing men­tal con­tor­tions. Leon Fes­tinger called this phe­nom­e­non the “the­o­ry of cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance.” Accord­ing to this the­o­ry, peo­ple in most cas­es try to dis­solve this painful dis­so­nance by rein­ter­pret­ing real­i­ty accord­ing to their men­tal model.

He who says A does not have to say B. He can also rec­og­nize that A was wrong.

Bertolt Brecht

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it is not as easy as Bertolt Brecht thinks to rec­og­nize and, above all, to admit that one was wrong. We pre­fer to be con­sis­tent and stead­fast, and stick to our more or less quirky view of the world. Espe­cial­ly when we have already invest­ed a lot of time and mon­ey in it. This cog­ni­tive bias of sunk costs is well doc­u­ment­ed. It leads into a spi­ral of esca­lat­ing com­mit­ment, jus­ti­fy­ing fur­ther invest­ments with the already made (sunk) ones.

Some peo­ple even so resolve their cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance in a way that pro­motes insight and growth. They see the devi­a­tion of real­i­ty from their assump­tions as a chance to learn some­thing new. Like Nobel lau­re­ate Daniel Kah­ne­man describes it in the pod­cast by Adam Grant. After all, in the best empir­i­cal tra­di­tion, every the­o­ry is only valid as long as it is not inval­i­dat­ed by obser­va­tions. Why should this sci­en­tif­ic prin­ci­ple not also apply to one’s own world­view and beliefs?

A man who com­mit­ted a mis­take and does­n’t cor­rect it, is com­mit­ting anoth­er mistake.


This abil­i­ty to ques­tion one­self and one’s con­vic­tions is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant for lead­ers. Their world views are usu­al­ly not a per­son­al mat­ter, but affect and influ­ence many oth­er peo­ple. Good lead­er­ship requires a bal­ance between stead­fast­ly pur­su­ing con­vinc­ing visions and the great­ness to humbly ques­tion and relent­less­ly cor­rect visions and worldviews.

Along these lines, loose­ly based on Rein­hold Niebuhr: Give me the strength to stand my ground when I am right, give me the humil­i­ty to admit mis­takes when I am wrong, and give me the wis­dom to know the difference.

Pho­to by Stephen Leonar­di on Unsplash.

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