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.Confucius
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.