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.

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.

Pho­to by Stephen Leonar­di on Unsplash.

Share This Post

Leave a Reply