Some of the findings are startling, especially in the legal and medical industries where the stakes are REALLY high. We are talking innocent people serving years in prison and people losing lives because of the tendency to avoid failure, or admitting it at least to start with.
It really shines a light on the power of the human psyche and how fragile we can be when it comes to our ego or self esteem being at risk.
The lengths some people will go to, to avoid being seen as a failure or having made a grave error in judgement are fascinating. The more of an expert or specialist the people in question are, the bigger the lengths they will go to defend their position and avoid censure of any kind.
Syed writes about a researcher at the University of Minnesota who came across an unusual story in a local newspaper about a housewife who claimed to be in contact with a god-like figure from another planet. Apparently they had told her that the world would end before dawn on 21st December 1954.
She had warned her friends about the impending disaster and some of them had left their jobs and homes, despite resistance from their families (she must have been convincing!) to move in with this woman who had now become their spiritual leader. They were told that true believers would be saved from the apocalypse by a spaceship which would swoop down from the skies and collect them all from her back garden at midnight.
Festinger, who was an ambitious scientist, thought that if he could get close to the cult by claiming to be a believer, he would be able to observe how the group behaved once the apocalyptic deadline approached. He was even more fascinated with how they would react after the prophecy had failed.
It seemed like a rather obvious question, surely the group would return to their former lives and conclude she was a fraud who hadn’t been in touch with any god-like figure at all. Surely, once the deadline had passed and nothing happened, they would be snapped out of this reality?
But Festinger predicted a different response. He thought that instead of revolting, they would keep believing and become even more committed to the cult than ever before.
Indeed he was right, not only was their faith in their leader unaffected, for some of them it seemed to strengthen.
How could this happen?
Festinger found that they simply redefined the failure. When confronted with evidence that confronted their deeply held beliefs, instead of redefining their beliefs they redefined the evidence instead, holding onto their beliefs.
We simply invent new reasons, new justifications, new explanations to justify our beliefs and keep them the same.
Psychologists call this ‘cognitive dissonance’ – when our inner beliefs are challenged by opposing evidence.
Most of us like to believe we are fairly smart and rational and so when we mess up, particularly on big issues, our self-esteem is threatened. This presents us with two choices;
1. We accept our original judgements and thoughts were at fault.
2. We reframe the evidence. We spin it, ignore it, filter it in a way which we can carry on under the assumption we were right all along.
In the cult example, the members of the group had a lot riding on their leader. They had left their jobs, some their homes and many ridiculed by those who knew them.
To admit they were wrong now would be too much. They would have felt to shamed to do so. Easier to hold onto their beliefs, reframe the evidence and keep believing the same thing.
This example shows us the power of our beliefs and even when they don’t serve us, our reluctance to let go of them.
Fostering an environment where people are not admonished for making mistakes or risking failure is crucial to progress, because as Syed teaches us, our reluctance to admit our faults is strong enough as it is.
Thanks for reading,
Martin Robert Hall
Keynote Speaker, Author & High Performance Business Coach – Manchester, UK