Why Dissonance Resonates, the Road to Abilene, and Lying to Yourself (and others!)

Have you ever enthusiastically recommended a book or movie you didn’t really like to someone? Get home from a less than ideal vacation, only to tell people how great it was when they ask? Or how about this: have you knowingly taken a mind-numbing job because you “had to”, only to find yourself increasingly extolling its virtues the longer you are in it? Enter Dissonance Theory, one of the more famous social psychology theories out there (insofar as theories seek fame), which seeks to describe our attempts to ease the cognitive “discomfort” of doing things which don’t “make sense” to us, or even run contrary to our beliefs.


Messages of peace and love written by children on artillery shells? Cognitive Dissonance.

If the picture above hasn’t provided you with enough to think about, the fine folks at BBC Future explore Dissonance Theory a little more closely – including a link back to the classic study results originally published by Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith in 1959. While the original article is itself very short, allow me to summarize further: If you are induced to do something that is against your personal beliefs/values/opinions, you are likely to change your original beliefs/values/opinions to match the behavior. However, the larger the pressure needed to induce the behavior, the less likely it is you will change your own beliefs/values/opinions. What does this mean?


Common practice on pirate ships and in board rooms around the world.

For individuals this can manifest itself in a number of ways, but as a coach I have heard and seen it primarily through the “work” lens – when clients are at a point in their lives where 1) they’ve been working for a long time at something they just “weren’t into”, and 2) there is great pressure to take a step they just don’t want to take; “selling out”, a line in the sand, the last straw. The point where they are looking at a fork in the road where the two paths represent wildly different choices: either giving in or starting over. Of course the choice is ultimately theirs to make, but as a coach one of my responsibilities is to ensure they truly explore where they are standing and what is around them before deciding where to step next. What brought you here? Where do you want to be? Are there really only two choices? Who do you become if you go down path A, B, or C (or x, y, or z)? What happens if you turn around, or start building a ladder/digging a hole? Who else is on this path? Echoing back to (and/or shamelessly promoting) an earlier post – it’s about exploring the full spectrum of possibilities, not just exploring the two conflicting options we see or emotions we feel.


The Road to Abilene. Literally.

I actually feel that folks who are conflicted are in many ways better off than those who just continue “down the road”. Acknowledging the conflict is critical if you want to change directions. If we failing to recognize the conflict, we are putting ourselves into a solo Abilene Paradox – sending us “happily” down a path we really aren’t keen to travel (no offense to the fine folks of Abilene).

“But Felix, I don’t want to go to Abilene!” (again – no offense … Abilenians? Abilenese? Abileños? People of Abilene). Well, time to apply some intuition and courage, and not necessarily in that order. Doubt is not bad. Your “shoulder angel”, voice in your head, feeling in your gut – these shouldn’t be summarily dismissed. They are likely the result of the cognitive conflict you are going through as a result of the mismatch between your actions and your values. Have the courage to look for it if you aren’t hearing or feeling it naturally. Once you have identified that voice, more courage still is needed to act on it. Find the truths and the lies, and most importantly, find the possibilities. Decide your path, and have the courage to walk it.


Some paths will be easier than others.




Photo Credits:

Kids and Artillery Shells – http://www.guardian.co.uk

Beatings & Morale – http://www.voraciousrationalist.com

Texas Highway – http://www.aaroads.com

Trail Sign – Al_HikesAZ via photopin cc

Men and Women See the World Differently – the Proof in Black and White. Or is that Ivory? Ecru? I don’t know …

Science once again comes through to “definitively” prove what we all knew (or felt we knew): that women are in fact better at distinguishing subtle color variations than men, and (depending on how you read the research) can actually see more wavelengths (read: shades) of color in a given light condition. This month’s Smithsonian shares the results of research conducted by neuroscientists at the City University of New York, and while no surprise, I believe it provides additional impetus to learn the science about why we’re different. It is much easier (for me, anyway) to work from some basis of fact rather than just accept, “Oh that is just how he/she is!” After all, greater knowledge ideally leads to better understanding. Spoiler alert: it probably has to do with hormones.


Four colors here, really. Red, yellow, green, and blue.

For my sanity (and that of my wife), I had given up on arguing about what color an object/article of clothing was a long time ago and simply accepted the color that she (or any other female) indicated for that item. More importantly, I learned never to dress our children (when the were still the age of having to be dressed) entirely in “one color”. Apparently, “one color” to me was not “one color” to her, but in fact a horrific mish-mash of hues which displeased her greatly. Looked fine to me. Know we know why.


Wait! Is that … A DOUBLE RAINBOW!?!?!

Now this research is not all bad news for the fellas (if bad news means you can’t tell blue from … not blue). Men are apparently better at discerning objects moving across our field of view, which in my humble opinion is a ton more useful than knowing the difference between red and … not red. Behold Agent Smith (from The Matrix) dodging bullets below. His superior ability to see things moving in his field of vision allowed him to not get shot (never mind that he was some sort of sentient computer program/virus):

agent Smith

Seeing stuff moving is important.

Thus I am ready to declare that despite researchers saying that neither of these differences imparts a particular advantage to either sex, seeing things moving in your field of view is WAAAAY better than being able to tell green from … not green. I mean really, when would being able to see the exact color be that important.


Oh. Colors might be important here. Especially if there were more wires.

Okay – when defusing a bomb, colors might be important. Or when identifying poisonous plants. Or dangerous reptiles. Or under-cooked meat. Or lots of things. Got it.

The point is we all see the world a bit differently from each other for a variety of reasons, and not all of them (in fact very few of them) are “scientifically” based. This doesn’t make one person’s observation less valid than someone else’s, but it can lead to plenty of confusion when folks aren’t sharing the reasons for their point of view or taking the time to be curious and find out where somebody is coming from. It’s not about attacking or defending a position, but sharing perspectives. When you don’t try to make it black and white, it’s a lot easier to see (and appreciate) the full spectrum of ideas and possibilities that are out there.




photo credits:

Colored Pencils – shewatchedthesky via photopin cc

Double Rainbow on Sidewalk – Cle0patra via photopin cc

Agent Smith gif – sciforums.com

Bomb – tvtropes.com



The Cult of Doing – Explained (Sort of)


This will make sense shortly.

No secret here – we are doers:

“Just Do It” – Nike


“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” – Walt Disney


“It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.” – Thomas Jefferson

And this is a good thing, since without doing we would likely be incredibly thoughtful and articulate dead people, able to expound on life’s great mysteries but quite incapable of putting together a decent sandwich. This sandwich-free world would be a sad place indeed, and I would want no part of it.


Ridiculous. I love it.


In fact, our affinity to the Action Imperative is pretty obvious. We ask each other, “How are you doing?”, we reward “results delivered”, politicians promise to “get things done” on behalf of their constituents. We are often chastised for “just sitting around” but “busy” people are left to continue their activity uninterrupted. We even expect certain levels of productivity from inanimate objects (heaven forbid your money sits in a non-interest bearing account!). Why this attention to doing? What happened to the pleasure (and I would say necessity, despite the risk of no sandwiches) of just being?


Maybe she has the answer? Read on!!

Enter Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist who in the late 1920s came upon a memory and motivational theory whilst observing the waiters at a Viennese coffee house. She noticed that the waiters could only remember the orders that were “in progress”; that no matter how simple or how recent a completed order was, the waiters had already forgotten it, “making room” for the next order in queue. Studying further (in more controlled, less caffeinated lab conditions), she found that our mind wants to know what is next, it wants to finish the next task, and it will keep working at that “next” task, even when interrupted with new tasks. Later psychologists labeled this the “Need for Closure” – the need to end uncertainty and to resolve unfinished business.

So what’s with the Tetris blocks then? First of all, if you have never played the game, go here and play for a bit: freetetris.org. Please set a timer before you go, lest you never come back. Basically, Tetris (and life!) is a series of interrupted tasks which your brain is constantly trying to resolve. The psychological need to complete the task (complete a row of blocks) in Tetris is the same psychological need driving you to complete your “to do” list. It is very powerful and to a certain extent quite fulfilling, and this is where the danger lies.

Doing Things vs. Being Someone

Here’s the rub: if you spend your time doing things, “working” your list, or chasing achievements and you haven’t spent any time defining who or how you want to be while doing those things, you run the risk of quite literally losing yourself in the activity. How many devoted parents “lose” their identities when they enter the cycle of caring for their kids? How many people have “no life” outside of work? How many celebrities or sports figures physically change who they are in order to meet their professional goals, or compromise their ideals in order to be “on top”? How many of us have sold out somewhere in our lives in order to achieve something – literally traded being something for the ability to do something? Most importantly, what are we ready to do in order to be ourselves? Oh the irony!




Article References:

BBC Future

Scientific American

Image Credits:

Tetris Blocks

Bluma Zeigarnik

Big Sandwich