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

Leave a Reply