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 to 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, as Festinger described in (Festinger et al., 1956).
When reality contradicts one’s convictions, humans can perform extraordinary mental contortions. Leon Festinger called this phenomenon the “Theory of Cognitive Dissonance” (Festinger, 1957). According to this theory, people usually 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 cited in (Knopf & Brecht, 2001)
Unfortunately, it is not as easy as Bertolt Brecht thinks to recognize and confess that one was wrong. We prefer to be consistent and stick to our more or less quirky view of the world. More so when building this view had cost us a lot of effort. This cognitive bias of sunk costs is well documented, leading to 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 valid only if observations do not invalidate it. Why should this scientific principle not also apply to one’s 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 essential for leaders. Their worldviews are usually not a personal matter but affect and influence many other people. Good leadership requires a balance between steadfastly pursuing compelling visions and the greatness to humbly question and relentlessly correct those 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.
Knopf, J., & Brecht, B. (Hrsg.). (2001). Brecht-Handbuch: In fünf Bänden. Bd. 1: Stücke (Bd. 1). Metzler.
Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford Univ. Press.
Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When prophecy fails. Univ. of Minnesota Press.