Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The psychology of Ambiguity 1: Cognitive Dissonance

How do you react when faced with something that you don't understand and appears to conflict with what you already believe or understand to be the case? 

I was recently working alongside some emergency service leaders during a live incident (live coaching). One leader (Silver) was faced with a sudden and unexpected crowd of people moving into an enclosed area within which an operation was was taking place. As far as everyone had been informed this area was secure and no one, let alone a crowd should have been able to access it.  The commander on the ground (Bronze) informed Silver (our leader) that approximately 40-50 youths had entered area without warning and the officers on the operation were facing public order situation on top of the existing operation that they were trying to execute. The Bronze commander asked Silver if they should abort the operation as they were heavily outnumbered. 
The Silver commander, who had planned the operation realised that if they withdrew they were unlikely to be able to go back at a later date and execute the operation. In short the operation would fail. 
He decided to order that the officers on the ground should continue as planned. 

This is a classic case of the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance occurring in an unexpected ambiguous situation.  

Cognitive dissonance occurs when there is a discrepancy between what a person believes, knows and or values and external evidence that is contrary or calls into question their internal beliefs, knowledge, experience or values.

This discrepancy between the internal and external state creates psychological and emotional discomfort, or dissonance. The mind then works to adjusts inorder to reduce the discrepancy and create order out of ambiguity. In many cases it does this by ignoring or reducing the importance of the external data and going with their existing beliefs, knowledge, experience or values as occurred in this situation. 

Such a reaction maintains the principal known as cognitive consistency and reduces the cognitive dissonance. This is a typical reaction to ambiguity, especially under stress. 

The outcome of the above situation is that the Bronze commander followed orders, the incident got out of hand, the operation failed badly and a number of officers and youths were injured, 4 seriously. 

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