Covid19 and Cognitive Dissonance.

Author: Manu Steens

In this article I am writing my personal opinion, not that of any organization

Currently I am to delve into how people can spot opportunities. This has in common with having mission that one must have fantasy, creativity and imagination. This is needed in order to arrive at an alternative for merely dealing with threats within risk management. The advantage of opportunity management is that one already has a more developed leg within risk management on which one can rely, namely that same threat management. But one needs fantasy. And that is where things sometimes falter to be creative. In what way?

An important, well-known psychological obstacle is cognitive dissonance.

So with that I start with a difficult term from psychology, which can destroy both opportunities and mission by preventing them.

“What is cognitive dissonance and give a good example” you will ask.

Cognitive dissonance was introduced by the psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957. The term is used to describe the discomfort we feel when our beliefs are questioned by conflicting information. Because most people are driven by the desire to stay psychologically consistent. In order to achieve this, one will ignore, forget, not want to hear or know or even reason away any contradiction to one’s own truths . So one does not want to question one’s own “values”. These “values” are sometimes also called “frames” and are personal.

You can also find a word of explanation here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance .

A strong example that made headlines is Alan Greenspan’s unshakable belief in market self-regulation, which saw the biggest housing crisis to trigger the worst global crisis since the Great Depression. The situation clamored for government oversight of credit institutions so that the banks would not lend money to unsuitable borrowers. Greenspan declined this, trusting that the market would filter out bad credit risks. It became a real estate bubble. Because of the cognitive dissonance of a man in a powerful position. He ignored all warnings. It wasn’t until October 23 that he acknowledged that he had made a mistake in relying on self-regulation of the markets. Those interested will find more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subprime_mortgage_crisis

What about Covid19 then ? An article about a report by the Secretary-General of the United Nations was published on September 20, 2019. The title block lettered : “The World Knows an Apocalyptic Pandemic Is Coming But nobody is interested in doing anything about it.” ( https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/20/the-world-knows-an-apocalyptic-pandemic-is-coming/ )

So there was this institution, the United Nations, that has to provide the world some protection, and it tried warn the world that a pandemic was at the door. Yet, after the facts, politicians around the world shouted they couldn’t know. There may have been some form of massive cognitive dissonance here, with all its consequences. Apparently a man can turn the world into crisis, but an organization of people who can see beyond their own truths are incapable of saving the world.

In addition, the question can always be asked what we could have done if massive credence had been attached to the report of the United Nations. Because actually, they did not know where it (the pandemic) would come from. They did not know that.

In the meantime, we hope that we can learn from Covid19, and we certainly have: there have been a number of strong examples. Vaccines have never been on the market so quickly, never before has a vaccination program on such a scale been rolled out so quickly, with growing pains though. But they do it anyway.

In the meantime, the researchers are of course not sitting still with the development of other vaccines for other diseases. One of these that is now very promising is one for malaria. To this end, there is an enormous lesson learned from Covid19: if we, the people, want it, we can vaccinate the entire world. This means that it is an opportunity from the lessons learned from covid19 to apply the vaccination experience on a large scale to this terrible disease. A plea on this issue can be found here: https://theconversation-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/theconversation.com/amp/new-malaria-vaccine-proves-highly-effective-and-covid-shows -how-quickly-it-could-be-deployed-159585 

The question is whether an identified lesson here will also become a lesson learned for our world leaders, or whether they would react cognitively dissonant.

In the latter case, however, I have a question. People are allowed to be very committed to their jobs in high positions. However, this implies that these people have great responsibilities that their job entails. Do they then have the psychological right not to consider perspectives if they are inconsistent with their deeply held beliefs, whatever they are? Do they have the right to refuse? Not to consider? To reason away? In other words, are they entitled to cognitive dissonance? Or should they arm themselves against it? And do they have a duty to do so?

Can citizens around the world hope that the dramatic errors of judgment of Covid 19 will give rise to something beautiful, namely more research on vaccines and on logistics to bring the right vaccine to the right target groups? If not, we will again pay an expensive price for an inflexible attitude. World leaders must therefore (dare) to break through their frames.

So my advice here is: “break through the barriers of your frames, have imagination, create a mission ! Learn to recognize the opportunities that present themselves and take advantage of them. Help each other in this! Step out of the reign of the ‘yesterday till now’-activities and look out for possible futures, including those within seven generations.”

To be able to do that, a good risk culture is needed at the top of the world. This means that every employee within every organization (hence from bottom-up) must be open at his / her level to recognizing and tackling not only threats, but also using opportunities. You do not do that by declaring a story of risk management ex cathedra to the world. Maybe one can do that by realizing a cultural change in the world, perhaps first at the level of the high positions, whereby people not only have an eye for the negative, but rather for the positive. A mission is necessary for this. And maybe our generation will see the result, maybe only the next generation will see the result. But let’s try. After all, we don’t really have another option.

One thought on “Covid19 and Cognitive Dissonance.

  1. Ik heb het uiteindelijk helemaal gezelen Manu, heel interessante visie! Groetjes, Lili

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