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Archive for January, 2013

Social Psychology – Conflicting Beliefs

Answers the Question

Why people have a bias to seek agreement between their expectations and reality?

How it Began

In 1954 Leon Festinger was working on a new theory of cognitive dissonance.  The theory focused on the view of the social world from the perspective of the individual.  Cognition was viewed as being any attitude, behaviour or emotion that made up a mental representation of the social world within an individuals mind.  Festinger’s research focused on how individual perceptions of other people, social groups and the physical world were cognitive representations and how inconsistency between the representation and reality causes the individual discomfort which in term drives attempts by the individual to reduce the inconsistency.


Festinger’s interest in a headline regarding a group, called the Seekers led by Mrs Keech.  The group believed the world would end on 21st December 1955, as a result of messages received by Mrs Keech through Automatic writing.   Festinger predicted that the failure of a space ship to arrive to take them to safety would create a condition of cognitive dissonance, resulting in the group members experiencing an tension which was unpleasant and that they would find a way to reduce it.  Festinger predicted that because of the commitment to the belief the Seekers would persist in their belief, becoming more evangelical than before.

The events of the night 21st December 2013 are described in Festinger’s paper When Prophecy Fails. He describes the reactions of the group to the failed prophecy.  The result was that Mrs Keech was ‘summoned’ to receive another message.  The message confirmed the belief system of the group.  The group was being tested and their goodness of the group had prevented the cataclysm from occurring.  A second message commanded the group to spread the message, which they duly did, phoning the newspapers and other news services that they could think of.

Therefore the discrepancy between the original belief that the world would end, and the cognitive dissonance caused by the world not ending was therefore overcome by the belief that the small group of believers had saved the world from destruction.

The impact of the study was enormous and a decade of research following the original study showed that dissonance theory was substantially correct but there were some limitations to the theory which meant that the theory had to change.

Key Terminology

Cognitive Dissonance – the feeling of discomfort when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel “disequilibrium”: frustration, hunger, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment, anxiety, etc. Festinger, L. (1957)

Belief disconfirmation paradigm – happens when an individual is presented with information which conflicts with their beliefs. If the individual is unable to change their beliefs the conflict experienced could result in a rejection or denial of the conflicting information. A person unable to resolve the conflict will seek others sharing a similar belief to restore agreement of thoughts.

Induced-compliance paradigm – The induced-compliance paradigm is when a person internalizes an attitude that they were encouraged to express because they had no other justification.

Free Choice Paradigm – When making a difficult decision, there are things about the choice we don’t make that we find appealing and these features are dissonant with choosing something else. By choosing X, you are dissonant about the things you like about Y.

Effort Justification Paradigm – Dissonance occurs whenever individuals voluntarily engage in an unpleasant activity to achieve a desired goal. One way of reducing dissonance is by the individual exaggerating how desirable the goal is.

In Brief

Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and beliefs in harmony and we make efforts to avoid disharmony (or dissonance).

Cognitive dissonance refers to any situation which involves conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. This conflict in turn produces a feeling of discomfort which results in an alteration in one of the held attitudes, beliefs or behaviours to reduce the discomfort and restore balance.

What does this mean for Organization Development?

The mismanagement of cognitive dissonance is a root cause of many problems in the workplace, especially when it comes to conflict management, bullying and performance management. What we think and do when confronted with two or more conflicting beliefs drive behaviour within the organizational setting. For example, we all make mistakes and therefore have to confront the conflict – I am a good person but I did something bad. And we get plenty of mixed signals, especially in change settings where there is a need for individuals to take more creative risks but the support system and environment embeds the belief that the risks won’t succeed.

Cognitive dissonance is especially powerful, and can make the workplace extremely uncomfortable for individuals and teams when the conflicting beliefs are about ourselves. To relieve the discomfort we may self justify or rationalize, which may involve making excuses for our bad behaviour or shifting blame rather than owning up. This behaviour can lead to good people falling into unethical or unwanted behaviour patterns which have far reaching consequences in regards to performance.

As Organization Development practitioners we need to be able to spot when cognitive dissonance sits at the root of organizational problems and then find productive ways to vent the discomfort associated with it.  This may included focused conversations, open space technology or game storming to open up communication and create space for perceptions to be aired and explored.

In general an OD intervention will need to promote and help individuals to own mistakes, and create a process to manage the discomfort associated with cognitive dissonance by role-modelling and advocating honesty, openness, feedback and a ‘no blame’ culture as positive and necessary components of a healthy workplace.


Social Psychology – Attitudes and Behaviour

Answers the Question 

Are Attitudes and Action Related?

How it Began

A young research at Stanford, LaPiere, who travelled widely, believed that attitudes were actions in respect of the way in which individual responded in a situation being a determinant of the attitude of that individual.  At the time questionnaires were used widely in attitude surveys and LaPiere questionnaire the reliance on this method.  LaPiere set out to test the assumption that there was a direct link between verbal and behavioural responses through The Hospitality Study.

American and Chinese Flags

In a research period, which covered two years LaPiere travelled across the US with a young Chinese couple visiting over 250 hospitality businesses from hotels to restaurants.  The couple were unaware that they were subjects of a study for fear of affecting their behaviour.  At each location he allowed the couple to take centre stage in arranging the details of the service they were to receive at the establishment.  The research resulted in some startling results.  In 251 requests for service, the Chinese couple were only refused service on one occasion at an auto-camp described by LaPiere as ‘inferior’.  They were never refused service at restaurants or café’s.  The behaviour observed by LaPiere during the trip seemed in direct contrast to ‘attitude’ surveys of the time, which indicated that at the time Americans had a negative attitude towards the Chinese.  Six months after the trip LaPiere surveyed the hospitality businesses they had visited and an additional control group that were not visited.  The result?  Over 90% of establishments visited indicated that they would not accept members of Chinese race at their establishment,  In the control group 81% of restaurants said the same.

The lack of correspondence between survey and behaviour led to two conclusions firstly there is a disparity between what people did and what they said they would do and secondly that attitude surveys are only useful for measuring reactions to symbolic or abstract concepts, not for assessing how someone would respond in a given situation.

Key Terminology

Attitude – An expression of favour or disfavour toward a person, place, thing, or event (the attitude object).   Carl Jung’s defined attitude as a “readiness of the psyche to act or react in a certain way” noting that attitudes very often come in pairs, one conscious and the other unconscious.

Behaviour – A response to various stimuli resulting in a range of actions and mannerisms in conjunction with their environment, which includes those around as well as the physical environment. Responses may be internal or external, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, and voluntary or involuntary.

In Brief 

The impact of the Hospitality study was widely interpreted as showing that attitudes do not always predict behaviour resulting in a theoretical debate regarding the relationship between attitudes and behaviour.  In 1969 Wicker reviewed 42 experimental studies and found a low average correlation between attitudes and behaviour, concluding that in all likelihood attitudes and behaviours were unrelated or at best only slightly related.

Fishbein and Ajzen sought to explain the disparity using the theory of reasoned action, 1975, and the theory of planned behaviour, 1991 arguing that behaviour was determined by a persons intention to engage in that behaviour, and intention was determined by attitude, subjective norms and perceived controls.  Further research has established that both these theories provide reasonable goo accounts of the relationship between attitude and behaviour.

LaPieres initial work raised ethical, conceptual and procedural issues regarding attitude and behaviour studies leading to further research into the relationship between attitude and behaviour.   Today social psychologists tend to conceptualise attitudes as evaluative dispositions and distinctions between implicit and explicit attitudes raise further questions regarding the assessment of verbal expressions of attitudes and their connection to behaviours.

What does this mean for Organization Development?

Employee opinion surveys, taking the temperature and recruitment assessment asking individuals to explain what they would do in a given situation are all tools used in the modern day organization.  The claim is that understanding attitudes will help the organization to support employees in adjusting to their environments and are a basis for future behaviours, helping employees to defend their self-images and justify their actions.

But be warned.  Attitude is an important, distinctive and indispensible concept in social psychology, but attitudes are only relevant if they are considered alongside the social context or organizational environment in which they are being expressed.  When it comes to predicting behaviour then nothing can be taken for granted.

Employee opinion surveys give an indication but not a real measure of attitudes.  Just because someone has a positive attitude to exercise does not mean that they will get up at 6am in the morning to go to the gym.  It is not possible for an organization to develop a programme that will make a person ‘change’ their attitude only the individual can do that.  The only thing that can be changed is the contextual basis for expressing central values and urging organizations to supply standards that allow people to organize and explain the world around them.

Social Psychology – Competition Studies

Answers the Question

How does the presence of other people affect us as individuals?

How it Began

Norman Triplett’s competition studies started as a research thesis during his studies as a master’s student.   Curious about the results of analysis of competitive cycling results which demonstrated that lone cyclists against the clock were always slower than cyclists riding or racing with a group of others, Triplett took to experimenting in the laboratory with children and fishing reels.  The result was “The dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition” which was published in the American Journal of Psychology in 1898.   110 years on this is considered to be the seminal work for the development of sports psychology.


Social Psychology was in its infancy when Triplett was a student.  Early research focused on basic perceptual processes and judgements, with social factors soon starting to be included in researchers considerations.  Despite lacking statistically significant evidence for competition effects, the research did support the notion that the presence of other people does impact the motivation of the individual.

The publication opened the floodgates for the body of knowledge that is now available to us in the field of social psychology

Key Terminology

Social Facilitation – Tendency for the presence of other people to enhance our performance on simple or well-learned tasks, but reduce performance on complex, or unfamiliar tasks (Geen, 1991; Zajonc, 1965)

Social Loafing – Tendency for individuals to reduce their efforts when working with others on group or collective tasks (Latané et al., 1979)

In Brief

“Social facilitation and social loafing might appear to be opposite effects because the presence of others typically stimulates effort in the case of facilitation but reduce it in the case of loafing.  However, this inconsistency is readily resolved by noting the nature of others present are observers, co-actors or audience members, creating the potential for increased arousal, evaluation or distraction relative to what would be experienced alone.  On the other hand, in social loafing research, the others who are present are co-workers or teammates, creating an opportunity for individuals to reduce their efforts tow hat they might contribute when solely responsible for performing well at the task.” (Karenau and Kipling, 2012)

What does this mean for Organization Development?

The role of social facilitation is important to consider in the workplace because an Organization is a social situation.  Social facilitation implies that people’s performance is not purely based on their ability, but is also impacted by the internal awareness of being evaluated.  Understanding that the presence of an observer or a line manager whilst someone is performing a task is important because Performance can be greatly affected by situation factors, thus making it possible to entirely alter the outcome of a situation.

This can be very important when considering how anyone will perform under evaluation and how to potentially prepare for those situations.  For example, allowing an individual to practice delivering a presentation in front of peers before delivering it for ‘real’ will help reduce the feeling of evaluation when the individual delivers the presentation for real and increase performance.  On the other hand, the use of assessment centres for recruitment purposes can significantly distort performance according to how the individual responses to the feelings of evaluation and whether they enhance or reduce performance.

Social loafing is consider to be one of the main reasons groups are sometimes less productive than the combined performance of their members working as individuals, although this should be separated from group coordination problems. Social loafing helps explain an individual’s reduction in effort in order to avoid pulling the weight of a fellow group member, many of the causes of this reduction in effort stem from an individual feeling that his or her effort will not matter to the group.


Challenge yourself to Get out the Box – More than a Number

More than a Number Graphic

I sometimes think that I must be the only person who believes that everyone has talent.  If you listen to the way people talk about talent it is always in the context of talking about extraordinary talent.  That a person was ‘born’ to dance, sing, run, jump, write or play music.  The new adverts for Got to Dance on Sky 1 show a baby dancing in the womb and her ‘life journey’ to end up in front of hte judging panel fo the TV show.

But though it cannot be denied that people who make us gasp in wonder as they gyrate and flip around a stage are indeed talented, it doesn’t mean that we, that is the rest of us who can’t dance, are not equally talented.

I don’t know about you but I am always in awe at other people’s talent in the work place.  How is it that administrators can be so good at attention to detail?  Where an earth do the accountants get their gift for understanding numbers?  Where did that customer service rep learn to calm down angry customers and make them walk away satisfied? What is it about the teacher that can inspire and hold the attention of a class of 40 hyperactive children?  How can a logistics manager seamlessly juggle one hundred different strands of activity in a way which makes everything flow?  What can the engineer or mechanic see when looking at an engine or a system that means they can spot where the problem is?  How DO they DO that?

Okay they might not wear spangly clothes whilst doing these ‘jobs’ but it doesn’t mean that the talent isn’t any less awesome.  Sure there are many people doing jobs who really should consider a career change, just like those auditions who have ‘Got to Dance’ but really CAN’T dance.  Workplaces and Talent shows are full of people who REALLY need to evaluate their ambitions and aspirations.  BUT, there is awesome, unique talent which shines every single day, just by an individual BEING who they are.

So many people are diminished by being in a box called ‘job,’ and at the moment there are many who are in a box called ‘unemployed’ which is equally as distressing.  If you are feeling boxed in at the moment then start the new year with a challenge to yourself to get OUT of that box.  You might have ‘tried’ before, maybe you are tired of trying, but maybe this time it WILL be different.

I speak to coaching clients about what they would like to do if there were no barriers and most worry about the practicality of following a dream.  But the choice is simple.  Is it better to try to find what lights you up like a Christmas Tree? There is a chance you might fail, but equally you might succeed, or would you rather spend a lifetime certain that you would be doing a job you hate, that makes you miserable?

A pursuit of the opportunity to shine, or a life time with your light hidden?  Will you rise up to your talent potential?  It might mean a drop in income; but will the extra money be enough to live with not being all you can be?  It might mean surfing the edge of chaos for a bit; but do you really want to get comfortable with being miserable?  It might mean taking a risk and learning new things; but will doing the same old, same old produce new results?  Will you get out of the box that you have been put in, and rise up?

“Daniel Kahnemann (2011) has eloquently shown that (1) the irrational choices humans make are partly due to the cognitive filter What-You-See-Is-All-There-Is; and (2) only conscious, analytic reasoning can override such easy automatic ’emotional’ decision making, but it is often not deployed because it requires effrot and is taxing.  Changing the habit of a lifetime requires some serious ‘contemplation’ before people are ‘ready for action'”

I hope that you can begin to see the advantages of spending a lifetime pursuing who you are, to wake up every morning excited about the day ahead, and spending every work day, not working just being.  Those jobs you think are just ‘dream jobs’ – someone is doing them, so why not you?  And whilst you are stuck in a job you hate, you are blocking the way for someone else to have the job that matches their talent.  By occupying the round hole, the square peg is blocking the way for the round peg to find its home.

There is no time like the present to begin acting on the realising your talent potential.  Stop doing and start being what you were born to be.

Ebook More than Just a Number by Carrie Foster Is Now Available from Smashwords, Amazon and Kobo 


Brennan, J. Letters, The Psychologist November 2012 pp. 797