The ‘unindicted ejaculator’, cognitive dissonance and leadership

Guest Contributor Rachel Stone, recruitment coach at UK recruitment agency RSE Group, offers this striking view on the power of cognitive dissonance. Her points on performance and leadership are highly applicable to those of us providing and developing healthcare tech and services, which are dependent on our view of our end users.

What can the DNA, a prosecution team and the ‘unindicted ejaculator’ teach us about leadership?

Do you know the kind of situation where you really believe something and you desperately want it to be true? For example, you believe that you are right about something and if it turns out that you were wrong it would be quite painful?

What if you believed that a person was guilty of something terrible in your company? What if you were sure they had done this dreadful thing? All your instincts told you it was their fault and your belief had caused you to act in a certain way and led you to taking drastic action. If you had to go back on this, it could cost your dearly in terms of finance and reputation. Heaven forbid you were wrong……

As a good leader, you would have checked your evidence… You would have been sure to check your facts… Surely you would have not have taken that action if there wasn’t the right evidence available…

Sometimes, despite our best endeavours, our brain plays tricks on us when our beliefs are challenged.  Our brain tries so hard to up-hold our beliefs and can go to extreme lengths to maintain the status quo.  Our brains don’t like our beliefs being challenged. Even when there is undeniable evidence.

The study of this human trait is covered by cognitive dissonance theory:

According to cognitive dissonance theory, (Leon Festinger) there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviours (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance. (24 Nov 2010)

There is a great deal to learn about this – especially as leaders.  Important decisions are made all day, every day.  All behaviours are based on beliefs and leadership behaviour must be exemplary. You act on what you believe in.

I’ve been blown away by what the excellent book “Black Box Thinking” by Matthew Syed can teach leaders about cognitive dissonance. I would urge you to check yourself in relation to this.  (In fact, I would recommend Syed’s book as mandatory for all leaders or potential leaders of the future, such is the importance of the learning contained within, not just this chapter.)

Syed describes, with compelling stories based in research and evidence, just how difficult it is for people to acknowledge when they are wrong.

When Alec Jeffreys had his eureka moment in a research lab in Leicester and realised that it was possible to identify a genetic fingerprint through examining variations of genetic code, and worked subsequently with Kary Mullins, these two scientists revolutionised criminology.  Through their work it is possible, under the right conditions, to identify a human being by their unique DNA evidence.  The chance of two people having the same DNA code is one in a billion.

This was a major breakthrough.  It was suddenly possible to go back and re-examine cases where people had protested their innocence.  For example, in rape cases where sperm had been saved and the person charged maintained his innocence, there was now a definitive test which could prove it was or was not the same sperm.

The legal system had to stop and rethink cases.  It was no longer tolerable that an innocent man could be in wrongly imprisoned.

Imagine for one moment that you had dedicated hours of your professional life to “proving” a man was guilty of a horrendous rape crime. You had found some closure for the victim and her family.  You believed you had done all you could to service the community. You had sent the right person to jail.

Then sixteen years later you discover that the sperm in the freezer cannot possibly belong to the guy you’ve sent to jail.

Your brain can’t compute the extent of the misalignment.  Your brain goes into overdrive.
You can’t bear to be wrong because it’s just too painful.  For you and for your victim and the family.

Your brain finds ways to align to your beliefs.  It goes to extreme lengths.

Matthew Syed writes about the many cases where this has happened and shows us how powerful cognitive dissonance is.  It seems impossible that a rational, professional, experienced prosecutor could believe that an eight year old girl who was stabbed to death would have been sexually active with a third person in the crime scene before she was killed by the wrongly accused innocent man. Despite the evidence showing nothing of a third person in the room the prosecutor maintained that the jailed man was guilty because of the “unindicted ejaculator”.

This is so common in legal proceedings where cases are re-examined that the term now exists. So many incidences exist where there is a total inability to move to a different verdict by prosecutors since fresh DNA evidence comes to light that the legal system has recognised it as the term “The unindicted ejaculator.”

My significant point is that as leaders we need to be aware of cognitive dissonance. We could suffer from it because we are human, and it’s true to say that people we work with and lead may experience it to.  Understanding it, working on it, using this learning to become a better leader could make the world of leadership a better place.

Originally posted on the RSE Group blog, and reprinted with their kind permission. Other essays by Ms Stone are available on her blog. Hat tip to Martin Ellis of RSE via LinkedIn.

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