“Jack Landry pulls what must be his 30th Marlboro of the day out of one of the two packs on his desk, lights a match to it and tells how he doesn’t believe all those reports about smoking and cancer and emphysema. He has just begun to market yet another cigarette for Philip Morris U.S.A. and is brimming over with satisfaction over its prospects. But how does he square with his conscience the spending of $10 million in these United States over the next year to lure people into smoking his new brand? “It’s not a matter of that,” says Landry, Philip Morris’s vice president for marketing. “Nearly half the adults in this country smoke. It’s a basic commodity for them. I’m serving a need. . . . There are studies by pretty eminent medical and scientific authorities, one on a theory of stress, on how a heck of a lot of people, if they didn’t have cigarette smoking to relieve stress, would be one hell of a lot worse off. And there are plenty of valid studies that indicate cigarette smoking and all those diseases are not related.” (excerpt from Austin American Statesman, November 18, 1971via The Social Animal by Elliot Aronson.)
Our previous guest on the Innovation show, Elliot Aronson worked closely with Leon Festinger on his theory of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever an individual simultaneously holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent. Because the occurrence of cognitive dissonance is unpleasant, people are motivated to reduce it. In the case of Jack Landry, because he profits so handsomely from tobacco, he deludes himself with stories that he may or may not truly believe, but he reduces cognitive dissonance in doing so.
To that end, Aronson poses the following questions in his timeless classic, “The Social Animal”: Is it possible Jack Landry is simply lying? Or could it be a bit more complicated than that? Elliot guesses that, over the years, Landry may have succeeded in deceiving himself. Landry is stuck in the cognitive distortion field created by cognitive dissonance. Of course, he has created this cognitive dissonance himself because it is easier to force himself to believe his lies than face the inconvenient truth that he is profiting from addiction.
If people are committed to an attitude, the best way to reduce the dissonance is to reject or distort the evidence. The deeper a person’s commitment to a certain attitude, the greater his or her tendency to reject dissonant evidence.
Let’s consider corporate disruption through a similar lens of cognitive dissonance. Many business leaders clearly face industry disruption. Disruption is nothing new. There are ample case studies, books and content that document how incumbents underestimated the impact of change on their industry and suffered the consequences. According to the Boston Consulting Group, the average life of a business model was once fifteen years. By their estimation, that number has drastically reduced to five years. A study released by Innosight, the Corporate Longevity Forecast, predicts the average tenure of companies on the S&P 500 list will continue to grow shorter and shorter over the next decade. Further research conducted by Credit Suisse revealed that the average time a company spends in the Fortune 500 has diminished from 60 years to less than 20. These studies show that even when you become one of the most successful companies in the world, it may not last. There is no question that disruption is here to stay, the more relevant question is: why is it, when faced with disruption, incumbents don’t react faster? Are leaders suffering from corporate cognitive dissonance, have they succeeded in deceiving themselves, or is it something even worse?
(Hemispheres Divided by Jamal Heser)
“It’s like a mixture of disbelief in the speed of the change combined with fear over being disrupted, which often creates a condition like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle. You know you need to move, but you still get hit anyway.”– Brett King, Banks 4.0 (a forthcoming episode of The Innovation Show)
The word anosognosia comes from the Greek a, not, + nosos, disease, + gnosis, knowledge). It roughly translates to an unwillingness to acknowledge a disease or deficit. People suffering from anosognosia are not simply in denial but they usually exhibit damage to an area of the brain involved in self-reflection. Their brain can no longer process the fact that their thoughts and moods don’t reflect reality. As Iain McGilchrist tells us in his wonderful book, “The Matter With Things”, What it boils down to is that the person is unaware of their condition and unable to accept it. Anosognosia is relatively common following different causes of brain injury, but it is almost always consequent on right hemisphere damage.
And now to the point of this Thursday Thought, one of a series of articles inspired by a forthcoming multi-episode series with Iain McGilchirst on the Innovation Show. The business world has become more left-brained. Legacy organisations are created by the right hemisphere, the creative hemisphere, but over time become dominated by the left. Left hemispheric organisations no longer see business as holistic, entire entities, they focus on logic, the numbers, the projections, the spreadsheets. Boardrooms are dominated by left-hemispheric, anosognosic executives who hunt out change-makers who are often right hemisphere orientated.
Unfortunately for the right hemisphere, the left is manipulative and drives out the right. To survive we need both hemispheres working in unison. There is a great tension in opposites, but they are both needed to create something balanced, something lasting.
More on this topic next week.