Cognitive dissonance, systemic thinking, serendipity & neoteny

I’ve been thinking a lot about the way we think, and communicate, and the implications.

As you can gather from this, and the headline, this whole post is going to be way meta, so proceed at your own risk. Also, it’s mostly an idea sketch for myself, largely untested. Your thoughts are welcome.

Cognitive dissonance is good

Here’s a hypothesis: Cognitive dissonance is good.

Cognitive dissonance it the internal conflict an individuum faces when holding conflicting ideas simultaneously, or when its own actions don’t match its ideals:

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying.

So if we all strive to reduce cognitive dissonance, why would it be good, you ask? My theory is this: Cognitive dissonance helps us not to reduce complexity. It helps prevent smugness and it helps feeling right all too easily. It helps us feel uncomfortable with ourselves.

If we keep doubting, and thus re-evaluating, ourselves, we can become a better person.

In day-to-day life, it can be hard to keep oneself from justifying our own behavior without going around the bend. An example? I like the notion of organic food, of buying locally, of rewarding “good” (think ethics, quality, production process etc) companies over “bad” (cheap, non-fair trade, non-sustainable etc) companies. I like being eco conscious and supporting free and open source software and free culture. And, and, and. Yet, often times – nay: mostly – I buy very much non-organic food, buy clothes off big chains that I can safely assume were produced under barely humane conditions, I fly so much that my carbon footprint is insane, and I buy all kinds of electronics that are in no way ecofriendly or even ecologically acceptable. And yes, I use a Mac and all kinds of proprietory software. Only if I occasionally remind myself of these things is there a decent chance that I change my behavior, step by step. It’s what keeps me on the right track.

I’m not going to ask you, but you might want to ask yourself: Where does your behavior not match your rhetoric?

So being honest to oneself can be hard. Of course things get much harder if you also foster cognitive dissonance in others. In an ideal world, it’d be enlightening. In reality it’s annoying at best, rude at worst. But hey, feeling superior and smug has never suited anyone well. I guess what I’m saying is: If I insult you that way, I don’t try to be rude, just maybe a little mean. Also, it means I like you enough to care, and enough to risk a friendship. Sometimes it’s good to be a pain in the ass.

Systems, trajectories, serendipity

There’s something to be said for different types of thinking. One way that I find particularly helpful for both our networked world in general and for my work in particular is what I’d call systemic thinking. Considering systems, parts of systems, connections. If thing A changes, what are the implications for things B and C, what are the collaterals? Also, what are the driving forces behind the players involved, what are their agendas?

Once you have the system visualized and know how things are connected, you know where you work from. You can then define a trajectory: A vision, a vector and a goal. (Joi Ito has written quite a bit about trajectories in leadership.) This is very different than more traditional planning methods that would put together a roadmap with step-by-step instructions, milestones etc. It’s much, much more fluid. You have a rough game plan and direction, and plenty of lee way. This also requires you trust your folks much more to know what they’re doing, which is a good thing.

Then you get to a more tactical level. When your game plan consists mainly of a goal and a trajectory, then there’s plenty of room for randomness, for serendipity. Embrace it. This is more than tactics, it’s almost a question of philosophy. It might take you off track for a while, and maybe your vector changes, or maybe not. As long as you have the overall goal and vision in mind, it’s all good.


Joi Ito wrote about innovation in the NY Times as well as the unabridged version on his blog. He’s also the person through which I learned about the concept of neoteny, which I find very appealing. With Joi’s words:

Neoteny, one of my favorite words, means the retention of childlike attributions in adulthood. Childlike attributes include learning, idealism, experimentation, wonder, and creativity. In our rapidly changing world, not only do we need to continue to behave more like children – we can teach our children to retain those attributes that will allow them to be the world-changing, innovative adults who will help us reinvent the future.

So there you have it. All these things I strive for in my mental model. Oftentimes that doesn’t work just yet, but these are some basic principles I try to let me guide.