By: Michael McQueen
In the early 50s, a doomsday cult called the Oak Park Study Group thought the world was ending.
Members of this particular cult had predicted that a massive flood would occur on December 21st of that year and destroy all life on Earth. Oak Park Study Group members were taught that on the eve of the cataclysm, an alien being from the planet Clarion would come to rescue the true believers from the fate that awaited humankind the next day.
At the time, Stanford University social psychologist Leon Festinger became intrigued by this group’s rise to prominence. Having infiltrated the group with a group of colleagues under the guise of being true believers, Festinger uncovered some fascinating psychological findings about the nature of cognitive dissonance.
When December 21st came and went, with neither an alien visit nor a devastating global flood, Festinger assumed that the cult members would begrudgingly accept that they had been wrong and abandon the cult in short order.
Curiously though, the very opposite occurred.
Faced with the embarrassment that their certainty had been misplaced, the cult members doubled down in their commitment to both the cult leader and their belief that the world’s end was imminent. They merely changed the date and searched for an alternative explanation. Many concluded that the world had in fact been saved because of their devotion and faithfulness and so continued to preach their message with great vigour than ever.
Festinger observed a common pattern: people have a powerful psychological need to maintain consistent attitudes and behaviour. 
In an attempt to make sense of this pattern, Leon Festinger introduced the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ which he defined as the distressing mental state in which people “find themselves doing things that don’t fit with what they know or having opinions that do not fit with other opinions they hold.”
The Desire to Appear Congruent
The need to avoid cognitive dissonance was so strong in the cult members that even objective evidence against their beliefs was not enough to convince them otherwise. The desire to be and appear congruent in their beliefs and behaviours outweighed any alternative facts.
While it is easy to mock such groups, the reality is we all attempt to avoid the appearance of dissonance in this way. Instead of owning up to our hypocrisy, we will try any means possible of twisting our beliefs and judgements in a way that justifies our inconsistent behaviour.
Despite the obstinance that these habits often produce in people, harnessing the innate aversion to inconsistency can act as a powerful means of persuasion. Recent research into hospital hygiene – an area we all rely on to be consistent – highlighted precisely this principle.
While the value of hand washing in a medical context has been well-understood since the 1840s, one of the persistent challenges had been to turn this awareness into action. Many doctors, nurses and surgeons persisted in not adhering to proper hand hygiene procedures. This was especially pronounced among surgeons who washed their hands less than half as often as guidelines prescribed.
What Research Shows
A few years ago, researchers Adam Grant and David Hofmann set out to address this. Grant and Hofmann were well aware of various interventions that had unsuccessfully changed the hand hygiene habits of surgeons. However, where other initiatives had focussed on educating, threatening or pleading with surgeons to do the right thing, Grant and Hofmann opted for a new approach.
In their experiment, they placed two different signs above various examination room soap and gel dispensers. The first of these said, “Hand hygiene protects you from catching diseases” while the second one read, “Hand hygiene protects patients from catching diseases.”
Although the difference between the two signs was only a single word, the impact was remarkable. The first sign saw barely any difference in the rate of hand washing while the second sign resulted in a 45% increase.
Why was this the case? The researchers concluded that the suggested change tapped into the self-personas and exposed how their behaviours and deeply-held beliefs were out of alignment. The reality is that most surgeons enter the medical profession with a passion for helping patients. And so being nudged with the idea that failing to wash their hands was putting their patients at risk caused dissonance that demanded a response. In this instance, the response was to start doing the right thing.
The need to avoid incongruence can produce ugly habits in all of us, but it can also be used to guide others towards more positive practices. Nobody wants to feel like a hypocrite, even less to appear as one. This desire for congruence offers us a key way of motivating ourselves and others – by uncovering inconsistencies, we can move each other closer to the people we aim to be.