Kubler-Ross Meets the Saucer People

A psychologist and flying saucers? No, it’s not some bizarre new cooking show from the Food Network. Back in the 1960s, Leon Festinger, of cognitive dissonance fame, and two other psychologists were investigating a flying saucer cult. The cultists believed that the saucers would come and take them from the Earth before all life was destroyed by a great flood. The psychologists wanted to find out what would happen when the world didn’t end on schedule. Although some people might have thought them biased, they did not consider the case where the world did end on schedule.

Interestingly enough, when doomsday came and went with neither flood nor flying saucers, the cultists did not abandon their faith. They concluded that their actions had somehow saved the world, they became even more convinced of their beliefs, and they immediately launched into a massive recruitment drive. It was only after that failed, months later, that the saucer cult collapsed. But, as Festinger went on to observe, that didn’t always happen: sometimes the recruitment drive was successful, and the cult would survive for years after its belief system had been ostensibly proven false.

This phenomenon is hardly unknown in business and non-business realms alike. Sometimes an idea simply won’t die even after reality has stuck the metaphorical fork in it and declared it done. Whether this is a small group fighting to preserve a product idea that’s been abandoned or people stubbornly supporting a political candidate who has lost the primary, the faithful are undeterred by the fact that the flying saucers did not arrive on schedule. Denial is a powerful force, particularly when other people reinforce the belief.

Denial, of course, is one of the stages of grief in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although grieving does not require that any particular person experience the stages in any particular order, or even that each person will experience every stage, nonetheless the model is a powerful tool for understanding how people are likely to react when something they are deeply committed to comes to an end or does not turn out as expected.

It is at that point of experiencing loss, be that the loss of a person or of an idea, that Kubler-Ross meets the saucer people. It is at that point that denial can take charge and then take a flying saucer ride around reality: the loss of an idea is the loss of an abstraction. There is no body; rather, the physical world is unchanged. This can create a profound sense of cognitive dissonance, in which everything can appear as it did before even as everything is also very different.

Denial can be difficult, although hardly impossible, when one is alone. The more people who join in the denial process, however, the easier it gets. When a tightly knit group collectively denies the facts that are in front of it, members of the group are often forced to choose between joining in the denial or abandoning the group. The greater their commitment to the group, the more of their lives they’ve invested in it, the harder it is to leave. And the denial is so tempting… and surely if everyone else is saying the same thing that you are feeling, well, you can’t all be wrong. Well, in fact, you can all be wrong, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Given enough people all in denial together and suddenly what you have is a group that is engaging in something that looks suspiciously like groupthink.

Even for a diffuse social group, the same phenomenon can still take place. Social media dramatically and drastically simplifies the process of denial as it becomes ever easier for group members to collectively reinforce each other’s belief system. As for reality, it’s lucky if it only gets kicked to the curb.

Once again, the group enters the realm of groupthink. It allows in only information that supports its views and denies the validity or existence of anything that does not. In either case, the members of the group are never able to process their loss and some to terms with reality. Whether this is merely a footnote in a history book or a significant cause of financial loss to a business really depends on the situation. Of course, the second situation can often lead to the group becoming one of those footnotes.

So how can you tell if your group is about to take a ride on a flying saucer? There are a few clues.

Are you closing yourself off to input from people or sources who disagree with you? If you only listen to the people who tell you what you want to hear and what you already “know” that’s a danger signal.

Are you turning against the very people whom you used to trust because now they’re telling you something you don’t want to hear? For example, many Bernie Sanders supporters turned against economist Paul Krugman when he criticized Bernie’s economic plan as a fantasy. Suddenly, Krugman was a sellout and the enemy. In fact, it was the Sanders supporters who were embarking on a flying saucer ride.

Are you refusing to allow in anyone who might tell you that you’re wrong? When groups get stuck, they will often use all manner of techniques to avoid considering alternatives. For example, being “too busy” to stop and think is one tried and true approach to simultaneously feeling like you are doing something without actually changing anything. This makes it easier to keep out anyone who might tell you something you don’t want to hear.

The problem with flying saucer rides is that no matter how comforting they might be, eventually they always crash and burn. If you want to make progress, though, you need to find a way to get off the saucer.

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