Last week I attended the Development Days Conference 2018 in Helsinki. This is a yearly event organised by the Finnish Society for Development Research. This year’s topic was: The Politics of Sustainability: Re-thinking resources, values and justice.
It is a nice and informal event which brings together researchers, activists, and practitioners from all over Finland and overseas.
Sian Sullivan of Bath Spa University gave a very interesting presentation sharing her thoughts on Dissonance Cognitive Theory drawing from the groundbreaking work by Leon Festinger in the mid 1950s . Festinger’s theory challenged Action-opinion Theories which proposed that actions can influence subsequent beliefs and attitudes. His Dissonance Cognitive Theory, turned things around and highlighted the sense of discomfort that people feel when confronting situations involving new knowledge and conflicting beliefs or behaviours.
The fundamental assumptions of Dissonance Cognitive Theory are:
1. Humans are sensitive to inconsistencies between actions and belief.
2. Recognition of this inconsistency causes dissonance, and motivates an individual to resolve the dissonance. Once an individual recognises that one of her/his beliefs are being challenges, the instil is not to just say “oh well, that is fine”. There is usually some sort of mental anguish about this.
3. The degree of dissonance varies with the importance of the beliefs.
How do people resolve dissonances? The theory suggests three main ways:
1. Change beliefs (difficult but not impossible)
2. Make sure that you never do this action again (and do not feel the discomfort)
3. A third and more complex method of resolution is to change the way they view/remember/perceive their action, in other words “rationalise” the actions (eg, I think CO2 is contributing to climate change, yet I take a plane to fly to Helsinki to attend a conference because it is important that I share about my research).
While listing to the presentation I was wondering to what extent we who are working on evidence-informed policy systems are influenced by Action-opinion Theories and the notion of a causal links between new evidence and knowledge produced by researchers, policy analysts, etc. and changes in the beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, decisions by policy makers.
If we look through the Dissonance Theory lens at the relationships between knowledge and policymaking, what we see is resistance, rationalisation of strongly held beliefs, justification of the refusal to accept new facts and knowledge, strengthening of biases, and discomfort. Do we pay enough attention to this? The alternative, of course, is not stop producing knowledge to inform policy. I believe that knowledge is needed and required to inform policy decisions (my bias) but we need also to be aware that one trait of human psychology is to confirm an rationalise biases and not to be open to new knowledge and facts and be ready to change actions.
The researchers’ mindset may be more geared to asking questions and challenging biases and assumptions. But we cannot assume that everybody’s mindset (esp. policy makers) is the one of John Maynard Keynes who famously said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”.
It seems to me that what Dissonance Theory tells us working on evidence-informed policy space, is to be aware of our biases and become more creative in designing ways to bring knowledge into policy, in addition to the research occurring in academia and think tanks. Policy experiments are one way which has gained considerable traction. Other ways include: collaboration between researchers and knowledge intermediaries has great potential; packaging knowledge to communicate through different channels and platforms is important; convene networks and working groups which bring together researchers and policymakers to develop policy research agendas.