Have you heard of the term “sour grapes”?
It came from one of Aesop’s Fables, which always had a simple and powerful message lightly hidden in a story about animals. It was a very effective and memorable method of storytelling (and that could be another discussion all by itself). One of my favourites was the Fox and the Grapes. A fox sees some grapes high up in a tree, can’t figure out how to get them, so he decides they must have been sour and that he never really wanted them anyways. This is where the term “sour grapes” originates.
The fox really did want the grapes, he just couldn’t live with the fact that he either wasn’t smart or skilled enough to get to them, or that he will go grapeless and unfulfilled. Aesop wasn’t the only one weaving fables. The fox created one too – that the grapes were not worth his effort.
This story is a shining example of the concept of cognitive dissonance. This concept explains the stories that we tell ourselves, and how we justify our actions in the face of conflicting values or information. This is one of the largest drivers of human behaviour and thinking. To me, it can explain more in the world than any other single psychological or sociological concept. Our minds are designed to confirm what we already know, protect us from feeling like we’re wrong and to avoid carrying two opposing views.
So we develop our own fables to make us feel better. The title of this post is a trick question – we are all Fableweavers! We are built for it. Most of it happens subconsciously, so we don’t even realize we’re doing it. In the case of a fox in deep denial about his desire for delicious fruit, there’s no real harm done.
However, these stories we tell ourselves might create situations where we dodge accountability, ignore evidence of real problems, or are prevented from achieving our best – because we’re not being honest with ourselves.
Let’s apply this to a scenario in the charitable fundraising world:
Statement 1: Our organization values our relationship with donors
Statement 2: If our donors feel valued, they will continue to give
Statement 3: We are losing 30% of our existing donors each year, and the sector average is 10%
Conclusion: Something really isn’t right here. Maybe our donors aren’t feeling valued.
If you don’t draw the conclusion that something is wrong (which you really should given those numbers!), it might be because you are telling yourself one of these many possible fables:
Cognitive dissonance is very powerful at masking parts of reality. All of these stories could prevent you or your organization from taking the action you need to make things better. In the case above, for example, talking to your donors to see how they feel, and then implementing strategies to serve them better. Without acknowledgement of what is wrong, you will likely keep doing the same thing.
Here are some ways you can deal with cognitive dissonance:
Cognitive dissonance can be self-protective, and it’s not always a bad thing – we don’t want to become paralyzed thinking about all of the ways our actions or our organization’s actions don’t always match our values. As human beings, we are all walking contradictions! What is important is being honest with ourselves, especially when it really counts.
Go get those grapes – they are as sweet as ever!
Constant Questions: What examples do you have of stories you have told yourself? Looking back, how might you have handled a situation differently if you knew the stories you created in your mind? How could you make cognitive dissonance work in your favour? Do foxes actually eat grapes? (Sidenote: I checked, and they do.) Have you read the Grapes of Wrath? (Sidenote 2: It has nothing to do with grapes.)