Conference Summary 2014Campus conflict, Cognitive Dissonance Theory and the Ombuds: (Or, how might this psychological mechanism play out in issues presented by our visitors).
Santa Monica College
Cognitive Dissonance is a social-psychological construct which gives an individual "a powerful way to reduce tension whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent". (Tavris and Aronson, p. 13, 2007). Cognitive Dissonance theory explains how we can justify our behaviors and still save face, especially if we have behaved in ways antithetical to our own values. As our very sense of self may be threatened by our behavior, we conveniently figure out how to rationalize it. A typical example of how this mechanism actually works follows: "I was hazed as a freshman by seniors on the football team and it was a dreadful experience". After the experience I might say to myself, "It is an honor to be chosen for the team and the hazing was completely worth it." With self-justification at work, the football player distorts his perceptions about the team in a positive direction. And further, he is then able to haze the next generation of freshmen football players comfortably.
The mechanism of self-justification could be worse than a lie, because we actually convince ourselves we did the right thing. In this way we can protect our self-esteem and self-concept. Self-justification allows us to begin to distort the reality of the situation. For an ombuds working with a knotty conflict where both parties are deeply entrenched in their viewpoints and their own realities, it is a useful phenomenon to review and remember.
At my college, when the student editors of the campus newspaper highlighted the Pole dancing Olympics at a downtown venue, several female faculty were furious the story received so much space and ink, (large front page photos). The faculty advisor was equally furious at the faculty when he was told by the student editors they had experienced verbal abuse by these professors. He felt that the professors had attacked freedom of speech, and ultimately his very professionalism as the faculty advisor to the paper. Probably his sense of self as a thoughtful, open minded and forward thinking professor was called into question. He was unable to consider his possible educational function and role in helping the students think through their choice of story more carefully. And, he could not believe that his students might have behaved rudely and with disdain towards the faculty, (older women of color). Likewise, the aggrieved professors refused to acknowledge they may have behaved less than civilly to the students in a public setting. And, they felt justified for their rage considering what they perceived as an insult to women on our campus with that published article.
This had become a public debate, with letters to the editor continuing for several weeks. The journalism professor sent the students to see the ombuds. In fact, the students had little interest in actual mediation or further discussion of the conflict with the professors and did not willingly come back for their second appointment. The professors were equally disinterested in further discussion directly with the students. It wasn't worth their effort to try and talk with these ‘misinformed students with sexist attitudes as evidenced by the article and photos published.
So, what is the role of the ombuds when a public debate has ensued and the matter has turned both political and deeply personal? Understanding how the mechanism of Cognitive Dissonance and further self-justification operates can explain the extent of each player's emotional attachment to either side of the debate. (This particular issue had moved beyond the ombuds office before it had even reached our office, and had become inflamed by media attention). For successful mediation all parties have to be open and want a resolution, and, have no interest in keeping the conflict candle lit. The parties have to at least consider listening to the others' points of views and experiences. Most importantly the parties should not have begun to harden their shells of self-justification for their less than respectful behavior.
The ombuds, under these difficult circumstances, can model rational behavior with good listening and mirroring skills, and show deep respect for all parties' points of views. This may help each party to feel acknowledged. The ombuds can explain options and nudge those engaged in the conflict and clinging to their 'rightness', to consider the experience of the other party. But the veracity of self-justification when Cognitive Dissonance is operating can't be underestimated. Simply being able to identify this psychological mechanism at work can yet be another useful tool during a campus conflict.
Tavris, Carroll, & Aronson, Elliot (2007). Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Florida: Harcourt Books.