On When the World is Turned Upside Down

These are indeed uncertain times. Any Facebook user can attest to this statement. Most of us face a barrage of political opinion, news, and satire all waking hours of the day. This is just one example of how tension and change in the global political atmosphere trickle down to our individual lives. We see things happening out in the world and try to make sense of what it will mean for us and our loved ones. With many changes taking place in the American political landscape, and the response by civil society and government alike, I’m turning to some concepts in psychology and organisational studies to better understand how we make sense of it all. 

Do uncertain times cause us to stick more closely to our belief systems or let in new information? I’m exploring the concepts of cognitive dissonance and sense-making.

Cognitive Dissonance. Leon Festinger’s (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance relies on the assumption that people are motivated to maintain internal consistency. Cognitive dissonance refers to the psychological tension that someone experiences when they hold two or more conflicting beliefs or values, behaves inconsistently with their own beliefs or values, or when an individual receives new information that contradicts their beliefs and values. For example, consider the conflict embedded in the belief of “I trust my government to protect the rights of all its citizens, including the right to freely practice their religion” and new information, say, that your government will not allow immigrants and green card holders from seven countries of a particular majority religion to immigrate, flee war, or return home.

Essentially, when you experience internal conflict, it feels bad. It feels so bad that we are motivated to get rid of the internal conflict. Do we accept the new information, or cling to the old beliefs? What if the old beliefs are religious beliefs? We are starting to learn more and more about what we actually do to alleviate cognitive dissonance.

Recent research from Jagiellonian University, led by Małgorzata Kossowska, researched this human instinct to “cling to the rocks of dogma”. Dogma is the philosophical tenet, doctrine, or set of principles put forwards by an authority of a school of thought – often in reference to religion. Past research had identified that uncertainties, ones that often fit well with the concept of cognitive dissonance, can be relieved by reaffirmation of dogmatic beliefs. Unfortunately, in doing so, any group or individual with opposing beliefs can soon seem like the enemy. This can lead to prejudice and bias against opposing groups and opposing opinions. Kossowska’s team finds that this process isn’t unique to religious folk; we are all motivated by the need to cope with uncertainty. They measured the ability to cope with uncertainty and level of dogmatic belief in both religious individuals and atheists. They found inability to cope with uncertainty was correlated with dogmatic beliefs for both religious and non-religious alike. In the next step of the study, they manipulated feelings of uncertainty and found that both groups were more prejudice against non-similar social groups. What does this mean? Those who hold stronger beliefs are at risk of becoming more prejudiced in times of uncertainty. This is significant because it is a human response not unique to religious believers, but our natural reaction to uncertainty.

Sense-making. The act of searching for meaning in order to deal with uncertainty[1]. Making sense of our world is important in that it guides and constrains our actions. Finding meaning in a way that corresponds with others’ sense-making is also important. Numerous elements intertwine in how individuals make sense of events:

Self-identity: who one is within the context in question. Given that our identities can be fluid and context-dependent, understanding the role we play within the context in question is a part of the sense-making process;
Environment: looking to the context for cues in understanding what information is important and relevant;
Plausibility: understanding that shared accounts are potentially politically-infused, accepting what seems realistic rather than what seems entirely accurate;
Narrative: building narrative accounts of the uncertain situation helps to organise how an individual experiences, interprets, and controls the event;
Shared: sense-making is a process that is personal but also social in that narratives, accounts, and meaning can be shared and communicated with others to generate shared meaning;
Retrospect: a shift in time gives people a new perspective from which to sense-make a particular event;
Continuity: sense-making is an ongoing process that shifts and evolves in response to the uncertain environment or event. Just as chaos is dynamic and ever-changing, the sense-making process is too. It forces us to continue this process of finding and sharing meaning.

Understanding the way in which we search for meaning and share it with others is a fascinating part of dealing with uncertainty. Combined with gaining a better understanding of how uncertainty – specifically dissonant information, behaviours, or beliefs – impacts our own thoughts and motivates us to act, can help us in moving forwards into this new world.

Some closing thoughts:

  • Stay open-minded. Understand that uncertain times will motivate us to cling more committedly to our beliefs. This will help us have better politics conversations.  
  • Uncover what elements, and at what level, make you feel more uncertain or insecure (political and policy change, organisational change, social change, etc.).
  • Analyse how you yourself sense-make.

And above all, try to treat non-similar others with compassion and understanding, as you would hope they’d do the same for you.


[1] Since I come from a sub-discipline of management, my understanding of sense-making originates from Weick (1979), who identified factors that individuals work through to make sense of uncertain or ambiguous situations within an organization.

Jarrett, Christian (24 January 2017). Are These Uncertain Times Drawing Us Into A Cycle of Dogma and Prejudice? The British Psychology Society Research Digest. https://digest.bps.org.uk/2017/01/24/are-these-uncertain-times-drawing-us-into-a-cycle-of-dogma-and-prejudice/
Kossowska, M., Czernatowicz‐Kukuczka, A., & Sekerdej, M. (2016). Many faces of dogmatism: Prejudice as a way of protecting certainty against value violators among dogmatic believers and atheists. British Journal of Psychology.

Maitlis, S. & Christianson, M. (2014). Sensemaking in organizations: taking stock and moving forward. Academy of Management Annals, 8(1), 57–125.
Weick, K. (1979). The Social Psychology of Organizing. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Weick, K. (1988). Enacted sensemaking in crisis situations. Journal of Management Studies, 25, 305–317. 

Weick, K. E. (1993). The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster. Administrative science quarterly, 628-652.


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