One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.”
“IT IS EASY TO DESPISE WHAT YOU CANNOT GET.”
– Aesop (Sixth century B.C.)
The fable “The Fox and the Grapes”, written some 2,500 years ago, offers a classic illustration of cognitive dissonance. It follows a predictable pattern, one that you may have seen play out in your experience: something is desired, found to be unattainable and then criticized in an effort to reduce the discomfort of dissonance. It is for this reason that when people justify something that is difficult to accept we call it “sour grapes.”
Cognitive dissonance is one of the most studied theories of social psychology, perhaps because it drives a great deal of human activity. It is part of the human psychological immune system, the means by which the status quo is rationalized, even before it becomes reality.
I’ve seen this process work out in almost unbelievable ways. Friends who once shared my passion for truth fell short in their quest and then dedicated an inordinate amount of energy to reducing the discomfort of the dissonance between their deepest desire and the self-destructive path they chose. Work associates who held enormous promise based on their God-given talents but gave up short of the goal.
I have to wonder, too, if the contemporaries of many of the prophets throughout history met their fate not because it was predestined but because of cognitive dissonance. The status quo is well-defended and if anything, history reveals that people will sacrifice just about anything to ensure their personal comfort.