Enough is enough. It’s time to call it out. The cognitive dissonance game being played at the top is a problem with enormous lasting consequences. The bounce-back narrative is a selfish claim on the future. But it's not my future. Is it yours?
For a while now I have been feeling an enormous gulf between the world that I live in and the world that politicians, policymakers and our industry leaders live in. The need to open borders, get back to business as usual, and once again embrace the growth paradigm, is a claim on my future and on yours. It takes away our right to imagine a different, kinder, more equitable and more generative future. I also know that I am not alone in thinking this.
A dangerous and selfish game
In the 1950s, Leon Festinger coined the term cognitive dissonance to describe the discomfort between a fact that an individual knows to be true and a behaviour that contradicts that fact. For example, an individual may agree with the science of climate change and that it is the most important issue for the future health of our planet. But this fact creates discomfort when an individual chooses to fly. To reduce that discomfort, the traveller must either choose an alternative transport option, justify their choice of flying (“It quicker” or “there is no other option”) or dismiss the irrefutable evidence of climate change. At its core, the theory of cognitive dissonance is about how people make sense of contradictory ideas and lead lives that are, at least in their own minds, consistent and justified.
This is where choosing your facts, ignoring contrary evidence, and choosing a behaviour that is contrary to evidence becomes a problem. Evidence that causes discomfort is usually resolved by devaluing and discarding a conflicting piece of knowledge (Perlovsky, 2013). It is also called gaslighting. For new knowledge and ways of doing tourism to emerge -- such as regenerative tourism -- it needs to contradict existing knowledge to some extent. Regenerative tourism creates discomfort, especially for those in established positions who are wedded to existing practices and metrics, so it is dismissed regardless of the evidence. Perlovsky argues that cognitive dissonance is a key challenge for the evolution of our thinking and our future.
In The Atlantic, Aronson and Tavris argue that cognitive dissonance is shaping the anti-vaxxer moment. Individuals with preexisting convictions would sooner jeopardise their health and everyone else’s than accept new information or admit to being wrong. The same goes for the bounce-back narrative.
There is a cognitive dissonance between the real impacts of the pandemic, the climate crisis, and the environmental crisis engulfing the world, and the “bounce-back once we are all vaccinated” rhetoric. The cognitive dissonance our politicians and industry leaders are engaging in, and their assertions over our future, reflect nothing more than their own selfish vision and values. It stops us from appropriately preparing for the significantly different future ahead. It takes away our choice to choose a different future.
Why cognitive dissonance of bounce back tourism is just plain dangerous
At the moment we are constantly being bombarded with messages that vaccination will be the key to economic recovery. Of course, vaccination is sensible. But the messages we are receiving conflate the imperative of vaccination with bounce-back, business-as-usual and returning to ‘normal’. Vaccination and bounce-back are being bundled together. The danger is that by packaging the two together we give up the right to imagine a new future.
Not only do these messages come from predominantly people who don’t look like me, have never experienced what I have experienced, nor had my career path, they don’t see my worldview, nor do they appear in any way empathetic to the challenges of the vast array of people like the clients, colleagues, council workers that I currently work with. But, in the society I live in, power and platform are everything. With that comes the privilege of exercising cognitive dissonance and discarding uncomfortable information. They are filtering out the voices, the views, and the knowledge that is not consistent with their own worldviews.
To illustrate, there is currently a raft of initiatives aimed at “reimagining the visitor economy”. I have been asked to attend consultation events for several of these. The problem is, those in charge of "reimagining the visitor economy" are often a very gendered, homogenous group and their values and ideas are not at all imaginative. They are like-minded, similarly experienced, and in the consultations that I have been involved in, they have mostly been interested in framing and justifying the “bounce back” narrative. I have grown weary because participating in these groups results in legitimising their agenda. Alternative ideas and approaches are dismissed and receive no air time. Cognitive dissonance rules.
The dominant narrative coming from this cohort also tend to use a kind of reductionist, instrumental logic that ignores alternative ways of thinking and imagination. What is clearly missing is cognitive diversity, alternative disciplinary perspectives, willingness to reach beyond their own thinking, empathy, and gender diversity to name a few gaps. We also need different thinking styles and approaches. That means we need to understand how to anticipate different futures in a fair, open and emotionally intelligent way that puts the big picture and the interests of the many before individuals agendas.
Anticipating the future of tourism
The past has brought us here. The options we have identified and the choices we have made have contributed to where we are right now. But the future does not exist in the present. The future only exists in the way we anticipate and imagine what lies ahead (Transforming the Future, 2018). The future is not a fact, but in our imagination. What stymies our imagination matters, because how we anticipate the future shapes what we do. Herein lies the conundrum: if we are sh*t at anticipating the future, then we will inevitably take the steps to realise that future! Let’s think about that. How we anticipate the future, the methods we use, and our capacity to think and imagine outside what we already know will determine how we respond. Yet the cognitive dissonance of our "leaders" keeps us swimming in the same lane.
How we anticipate the future is also shaped by our relationship with emotions such as discomfort, fear and risk, and how strong our desire is to stay within the comfort zone. Our willingness to acknowledge uncomfortable information when it's inconsistent with our immediate agenda or when it disrupts the status quo must also be brought into the open. As Escalante argues, difficult decisions make our brains hurt, so we avoid troublesome knowledge and discard facts and evidence.
The role of cognitive dissonance in imagining the future
In the business-as-usual narrative currently being adopted by politicians and policymakers is ignoring, downplaying or gaslighting the very real possibility of the deep, difficult and transcendental change ahead. They are simply not able or not willing to imagine it. So they gather research from consultants willing to give them the narrative and the evidence they need. This old consulting model is breaking, but it is still causing much damage.
In the tourism world, there are strong evidence that tourism is being subject to massive restructuring. So too is transport, retail, accommodation, hospitality, events, and services. The form and function of our cities and regions are changing, as are our travel patterns and mobility. Our values, where we find meaning and purpose are also shifting. Add to this the massive changes triggered by climate change, and the confluence of all these factors suggests large scale disruption to our economic, social and environmental systems. No one, not even a global consulting firm, can get a handle on how this will play out. The price will be paid at a local level, yet local is rarely mentioned in these global reports.
Yet the cognitive dissonance being practised by our politicians and political leaders ensures the current "bounce back" and "business-as-usual” narrative is maintained. These fictions have been important to maintain the position, relevance, and power of current politicians and industry leaders. But now, more than ever, it is essential to raise issues with, and to challenge, this status quo.
So what's the call to action?
The cognitive dissonance practised by others, that dismisses or gaslights the issues that one cares about, can be disempowering. Anxiety, depression and a disconnect from a sense of meaning and purpose can result. Finding a voice or taking action can be a way of feeling more empowered. Connecting with others can also counter the sense of isolation one feels.
1.Take a stance. Be conscious of cognitive dissonance and how new ideas, alternative ways of doing tourism, and new pathways will be treated in "reimagining the visitor economy" processes.
2. Zoom out. We need to zoom out and understand in a clear-eyed way the strengths and weaknesses of the current system. Be fair, honest and genuine even if the knowledge is uncomfortable.
3. Be honest about the current system. We need to stop looking for the solution within the current system and acknowledge that the system needs change. Call out what is not working.
4. Identify our own assumptions and blind spots. We need to take the act of anticipating the future to the next level by identifying the underlying assumptions that shape and inhibit our capacity to imagine the future.
5. Take responsibility. We need to take responsibility and act in bold and courageous ways before it’s too late. Just because the knowledge is uncomfortable or troublesome, doesn't mean you should dismiss it.
6. Stop playing the cognitive dissonance game. The game of cognitive dissonance must be reckoned with. When you see a process that is designed to reinforce comfortable outcomes, draw attention to the bias and ask for alternative ideas to be addressed.
Conclusion: Sitting in discomfort, dealing with troublesome knowledge
Our future is being stolen by the bounce back narrative. We should claim it back. We have a system where education, experience, and the capacity to think in innovative ways appear to have declining value. The space for new ideas, the airing alternative futures, is limited. Only those within the established ranks of power and privilege are given a platform to anticipate the future. We need to make and hold the space for alternative ways of thinking about the future.
We need a trans-disciplinary lens, not simply a narrow industrial viewpoint. We need humanistic insights that engage the intuitive (heart) and enteric (gut) brains to balance out the instrumental logic of scientific rationalism (the head brain). We need to recognise the value of sitting in discomfort and grappling with troublesome knowledge.
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