The Reality Gap and the Power of Self-Myth
You are not you. By that, I mean that the idea of Self -- the single arbitrator of decisions and sole captain of your wants and desires -- appears to be a construct of the brain. And part of that construct is the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves.
Sometimes, it becomes clear that a person's personal narrative is pretty different from who they really are. Like your friend who claims to be an avid runner but perhaps hasn’t run in weeks, months or even years. Or your office mate who claims to be ‘easygoing’ and then spends coffee breaks rearranging all the swizzle sticks to point in the same direction, and sorting and stacking the sugar packets by date of manufacture.
For some, the reality gap is a narrow one. For others, it's more like the Grand Canyon.
And that's where things get interesting. When the gap gets big, the sheer energy necessary to maintain the canard can be stupefying. And perhaps hoping to protect our own myths from exposure, many choose not to call people out on their nonsense.
And it’s not just individuals. Companies, corporations, and organizations are notorious at self-myth. These groups love to trumpet mission statements, paying lip service to "core values" while often playing the opposite game. Like the company celebrating their environmental stewardship, even when court documents reveal they’ve repeatedly dumped raw sewage into nearby rivers.
When it comes to the size of the reality gap, there's a huge spectrum. On one hand, there are the people who are brutally honest about themselves. On the other end of the range is a self-delusion bordering on mental illness.
And when groups of people come together, they have the capacity to display a unique kind of institutional mental illness.
This can be seen in the near-religious drive to make sweeping changes across an institution. As if the mere act of changing some process, program or organizational structure guarantees prosperity. To challenge the change casts one as a Luddite. And so, like myth on an individual basis, many questionable changes go unchallenged.
Over time, this results in a kind of ‘change fatigue’ among workers. It becomes difficult to assimilate each new program or process. Management tells itself that the change has been successfully integrated among their crew, unaware that many new processes and programs resemble more of a ghost ship.
So what can be done about cognitive dissonance?
For the individual, there's Cognitive Behavioral Treatment, or CBT. In an eight-week or longer program, you delve into the psychological aspects of what is perpetuating the myth or myths in your head. It's an intervention of sorts, but the only drug you're kicking is denial.
Unfortunately for the corporation or company, that's harder to do on a group level. Often it would require a sort of ‘headectomy’ (or radical change in leadership). Somehow, management doesn't tend to push removing themselves as a solution.
One of the defining elements of a great company is the narrowness of their reality gap, in the same way that those individuals whose narrative is genuine earn our respect.
But this is not a new problem. As long as we've had speech, we've told stories, and those include stories about ourselves. One can imagine that from the dawn of humanity, narratives have bent the fabric of reality. And in those folds can lie a remarkably different tale than the one being told.