Changing the way we change the world

Water on the brain: the discomfort of cognitive dissonance

By Susan Davis, Executive Director

Are you working on international development? Do you sometimes feel uncomfortable? This might sound a bit like a commercial for Alka Seltzer, but really it’s about cognitive dissonance. This is the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time (

Maybe it's cognitive dissonance?

Maybe it’s cognitive dissonance?

If, when confronted about the way you work, you’ve ever explained it by saying, “Well, that’s the way I’ve always done it,” you may be suffering from cognitive dissonance.

In the water sector, there seem to be several conflicting yet strongly held beliefs and actions:

  • Belief: Water is a human right, and those of us with plenty of access to it don’t think twice about why we have it. Conflicting action: We feel obligated to justify to donors “why water” is important (see examples here, here, and here)
  • Belief: Safe water is essential for life. Conflicting action: Most implementing organizations and donors don’t check to see whether water systems they build in developing countries are still working,  even though we’ve known for decades that many water points fail within a few years. And there’s evidence that the water from these systems is not necessarily safe.
  • Belief: Safe plentiful water is essential for human health, and those of us with plenty of it try to drink 8 glasses a day. Conflicting action: In developing countries, the only health impact we look at or talk about most of the time is reduction of diarrhea (see a blog about some of the other health impacts here). And we aim very low for quantities of water provided.
  • Belief: Development must be cost-efficient. Conflicting belief & action: We do not seem to recognize that the ongoing failure of water points is a massive waste of funds. And we are willing to continue to rehabilitate broken water points without understanding why they fail.
  • Action: We continue to “sell” water to donors by saying it only costs $25 per person for water for life. Conflicting belief: There is a great deal of evidence that this is untrue.
  • Belief: Providing people with water helps get them out of the cycle of poverty. Conflicting action: When we ask communities to contribute cash and labor to build water systems, and those systems fail, we are making poor people poorer.

Cognitive dissonance can be strongest when we believe something about ourselves (“we are saving the world!”) and then do something against that belief (“we have no idea if we are actually saving the world, and evidence shows that much of the time, we probably aren’t”).

The good news, is that, once recognized, cognitive dissonance can be a powerful motivator to change one of the conflicting beliefs or actions. The bad news is that sometimes we just justify our behaviors by changing the conflicting belief (“What harm can it do?” “Water/development/working with governments is hard.” “At least we are doing something.” “It’s not our fault that the water systems don’t work.”)

It’s not just water where we find cognitive dissonance; evidently it’s a requirement for much of international development (see a blog on this here).

So let’s change our actions instead of modifying our beliefs. Let the discomfort out. (Oh and by the way, we might actually help more people that way.) Plop plop fizz fizz. Oh what a relief it is.

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