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We do it because that is what we have always done!

I have not blogged for a few months but as I sat on the final train to Gatwick Airport this morning on my way to Slovenia, I found time to reflect. The train I was on had come to a steady holt 20 minutes into my journey and a voice came over the tannoy explaining that due to a signalling problem the train will now terminate. I got off the train and looked for a member of staff but they all seemed to have disappeared, maybe to escape a train full of angry and confused passengers wanting to know how they are going to reach their final destination. I started to question why I didn't drive to Stansted Airport and fly from there and at the same time, I made excuses in my head to try to convince myself that the Gatwick flight was a better option and I had made the right decision, but it would have been easier to fly from Stansted, but I am here now so it doesn't matter. This is known as cognitive dissonance which is the mental discomfort / psychological stress experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs. The only way I would truly know if the Stansted flight was the better option would be if another me left my house at the same time but took the alternative route, this would be a Randomised Control Trial (RCT).

In 1978 seventeen teenagers were subject to the ‘scared straight’ program. The teenagers had all committed offences from drug dealing to robbery and the idea was that they could all be scared into going straight by spending three hours in a maximum security prison and being shouted at and abused by inmates and prison officers. During the visit to the prison, the teenagers spent time listening to inmates tell them how they would like to rape them and turn their teeth inside out. Some prisoners told them that they regret every day they have been there and that it’s not too late to change their ways and go straight. On the way home from the prison the teenagers talked of their plans to quit crime and work hard in future, some of the teenagers went on to get good jobs, get married and live happily ever after. The program was cascaded from country to country and was found to be a huge success, but was was it?

Following a Randomised Control Trial (RCT) by James Finckenauer the results were clear, "Scared Streight' did not work, in fact, the program was found to actually increase teenagers chances of committing offences and previous studies were found to be floored because they only explored what had happened to the teenagers who had attended the program and not the ones who hadn't. Even with this new solid evidence, previous advocates for the program refused to believe, or even acknowledge that something they had actively promoted and believed in did not work even though the evidence set before them was very clear.

A few years ago I ran a small-scale study in a large secondary school where the school used a structured post incident learning in place of detentions. The study confirmed that post-incident learning was more effective than detentions and improved behaviour, an RCT confirmed the results. The staff at the school also agreed that the intervention was effective and some even suggested the whole ethos of the school had become more positive, but 6 weeks later the post-incident learning structure was scrapped and detentions were reintroduced.

When I asked the school why they had so quickly scrapped such a successful intervention I was told: “The school was not ready for the intervention and they don’t feel that it is right for the pupils at the school”. In other words, the school suffered from cognitive dissonance. We do that because that is what we have always done!

Good researchers spend many hours studying and testing ideas, they use a verity of research methods so that the results are clear and unbiased. I am amazed how much cognitive dissonance stops people from making changes, it’s almost like a virus that is stopping us develop, improve lives and cure people of life-limiting illness. We learn more from mistakes than we do successes but first, we must be prepared to hold our hands up and admit we were wrong especially if the evidence before us is clear.

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