On sour grapes and crimpers

Why you want sour grapes

Back when I was little, I loved Aesop’s fables. I also liked legwarmers and crimped hair, but the 80’s could be cruel like that.

Looking back to my childhood tales, I was struck the other day by the tale of The Fox And The Grapes, when I was thinking about our behavioural quirks. Here's a reminder:

Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leaped with all his strength. As he went away, the fox remarked ‘Oh, you aren’t even ripe yet! I don’t need any sour grapes.’
— Aesop's fables


Not only because it gives me one of my favourite come-backs when people rationalise they don’t really want something because they can’t get it, but also because I realised it’s highlighting a human foible that has been studied extensively of late – cognitive dissonance.


That’s part of the problem, really, people using phrases like “cognitive dissonance” and then complaining that no-one is interested in their geeky-speak.

Let’s call it FOX-BRAIN.

When I get an attack of the fox-brain, or rather when I try to hold incompatible ideas at the same time, it usually goes like this:

“Well, no one wants a skinny woman” (me on a diet)

“Why does anyone need to know how to add anyway, when there is Excel?” (me during a maths test)

Leon Festinger's theory of [what we're calling fox-brain] focuses on how humans strive for internal consistency.

Wikipedia has this one nailed using a doughnut analogy. It actually made me a bit hungry:

In an example case where a person has adopted the attitude that they will no longer eat high fat food, but is eating a high-fat doughnut, the four methods of reduction would be:

Change behavior or cognition (“I will not eat any more of this doughnut”)

Justify behavior or cognition by changing the conflicting cognition (“I’m allowed to cheat every once in a while”)

Justify behavior or cognition by adding new cognitions (“I’ll spend 30 extra minutes at the gym to work this off”)

Ignore or deny any information that conflicts with existing beliefs (“This doughnut is not high fat”)
— wikipedia/Festinger


This reminds me of my sister’s friend Don, who while my poor sister was on a diet would say “Do you want some no-calorie-Haagen-Dazs?, Liza? NO CALORIES. Honest.”

There’s a slightly terrifying outcome to fox-brain thinking, too. One study found that If you reward children for completing a fun task – they become less interested in it. I’ve encountered this one in adulthood, the phrase being:

“if work were fun, they wouldn’t have to pay you to do it”.

It’s a case of saying “if they are rewarding me for doing it, there must be a catch”.

I like to think of it thus - we do of course know when we have dual beliefs and they are out of kilter. So we try to knit an explanation together to make ourselves feel warm and comfy.  Like the fox, we don’t want to admit we failed to get the grapes.

I was think about the tactics that have been found to utilise this human quirk. How can you use this at work? You can ask someone a pointed question regarding something you want them to do.

Then point out their hypocrisy.

This tactic has been used in many ways. Say, for example, you want to get a senior colleague to mentor one of your junior staff:

Q: Do you believe it’s important to mentor junior staff?

A: Yes! (if they say no you might want to move along!)

Q: Are you mentoring anyone now?

A: No, but…(don’t let them get into justifying it, get in quick)

Q: Would you mentor my team junior?

What about those really tricky people?

I like this one from Dan Pink also, about getting people to justify how motivated they are (this one is for all of you with teenagers):

You: "On a scale of 1-10, where one is not likely and 10 is totally ready, how ready are you to revise for your exam?"

Stroppy teen: "well, I am a 1/2/8" (it doesn’t matter what they say)

You: "Why is the number not LOWER?" (pause for effect) "tell me why".

Stroppy teen: "Well I am a 1/2/8, because…."

Let them make a list of how ready they are, how far along the scale and why. Then let the fox-brained thinking start working its magic. Let me know if it helps. If it didn't, well, invoke some sour-grapes-thinking -  nobody likes a teacher's pet for a child, do they?