LOS ANGELES—Cognitive dissonance was in full display at the ICANN meeting in Brussels, where the board of directors engaged in an act that caused so much personal discomfort that several directors were compelled to express their angst publicly during the final public board meeting. It was unavoidably clear from the comments that it was the vote to affirm a dot-XXX resolution that was the cause of their extreme discomfort. But then, that was exactly the psychological point behind making the comments; that those uttering them needed to give expression to the emotional and intellectual toll that resulted from the sense of cognitive dissonance brought on by the dot-XXX resolution.
It was, to my mind, a perfect example of cognitive dissonance in action, and one the adult industry would be well advised to take notice of, considering what is at stake. Examples of cognitive dissonance can be found within the industry, as well, however, but only if one is inclined to notice them
So what is cognitive dissonance?
Introduced by the U.S. psychologist Leon Festinger in 1956, it is a theory of social psychology that says most people feel uncomfortable when they hold simultaneous cognitions (i.e. knowing, knowledge, perception, belief) that are inconsistent with one another. The ensuing internal conflict creates a sense of dissonance within the individual that needs to be resolved in one way or another. According to its Wikipedia entry, cognitive dissonance has become an influential and extensively studied theory with profound implications.
"A powerful cause of dissonance is an idea in conflict with a fundamental element of the self-concept, such as 'I am a good person' or 'I made the right decision,'" states the entry. "The anxiety that comes with the possibility of having made a bad decision can lead to rationalization, the tendency to create additional reasons or justifications to support one's choices. A person who just spent too much money on a new car might decide that the new vehicle is much less likely to break down than his or her old car. This belief may or may not be true, but it would reduce dissonance and make the person feel better. Dissonance can also lead to confirmation bias, the denial of disconfirming evidence, and other ego defense mechanisms."
With respect to dot-XXX, the reason for the board members' sense of dissonance could not be plainer: They were voting to approve language contained in the resolution that they "knew" not to be true. The fact that they were voting to codify the findings of a previous independent review panel did nothing to assuage their belief that the vote would be asserting an untruth. Complicating the proceedings was the fact that ICANN was under direct threat of a lawsuit by ICM over actions taken by the ICANN board in 2006-7. The lawsuit, and the ensuing advice by ICANN's legal department that actions to forestall the lawsuit were paramount, gave the current board a rationale for voting for something they knew not to be true, but it obviously did little to drown out the dissonance banging away in their heads and in meetings held earlier that week behind closed doors. The comments made immediately prior to the vote could not have been more specific as to what was at stake in the vote.
"To say that I am uncomfortable with this situation is an understatement,” said Norwegian board member Harald Alvestrand. “I believe that our process has been followed, our reconsideration process has been followed. We have received competent legal advice on what is the reasonable path forward for what the organization should do, and that effectively this forces me to say that it is in the best interest of the organization and the interest of the furtherance of the organization's goals to act as if something is true that I believe is not, in fact, so. This is a very uncomfortable situation, but I can see no better way to move forward. Thank you.” [emphasis added]
In other words, for Alvestrand, the method he chose to deal with his own cognitive dissonance—brought on by having to vote to accept something he believed "is not, in fact, so"—was to follow "competent legal advice" in order to address ICANN's larger interest to avoid the lawsuit.
Board chair Peter Dangate Thrush thanked Alvestrand “for a very concise explanation of the position that I think many board members find themselves in.” That single and brief comment reinforces my belief that the board as a whole, and not just the directors who chose to comment, was experiencing a united state of cognitive dissonance.
Another board member, American Rita Rodin Johnston, then addressed the salient issue that was creating the discordant feelings. In doing so, she also explained how she would deal with her own sense of cognitive dissonance.
“I guess I agree with Harald,” she said. “I was in the unfortunate position to be on the board in 2007 and being told to reevaluate what happened in 2005. And after hearing many comments about the propriety of this application, I still question whether, in fact, there is a real sponsored community here, but it really doesn't matter what I think. I think what's important is that ICANN has a process that it set up and the process came back and said that sponsorship criteria was met and that this board has the courage to follow that criteria. And I think that is really important for everyone in the community to understand and appreciate. Thanks.” [emphasis added]
Another board member, Gambia's Katim Kouray, also expressed his "very uncomfortable position in the face of this resolution" and also acknowledged that "this is a very difficult decision that has to be made in the interest of ICANN."
The resolution was then voted upon and passed, with two board members abstaining. Interestingly, the language of the resolution itself provided another example of ICANN trying to deal with its own instance of institutional cognitive dissonance. In fact, as I read it the resolution itself embodies the very conflict for all to see.
"Whereas, although the board has not made a determination as to whether or not it agrees with the findings of the panel majority—a two-one decision—the board has determined to accept and act in accordance with some of the panel's findings," it reads. What are the findings the board will accept?
“Resolved, the board accepts and shall act in accordance with the following findings of the independent process majority," it reads "'One, the board in adopting its resolutions of June 1, 2005, found that the application of ICM registry for the XXX sTLD met the required sponsorship criteria; and, two, the board's reconsideration of that finding was not consistent with the application of neutral, objective, and fair documented policy.'"
In other words, the board will not make a determination that it agrees with the findings that it is nonetheless agreeing to act upon in its vote, even though the board members "know" them not to be true. The director's comments further make clear that the board is acting based on legal advice, under direct threat of a lawsuit, and "in the best interest of the organization."
Is it any wonder that the discomfort was so palpable on that stage in Brussels? While it could be argued that the board members never actually held conflicting cognitions—say, that ICM had never proven sponsorship support, but that the criteria had been established anyway—they were by their own admission under intense pressure to vote to accept something they knew not to be true. Codifying that falsehood in a public vote is almost more tragic than an internal conflict, and of necessity gave rise to the comments made prior to the vote.
This was not the board's final vote on the matter, though, and as Kouray said in his comments, "This game has still not played out yet. We still have quite a number of steps to proceed." Those steps include squaring an ensuing contract with ICANN's Government Advisory Council (GAC) and undertaking a final vote to approve dot-XXX as a sTLD. Because the staff may not be addressing the sponsorship question in its expedited evaluation process apparently being undertaken now, there is no reason to think that the current contradictions, as expressed by the board, will not be in play then. There are many months to go before that vote takes place, however.
ICANN is not the only association of interested parties dealing with cognitive dissonance over the subject. The entire registry community is likewise dealing with contradictory truths about dot-XXX, but it has almost to a person decided to ignore the opposition within the target industry, to instead focus solely to ICANN's integrity as an institution. If it fails to resolve this situation in the favor of fellow-registrar ICM, they claim that its effectiveness going forward will be hopelessly compromised. It is not surprising that that position also align with their own self-interest; it is but one way that people overcome intractably contradictory positions, and a rather effective one at that.
To be sure, similar gyrations are happening in the adult space as some members of the industry deal with their own cases of cognitive dissonance on the subject. The most obvious type of internal dissonance might occur in those who claim to not support the application but who actually do. Others, in a similar vein, claim no financial advantage when in fact they have one. Others claim to oppose the application but have made no effort to actually oppose it when it could actually make a difference. Still others claim their silence denotes neutrality, when they know full well that staying mute has only aided the application. My personal favorite of these seemingly endless examples is the fellow who's actually on record with ICANN as being a supporter who goes out of his way to publicly proclaim his neutrality. Amazing prevarication, to say the least, but not so surprising given the applicant's own comfort with cognitive dissonance. (A certain percentage of the population could care less about contradictory realities, and in fact is delighted to exploit them whenever they occur. Sometimes, as in the case of ICM, they'll even work hard to manufacture them, as in its ability to proclaim its support for ICANN while simultaneously threatening to sue them into the ground.)
For what it's worth, I myself am afflicted with regular bouts of cognitive dissonance, but not about dot-XXX. In that regard, I have no illusions about the dangers posed by ICM Registry in its quest to control an industry it sees as ripe for regulation and in dire need of some discipline.