Farmer’s struggles show signs of cognitive dissonance

Stress can be relieved by turning a seemingly impossible challenge into something fun.  |  Getty Images

Q: I think my husband, otherwise known as either Mr. Lucky or the Miracle Farmer, has finally met his match.

A little piece of land he picked up a few years ago is proving a challenge.

My husband has always been a successful farmer. He has worked hard, studied almost as hard, and has been completely committed to his profession. I admire him very much.

If anyone can get a crop off the land, it would be him, but he has not been able to do so on this little hunk of land.

It has become an obsession with him. Every year he tries something different, puts more money into the land than he should and watches as crop after crop gives way to the burning sun and our own little version of an annual drought.

I don’t understand it and neither does he. The truth is that he is getting obsessed with this thing, and although he does not say much, I can see him puzzling over it time and time again. I am not sure what can be done. I just know that it is getting out of hand and may in fact be doing my husband some damage.

Do you think that we can do anything about this?

A: Your husband might be experiencing something called the sunk cost effect and it is related to something called cognitive dissonance theory.

The sunk cost effect is the tendency of big business to invest money in one of the subsidiary branches of the organization despite knowing that the branch costs more money than it makes. The business knows that continued investment in a losing proposition is the start of a one-way journey into bankruptcy, but it keeps it going because somehow the subsidiary is tied into the self-concept or identity of the company.

So it was that both General Motors and Ford spent years building cars that did not sell and were eating into profits the companies made from their other products, such as trucks, minivans and SUVs. They kept manufacturing cars because both were traditionally known as automobile companies. As long as the companies kidded themselves that they were automobile companies, they were into cognitive dissonance. In other words, they were buying into a false reality.

Once they started to pay more attention to their sales records, they got out of producing the unprofitable cars and their fortunes improved with their other products.

Your husband’s statistical reality is that he is a good farmer. He needs to pay more attention to it. The more he ties his self-worth into land that is likely useless, the more difficult it is for him to live up to his self-concept, the miracle farmer.

Maybe he does not have to be a miracle farmer. Maybe he can just be a good farmer. He has statistics, a great income and some really good crops broadcasting his farming skills to the world. Those are more accommodating realities than is the little piece of unproductive land.

As well, maybe that little piece of difficult land does not have to be a challenge. Maybe it is just fun, and the more fun he can have experimenting with it, the less stressful it will be.

Think about it. The less stressed he feels, probably the less stressed you will be and the more likely it is that the two of you can drift with each other next to an open fireplace crackling through a winter’s storm.

Jacklin Andrews is a family counsellor from Saskatchewan. Contact: jandrews@producer.com.

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