Arsène Wenger’s Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance
MILAN, ITALY - MARCH 07: Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on the pitch at the San Siro before a press conference on March 7, 2018 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Fundamental Attribution Error – a concept in the field of social psychology – is the tendency to explain the behaviour of others in terms of internal factors, such as personality traits, rather than on situational factors. This is an especially pernicious issue when the people explaining behaviour are working with imperfect information, as in trying to explain the behaviour of people and situations they do not really know. Sound familiar?

What you are about to read is built upon a pair of assumptions which, if you disagree, will negatively affect your reaction to the argument. Those assumptions are as follows: 1) Arsène Wenger loves Arsenal Football Club, and 2) Arsène Wenger truly believes that he is capable of turning the club’s fortunes around, as he has recently suggested.

Wenger’s Cognitive Dissonance

The big question left then is: Why? What is it in Wenger’s psychology that allows him to view his situation so very differently than the vast majority of Arsenal fans? Another social psychological concept may illuminate Wenger’s baffling position: Cognitive Dissonance. Cognitive dissonance represents the incongruence between beliefs and evidence. When the observable evidence contradicts a person’s closely-held beliefs, it creates psychological tension.

Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, provided the most thorough early theory of cognitive dissonance in his examination of the failed prophecies of a UFO cult operating out of Chicago called the Seekers.

When we experience dissonance, we become highly motivated to reduce the tension by whatever means necessary. Wenger’s cognitive dissonance stems from the evidence conflicting with his core belief. That is Arsenal‘s putrid form conflicting with Wenger’s belief he is still the right man for the job. We will view cognitive dissonance as a plausible explanation of what exactly is going on in Wenger’s head. An examination of some of his statements may illustrate the point further.

Coping Strategies

When confronted with dissonance, people generally respond in one of three ways: 1) Change their attitude (difficult for Wenger given how much time and effort he has put into the club), 2) Acquire new information that contradicts the evidence, or 3) Reduce the importance of the attitudes or beliefs they hold to make the dissonance palatable. It seems Wenger is engaging in the second strategy, acquiring information that contradicts the available evidence.

This might make some of his more ludicrous-sounding excuses for poor performances explicable, if still not sensical. Take the Carabao Cup final, for example. In his post-match comments, Wenger looked to two areas to reduce his psychological turmoil. First, he insisted that the second Manchester City goal was offside, noting that his squad was “unlucky,” a phrase that turns up regularly when Wenger explains the team’s failures.

Second, he praised the team’s “physical performance” in the final, a notion some found simply absurd. In one branch of dissonance research, scholars have determined that putting great effort into an endeavour that turns out badly leads to tension. One of the ways to reduce that tension is to insist that the endeavour actually succeeded. This characterizes a great deal of Wenger’s post-match comments after losses.

For example, he made the claim after the team’s most recent North London derby loss that the Gunners should have had the game wrapped up by the break. This was a match, mind you, where Arsenal’s total expected goal tally was 0.6… for the entire game. Most recently, after the astonishing loss to Brighton, the manager claimed that what the squad really needs is “support.” This type of deflection is also consistent with cognitive dissonance.

Now What?

A stroll through the depths of the amorphous entity known as “Arsenal Twitter” will show you a fanbase convinced that Arsène Wenger is nothing more than a selfish has-been who hangs on to his job for the salary rather than doing the honorable thing, which is obviously to give up on his 21-year tenure with the club. Instead, it’s possible that the man is going through substantial psychological turmoil, as the mounting evidence that the squad needs anyone but him at the helm wars with his complete – and at one time completely justified – belief that he is the best man for the job.

It is almost certain that Wenger’s time at the club is up. But based on the available evidence that fans have, someone else will have to usher Wenger out the door. He sincerely does not yet believe that the party is over.

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I am trained as a sport sociologist, so my writing interests tend in that direction, most notably the intersection of sport, politics, and nationalism. More specifically, I love writing about The Arsenal Football Club and the Chicago Cubs. I currently live in the Washington DC area and teach at George Mason University.

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