Why do people get eaten by lions?

The inherent difficulty of organisational change

“A proposition can only be verified in terms of the paradigm or model of which it is part” — Edward Goldsmith


How S. was killed by a lion

The following story was documented by anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1) in 1928 and is used as an example of circularity in Michael Polanyi’s brilliant essay, The Stability of Beliefs.

Two African natives, S. and K., go to the wood to gather honey. S. found four big trees full of honey, whilst K. could find only one. K. went home bewailing his ill luck, while S. had been so fortunate. Meanwhile S. had returned to the wood to bring away the honey, was attacked by a lion and torn to pieces.

The relatives of the lion's victim at once went to the soothsayer to discover who was responsible for his death. The soothsayer consults the oracle several times and declares that K., jealous of S's rich harvest of honey, assumed the form of a lion in order to avenge himself. The accused denied his guilt strenuously and the chieftain ordered the matter to be settled by the ordeal of poison (1). Matters then followed their usual course—says the explorer's account—the ordeal was unfavourable to the accused, he confessed and succumbed to torture … The accusation appears quite natural to the soothsayer who formulates it, the prince who orders the trial by ordeal, the crowd of bystanders and to K. himself who had been transformed into a lion, in fact to everybody except the European who happens to be present.

As Polanyi explains:

“lt is clear to us that K. had not actually experienced turning into a lion and tearing S. to pieces, and so at first he denied having done so. But he is confronted with an overwhelming case against himself. The interpretative framework which he shares with his accusers does not include the conception of accidental death; if a man is devoured by a lion there must be some effective reason behind it, such as the envy of a rival. This makes him an obvious suspect and when the oracle, which he has always trusted, confirms the suspicion he can no longer resist the evidence of his guilt and he confesses having turned into a lion and having devoured S. This closes the circle of the argument and confirms the magical framework in which it was conducted, and it thus enhances the powers of this framework for assimilating the next case which will come under its purview.”

Why it matters

When trying to undertake any form of organisational transformation, resistance to change often borders on the absurd. Despite logical and intelligent arguments from the change protagonists, sound recommendations are nevertheless rejected by decision-makers and the status quo remains. Why?

The problem is that we can only assimilate propositions that fit our interpretive frameworks. When confronted by data that contradicts our paradigms, whether we are an oracle, a business person, or a bureaucrat, we deploy powerful strategies to preserve our beliefs. Polyani describes three such strategies that work in concert to resist change:

  1. Circularity: when a number of people who hold the same set of presuppositions mutually confirm each other's false interpretation of an experience or observation, as in the story above.

  2. Epicyclical elaborations: when a reserve of secondary elaborations is deployed to cover almost any conceivable eventuality, however ridiculous they might seem. Epicyclical elaborations are frequently exhibited by conspiracy theorists.

  3. Suppressed nucleation: While the principle of circularity protects an existing system of beliefs against doubts arising from any adverse piece of evidence, suppressed nucleation prevents the germination of any alternative concept on the basis of any single new piece of evidence.

When trying to instigate change these forces work relentlessly against us. If the change team’s paradigm differs substantially from that of the executive team’s (as is often the case during ‘Digital’ and/or ‘Agile’ transformations) rational discourse simply cannot occur. The parties see things in a fundamentally different way from each other and cannot effectively communicate.

Therefore, when instigating change we need to invest significant effort in paradigm alignment. We need to ensure the executive team absorbs the underlying conceptual framework of the proposed initiative. Otherwise, our efforts will be as futile as the hapless K’s.

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Polanyi’s timeless essay, The Stability of Beliefs, can be found here.

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Notes and references

1. Levy-Bruhl, The "Soul" of the Primitive, London, 1928, p. 44. as cited in Polanyi, Michael. The Stability of Beliefs, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 3, no. 11 (1952): 217-32.

2. The Ordeal of Poison was a widespread practice in Madagascar and Africa for determining guilt or innocence. “A suspect was given some of the poison to eat or drink, depending upon its form; if his stomach rejected it and he vomited, he was usually deemed innocent; conversely, if he retained the poison he was considered guilty, and was either allowed to die from its effects or was disposed of, according to his crime, in a variety of other fashions.”

Robb, George L. THE ORDEAL POISONS OF MADAGASCAR AND AFRICA. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 17, no. 10 (1957): 265-316.


Image Credit: John Dobbin, ‘Cat’ — Zambia