“Are the grapes really sour?”: Aesop’s Fables and Corporate Decision Making


Most of us have heard the tale about “The Fox and the Grapes” from Aesop’s Fables. It is the story of a fox that tries to eat grapes hanging from a vine but cannot reach them. But rather than admit defeat, he states that they are sour and not worth eating. Hence the expression “sour grapes”.

In psychology, this is known as cognitive dissonance which is the stress or discomfort we experience when we holding two contradictory ideas or values in our mind at the same time.

This discomfort arises because we seek consistency between expectation and reality. In the case of the fox, eating the grapes was its expectation but since reality was not achievable, there is a significant gap (and tension) between expectation and reality.


To mitigate this tension, we (or the fox) will try to move our expectation closer to reality (which we can’t or refuse to change).

One way of achieving this is through motivated reasoning which is an emotion-based decision making phenomenon. It leads us to identify with the evidence that confirm what we already believe or develop elaboration rationalisations to justify our beliefs.

“So how did Aesop’s Fox get into my office?”

During my career working with clients as an investment banker and a strategy consultant, and even within my own teams, I have seen this happen in meetings, negotiations and discussions. Most times sub-consciously and I’ll even be first to admit I’m guilty of it. Here are some examples:

  • Supporting the valuation of an acquisition target by excluding (or including) certain comparable companies in the peer group to achieve the desired range earnings multiple
  • Focussing on the views of certain team members while giving less weightage on the views of others. (Team members who are senior in rank, have more dominant personalities get heard more easily than others)
  • In executing redundancy, justifying (and sometimes even creating reasons) why those 2 persons in the team are the ones that have to go.

What happens is decision-making is impacted when judgement is made based on emotion and we attempt to rely on evidence that is “created” rather based on logic and objective evidence.

So what could we do to manage this?

First, we could become more self conscious on our decision making process. Being more open to alternative views and recognising our biasness. Researchers have shown that certain personalities related to being open and curious could mitigate clouded judgements by motivated reasoning. Julia Galef from the Center for Applied Rationality speaks about “Scout Mindset” in this TEDx talk.

However, in reality we will find it difficult because we never be able to fully detach our emotions from a decision, especially in moments of stress and frustration in a challenging business environment.

An alternative we propose is to employ a decision making process that can somehow detach personal bias from the decision, and separate knowledge from emotion.

One of the tools we use in our facilitated workshops to achieve better decision making is LEGO Serious Play. The method involves LEGO bricks which participants build models to express their views to the business question posed by the facilitator. Participants are given time to construct their models (or “answers”) individually ensuring individual responses are not subject to influence of the group or more dominant members of the group. Following which, participants are each given the opportunity to share what their models represent to the rest of the group. Everyone has a turn to speak and no-one is skipped over. The intention is to keep the focus is on the LEGO models and hence the business issue being discussed, instead of the person. This allows the discussion to go the full distance in depth and intensity without personal bias and emotions to rule the discussion.

The result: Better decision making based on knowledge of the team and reduced levels of personal bias.