There was once a meeting of the crabs. They came from everywhere: from calm waters and rough oceans and even from rivers. There had never been a call of this magnitude, so everyone was waiting to know why.
The oldest crab spoke:
– Friends, I have summoned you to talk about a very bad habit that we have carried on for centuries and that we must urgently change.
Everyone was amazed, until a young crab asked:
– What is that custom?
– Walking backwards,- the old crab replied bluntly. – Everyone uses us as a negative example and has formed a terrible image of us. It will be almost impossible for us to change, but I propose that mothers teach their children to walk forward. It will be easier for the new generation and thus we will improve our image.-
Those present agreed and when they returned home they made an effort to put the recommendation into practice. From that moment on, all the crabs that were born would be taught to walk forward.
The mothers tried very hard to guide their offspring, and the crabs also struggled to move their legs as directed, but progress was minimal because it was too difficult for them.
One day, one of the crabs noticed that his parents were walking backwards faster and more effortlessly.
– Why do they do one thing and teach us another? – He asked.
Neither short nor lazy, they tried that way of walking and found that it was much easier, so they stopped trying to walk forward.
The old crab had to admit that they could not ask the little ones what they themselves were not capable of doing. And they all kept walking backwards, as always.
Although in reality crabs do not walk backwards, but sideways, this fable by Félix María de Samaniego addresses the importance of coherence as a value, both in the field of education and in our day-to-day lives. In fact, coherence has become one of the most recurring and exhibited values of everyday life. At least its concept, not its practice.
Coherence as a value and an element of judgment
The word coherence comes from the latin cohaerentia, which was used to indicate a connection or global relationship between each of the parts. It implies a cohesion, not only within the phenomena but also in their expression.
We can say that a person is consistent when he meets two basic requirements: 1. avoids saying or feeling one thing and doing another, and 2. fulfills his promises and commitments. Therefore, coherent people are more predictable and reliable. We know what to expect from them and what not.
Coherence reveals the strength or weakness of our moral scheme and its application in the real world. It is what allows us to become a reference for other people, someone credible and trustworthy who transmits security and consistency of judgment and action. Therefore, it acts as a powerful social glue, while its absence generates confusion, uncertainty and mistrust in relationships. Therefore, coherence can become an essential element to build spaces of trust or, on the contrary, create spaces of suspicion that trigger interpersonal conflicts.
For that reason, we often use it as a measuring stick and an element of judgment. We evaluate the consistency of others so that we can know if their voice is reliable. Instead, incoherence detracts from moral strength. In fact, we consider that it is not advisable to accept lessons from incoherent people.
However, we must not forget that in the same way that we raise our eyebrows at the inconsistencies of politicians and other public figures, coherence also strips and exposes us, as in the fable of the crabs. No one is free from inconsistencies.
Coherence building is a lifelong process
Personal coherence is built throughout life. We learn it when we are children, first in the family, then in school and later in society. Parents, of course, have a great weight in shaping the sense of coherence, as well as the educational system.
Throughout life, we learn in different ways, also by watching what others do. In fact, learning by modeling, also known as learning by observation, imitation or vicarious learning, is one of the most important in childhood. Children learn by watching adults, who become their example and role model. Therefore, teaching from coherence is the best way to develop this value.
However, learning by imitation is not exclusive to the infant stage. As adults we continue to observe the behaviors of our peers and learn from them. Like children look to their parents for certain points of reference when they are lost in a social situation, we also look at others when we are not clear about how to behave.
When in doubt, it is normal to take note of what others are doing. It is an ancient mechanism that allows us to avoid unnecessary mistakes or dangerous situations. Therefore, we can continue to strengthen personal coherence in adulthood, also taking note of the example that organizations and systems provide. Ultimately, each society and culture generates certain standards of coherence.
However, when we are imbued with systems that normalize incoherence, we are likely to experience cognitive dissonance and our consistency suffers. In fact, our sense of coherence is not static but rather a living formation that moves and adapts to circumstances, being able to become a backbone of our life or, on the contrary, a collateral branch.
When we are trapped in a society where are allowed high levels of incoherence, we basically have three options, as philosopher Esther Trujillo explains. The first is to give up our ideas and beliefs while the second involves adapting so that the system admits us.
In both cases we force ourselves to be inconsistent. This would imply giving up doing what we want or forcing ourselves to think differently. In the long term, that inconsistency can take its toll on us, causing us to feel like an impostor and lose contact with ourselves.
The third option is to become aware that we cannot change society as a whole to adapt to our belief system, so we would have to “get out” of it to preserve our coherence. That obviously comes at a cost. And it is often quite high.
The cost and the coherence trap
Coherence is everywhere. It manifests itself in our being, doing and saying. It is also expressed through our decisions, especially when we choose what to keep and what to give up. Every consistent decision involves always a waiver. Therefore, the practice of consistency implies being willing to give up certain things.
However, it is important not to fall into the coherence trap, understanding it as an absolute concept in terms of “all or nothing”. Consistency can be a source of motivation and a backbone for a meaningful life, but it can also become an obstacle if we apply it rigidly. Coherence should be a compass, not a straitjacket. When we apply it rigidly, it ends up constricting and breaking us, submitting us to its dictatorship. A dictatorship that tends to be harmful in the long term.
We all change over time due to the experiences we are living. It is normal. Staying tied to values that have lost their reason for being and no longer reflect who we are or what we believe in, just to be coherent, is psychological suicide. Coherence is a tool to live better and be more authentic, not a stocks to tie ourselves to.
Trujillo, E. (2020) En busca de la coherencia. Ethic.
Vonk, R. (1995) Effects of Inconsistent Behaviors on Person Impressions: A Multidimensional Study. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin; 21(7): 674-685.