Elliot Aronson: The Scientist and the Humanist
Elliot Aronson … interview by Barry Daniel
The Middle Way Society MWS Podcast #36: Elliot Aronson on “Cognitive Dissonance” … www.middlewaysociety.org/the-mws-podcast-36-elliot-aronson-on-cognitive-dissonance/
Elliot Aronson is one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century and elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is the only psychologist to have won all three of the American Psychological Associations top awards for writing, for teaching and for research.
Dr. Leon Festinger :: “Cognitive Dissonance” is the discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously.
AKA: samsara, suffering, fear, anxiety, hate, disgust, distrust… Geeeee, where could those thoughts come from… could this be very deep mystery? 🙂 ..::”Ideas leave not their source, and their effects but seem to be apart from them. ~ACIM Text-26.VII.4.
One of the first published cases of “Cognitive Dissonance” was reported in the book, When Prophecy Fails (Festinger et al. 1956). Dr. Leon Festinger and his associates read an interesting item in their local newspaper headlined “Prophecy from planet Clarion call to city: flee that flood.” A housewife from Chicago (changed to “Michigan” in the book), given the name “Marian Keech” (real name: Dorothy Martin (1900-1992), later known as “Sister Thedra”.), had mysteriously been given messages in her house in the form of “automatic writing” from alien beings on the “planet Clarion”. These messages revealed that the world would end in a great flood before dawn on December 21, 1954.
..::”Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do NOT change their point of view or plan of action but JUSTIFY it even more tenaciously.
We stay in an unhappy relationship or one that is merely going nowhere because, after all, we invested so much time in making it work. We stay in a deadening job way too long because we look for all the reasons to justify staying and are unable to clearly assess the benefits of leaving.
But there is a big difference between a guilty person telling the public something he knows is untrue (” I did not have sex with that woman”; “I am not a crook”) and that person persuading himself that he did a good thing. In the former situation, he is lying and knows he is lying to save his own skin. In the latter, he is lying to himself. That is why self-justification is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done.
In fact, come to think of it, it was the ‘right’ thing. “There was nothing else I could have done.” “Actually, it was a brilliant solution to the problem.” “I was doing the best for the nation.” “Those bastards deserved what they got.” “I’m entitled.”
Self-justification minimizes our mistakes and failed decisions; it also explains why everyone can recognize a hypocrite in action except the hypocrite. It allows us to create a distinction between our moral lapses and someone else’s and blur the discrepancy between our actions and our moral convictions.
A quote by Nouk Sanchez ..::” Most of us are somewhat addicted to “ego-stroking” and mistake this [“enabling”] for LOVE… Withdrawing “ego-stroking” can bring about much insecurity that is usually expressed through bouts of anger and projection. ~Nouk Sanchez, ‘Take Me To Truth”: Undoing the Ego [p. 144]
A HYPOTHETICAL EXAMPLE: If a “teacher” of any religion is told that their long-held beliefs of Heaven-and-Earth are in fact, backwards, that “teacher’s” “Cognitive Dissonance” fuze will have been ignited… sizzling like a fuze zooming to the limbic system… then triggering the “fight-or-flight” “Autonomic Nervous System” into a reflexive reaction fueled by thoughts of the past, potentially erupting in the now, with impulsive verbal “outbursts” and involuntary repetitions, (aka: “echo-kinesis”)… and potentially spiraling “down stairs” into physical actions, aka: “fight or flight” reflexive reactions. REF: http://draxe.com/limbic-system/
HISTORICAL EXAMPLE: When the cardinals in Rome learned from Copernicus of the news that the Earth orbits the Sun… the “Autonomic Nervous System” of the priests was very likely to have triggered the “fight-or-flight” reflex reaction in the church “directors” who then reflexively projected their own self-doubts onto the innocent Copernicus, as if Copernicus were the heretic fool. not trusting the eternal Love of God. Although this example happened over 500 years ago, very little has “changed” as far as any expansive enlightenment of society. A quote from ACIM: ..::”The Bible says that a deep sleep fell upon Adam, and nowhere is there reference to his waking up… The world has not yet experienced any comprehensive reawakening or rebirth… Such a rebirth is impossible as long as you continue to project or miscreate… It still remains within you, however, to extend as God extended His Spirit to you… In reality this is your only choice, because YOUR FREE WILL was given you for your joy in creating the perfect.” ~ACIM Text-2.I.3.
… Therefore, to a mature mind, it is not at all surprising, when a human being becomes exited or “triggered” during communications related to “religious” beliefs, since all human beliefs are, in fact, illusions to be believed, or not. The sun, moon, stars, planets. universe. all remain the same, as reality, no matter what a human “believes”.
..::”Protecting the planet must be given the first priority. ~Thich Nhat Hanh
..::”When we understand that our existence is dependent on the environment around us, then naturally our concern and care for the environment becomes strong. ~H.H. Karmapa
The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) is considered the founder of modern astronomy. For hundreds of years before that, most scholars believed that the sun, stars, and planets revolved around Earth.
Even though Galileo’s telescope was not trusted at the time, since many people thought that Galileo had “painted” the planets into the telescope, the finding was important. When Galileo proved and wrote about his findings, he was declared heretic by the cardinals in Rome in 1633. This was because Catholic teachings back then were based on the idea that the Earth was the center of the Universe. Threatened by torture, Galileo was forced to deny that the Earth moves and that the Sun was the center of the Universe.
Galileo was summoned to Rome to be tried by the Inquisition in 1633.
Galileo’s accusers relied on a forged document purporting to have, in 1616, forbidden Galileo from in “any way whatsoever” teaching theories of Copernicus, and thus could find him guilty of dishonesty.
Though never tortured, Galileo was shown the implements of torture to instill fear in him, forced to recant, and spend the rest of his life under house arrest. Galileo remained a practicing Catholic and during his house arrest wrote his most influential work.
Pope Urban VIII refused Galileo a stately burial upon his death, though later his bones were interned under a monument at the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. In 1980, Pope John Paul II ordered a re-examination of the evidence against Galileo and formally acquitted him in 1992.
The Catholic Church did not take back the sentence until Oct. 13th 1992.
A mere 359 years for the extremely well educated, materially wealthy and worldly “powerful” church to tell the same truth that any child could easily understand in twenty minutes, with no previous “block to the awareness of truth’s presence”.
Galileo supported the Copernican theory, which supports a sun-centered solar system. Galileo was accused twice of heresy by the church for his beliefs. He remained under house arrest the remaining years of his life. (1564-1642)
DEFINITION :: Pharisees :: A religious party among the Jews, distinguished by strict observance of the traditional and written law, and commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity.
A self-righteous person; aka: “hypocrite”. The name denotes separatists. They prided themselves on their strict observance of the law. They were a major obstacle to the reception of Christ.
Although a religious party, the Sadducees were more important as a political force. They represented the priestly aristocracy and the power structure of Israel. For them, the duties of religion centered primarily around the Temple.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, were a lay group more representative of the common man. In addition to the written Law of Moses, the Pharisees accepted as authoritative the rest of what is for us the Old Testament.
After the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, Sadducaic Judaism disappeared and Pharisaic Judaism became dominant. It is from the Pharisees, then, that contemporary Judaism is primarily descended. REF: www.Catholic.com/qa/please-explain-the-difference-between-the-sadducees-and-the-pharisees-in-the-gospels
The “old-school” egoic punishing reflexive behaviors lead to the false wisdom of a highly “moralistic” yet obsessively judgmental and punishing “adult”. Mooji calls this “egoic mind”, the “mafia mind”. Since the ego is constantly at war with God, the Bible calls the ego, the “antichrist”.
Buddhism says there is a non-clinging “middle way”, ACIM says there is “another way”, aka: Christ’s Vision. Jesus demonstrated the way of Peace. Therefore… “I need do nothing” is a statement of allegiance, a truly undivided loyalty. Believe it for just one instant, and you will accomplish more than is given to a century of contemplation, or of struggle against temptation”. ~ACIM Text-18.VII.6.
..::” For most of us… it is difficult to make OBSERVATIONS of people and their behaviour that are free of JUDGEMENT, criticism, or other forms of analysis… For thousands of years, we have been TAUGHT TO THINK in a particular way designed to make us OBEDIENT TO AUTHORITY (((aka: Stockholm Syndrome)))… but which is not conducive to safety and PEACE on our PLANET. ~ Marshall Rosenberg :: NVC ::
Stockholm Syndrome :: The relationship that develops between hostages and their captors is now known as “the Stockholm Syndrome,” a type of emotional bonding that is in reality a survival strategy for victims of emotional and physical abuse — including not only hostages, but also battered spouses and partners, abused children, members of religious cults, kidnapped hostages, and other POWs.
..::” Most of us are so completely *identified* with the *voice in the head* – the incessant stream of involuntary and compulsive thinking and the emotions that accompany it – that we may describe this as being possessed by the (egoic) mind… As long as anyone is completely *unaware* of this, the *thinker* seems to be who you are… This is unconsciousness (sleep). ~Eckhart Tole :: The New Earth ::
..::” People will pursue self-destructive courses of action to protect the “wisdom” of their INITIAL DECISIONS [to be “right”]… They will treat people they have HURT even MORE HARSHLY, because they CONVINCE THEMSELVES that their VICTIMS DESERVE IT… They will CLING to harmful procedures in their work… They will support torturers and tyrants who are on the “right side”–that is, THEIRS… People who are INSECURE in their religious beliefs will feel an obsession to SILENCE AND HARASS those who disagree with them. ~Book Title: “Mistakes Were Made, but not by me” By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson :: Book Link: www.goo.gl/yMII3h
..::” When a human harbors the intention to HARM another… a powerful factor comes into play: the need to “JUSTIFY” the attack… once the “attacker” justifies the attack and starts down a path of labeling and blaming the victim, he becomes likely to obsess about physically and psychologically attacking his victim with even GREATER ferocity the next chance he gets… [in order to justify the ego’s preservation, “to be RIGHT”]… aka: “COGNITIVE DISSONANCE” ..:: Book Title: “Mistakes Were Made [but not by me]” By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson :: Book Link: www.goo.gl/yMII3h
..::” Doubt is not the enemy of justice; OVERCONFIDENCE is.” ~ Mistakes Were Made [but not by me] By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
..::”Ego is a social and personal construct. ~Adyashanti
..::”People don’t want to hear the truth because they don’t want their illusions destroyed. ~Friedrich Nietzsche
People who are INSECURE in their religious beliefs will feel an obsession to SILENCE AND HARASS those who disagree with them.”
~Book Title: “Mistakes Were Made, but not by me” By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson ::
PS: i will be reading / sharing this book via Pal-Talk..
Tuesday evenings :: 10 PM to 10:30 PM
go to “Pal-Talk” … then “Awakening-Together” …
or easily listen on the ACIM “radio link”:
… There is no charge…. 🙂
..::”Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television. ~Paul Hawken
:: The Pyramid of Choice :: AKA: veil or wall of “separation” ::
..::”Imagine two young students who are identical in terms of attitudes, abilities, and psychological health. They are reasonably honest and have the same middling attitude toward, say, cheating– they think it is not a good thing to do, but there are worse crimes in the world. Now they are both in the midst of taking an exam that will determine whether they will get into graduate school. They each draw a blank on a crucial essay question. Failure looms . . . at which point each one gets an easy opportunity to cheat by reading another student’s answers. The two young men struggle with temptation. After a long moment of anguish, one yields, and the other resists. Their decisions are a hairsbreadth apart; it could easily have gone the other way for each of them. Each gains something important, but at a cost: One gives up integrity for a good grade; the other gives up a good grade to preserve his integrity.
Now the question is: How will they feel about cheating one week later? Each student has had ample time to justify the course of action he took. The one who yielded to temptation will decide that cheating is not so great a crime. He will say to himself, “Hey, everyone cheats. It’s no big deal. And I really needed to do this for my future career.” But the one who resisted the temptation will decide that cheating is far more immoral than he originally thought. In fact, people who cheat are disgraceful. In fact, people who cheat should be permanently expelled from school. We have to make an example of them.
By the time the students are through with their increasingly intense levels of self-justification, two things have happened. One, they are now very far apart from each other, and two, they have internalized their beliefs and are convinced that they have always felt that way. 31
It is as if they started off at the top of a pyramid, a millimeter apart, but by the time they have finished justifying their individual actions, they have slid to the bottom and now stand at opposite corners of its base. The one who didn’t cheat considers the other to be totally immoral, and the one who cheated thinks the other is hopelessly puritanical. This process illustrates how people who have been sorely tempted, battled temptation, and almost given in to it– but resisted at the eleventh hour– come to dislike, even despise, those who did not succeed in the same effort. It’s the people who almost decide to live in glass houses who throw the first stones.
When a cheating scandal occurred at the high-achieving, high-pressure Stuyvesant High School in New York City– seventy-one students were caught exchanging exam answers– students gave a New York Times reporter a litany of self-justifications that allowed them to keep seeing themselves as smart students of integrity: “It’s like, ‘I’ll keep my integrity and fail this test,'” said one. “No. No one wants to fail a test. You could study for two hours and get an 80, or you could take a risk and get a 90.” He redefined cheating as “taking a risk.” For others, cheating was a “necessary evil.”
For many, it was “helping classmates in need.” When one girl finally realized her classmates had been relying on her to write their papers for them, she said, “I respect them and think they have integrity . . . [but] sometimes the only way you could’ve gotten there is to kind of botch your ethics for a couple things.” Kind of botch your ethics? Minimizing ethical violations is a popular form of self-justification. Hana Beshara started a website that pirated films and TV shows for instant free downloading, in clear violation of the copyright laws. Caught, she was sent to prison for sixteen months for conspiracy and criminal copyright infringement. But did she make a mistake or do wrong? No. “I never imagined it going criminal,” she told a reporter. “It didn’t seem like it was something to be bothered with. Even if it is wrong.” 32
The metaphor of the pyramid applies to most important decisions involving moral choices or life options. Instead of cheating on an exam, for example, you can substitute deciding to begin a casual affair (or not), sample an illegal drug (or not), take steroids to improve your athletic ability (or not), stay in a troubled marriage (or not), name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee (or not), lie to protect your employer and job (or not), have children (or not), pursue a demanding career (or stay home with the kids), decide that a sensational allegation against a celebrity you admire is false (or true).
When the person at the top of the pyramid is uncertain, when there are benefits and costs for both choices, then he or she will feel a particular urgency to justify the choice made. But by the time the person is at the bottom of the pyramid, ambivalence will have morphed into certainty, and he or she will be miles away from anyone who took a different route.
This process blurs the distinction that people like to draw between “us good guys” and “those bad guys.” Often, when standing at the top of the pyramid, we are faced not with a black-or-white, go-or-no-go decision but with gray choices whose consequences are shrouded. The first steps along the path are morally ambiguous, and the right decision is not always clear. We make an early, apparently inconsequential decision, and then we justify it to reduce the ambiguity of the choice. This starts a process of entrapment– action, justification, further action– that increases our intensity and commitment and may end up taking us far from our original intentions or principles.
It certainly worked that way for Jeb Stuart Magruder, Richard Nixon’s special assistant. Magruder, a key player in the plot to burglarize the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex, concealed the White House’s involvement and lied under oath to protect himself and others responsible. When Magruder was first hired, Nixon’s adviser Bob Haldeman did not mention that perjury, cheating, and breaking the law were part of the job description. If he had, Magruder almost certainly would have refused. How, then, did he end up as a central player in the Watergate scandal? In hindsight, it is easy to say he should have known or he should have drawn the line the first time they asked him to do something illegal.
In his autobiography, Magruder describes his initial meeting with Bob Haldeman at San Clemente. Haldeman flattered and charmed him. “Here you’re working for something more than just to make money for your company,” Haldeman told him. “You’re working to solve the problems of the country and the world. Jeb, I sat with the President on the night the first astronauts stepped onto the moon . . . I’m part of history being made.” At the end of a day of meetings, Haldeman and Magruder left the compound to go to the president’s house. Haldeman was enraged that his golf cart was not right there awaiting him, and he gave his assistant a “brutal chewing out,” threatening to fire the guy if he couldn’t do his job.
Magruder couldn’t believe what he was hearing, especially since it was a beautiful evening and a short walk to their destination. At first Magruder thought Haldeman’s tirade was rude and excessive. But before long, wanting the job as much as he did, Magruder was justifying Haldeman’s behavior: “In just a few hours at San Clemente I had been struck by the sheer perfection of life there . . . After you have been spoiled like that for a while, something as minor as a missing golf cart can seem a major affront.” 33
And so, before dinner and even before having been offered a job, Magruder was hooked. It was a tiny first step, but he was on the road to Watergate. Once he was in the White House, he went along with all of the small ethical compromises that just about all politicians justify in the goal of serving their party. Then, when Magruder and others were working to reelect Nixon, G. Gordon Liddy entered the picture, hired by attorney general John Mitchell to be Magruder’s general counsel. Liddy was a wild card, a James Bond wannabe. His first plan to ensure Nixon’s reelection was to spend one million dollars to hire “mugging squads” to rough up demonstrators, kidnap activists who might disrupt the Republican Convention, sabotage the Democratic Convention, hire “high-class” prostitutes to entice and then blackmail leading Democrats, and break into Democratic offices and install electronic-surveillance devices and wiretaps.
Mitchell disapproved of the more extreme aspects of this plan; besides, he said, it was too expensive. So Liddy returned with a proposal merely to break into the DNC offices at the Watergate complex and install wiretaps. This time Mitchell approved, and everyone went along. How did they justify breaking the law? “If [Liddy] had come to us at the outset and said, ‘I have a plan to burglarize and wiretap Larry O’Brien’s office,’ we might have rejected the idea out of hand,” wrote Magruder. “Instead, he came to us with his elaborate call girl/ kidnapping/ mugging/ sabotage/ wiretapping scheme, and we began to tone it down, always with a feeling that we should leave Liddy a little something– we felt we needed him, and we were reluctant to send him away with nothing.” Finally, Magruder added, Liddy’s plan was approved because of the paranoid climate in the White House: “Decisions that now seem insane seemed at the time to be rational . . . We were past the point of halfway measures or gentlemanly tactics.” 34
When Magruder first entered the White House, he was a decent man. But, one small step at a time, he went along with dishonest actions, justifying each one as he did. He was entrapped in pretty much the same way as the three thousand people who took part in the famous experiment created by social psychologist Stanley Milgram. 35 In Milgram’s original version, two-thirds of the participants administered what they thought were life-threatening levels of electric shock to another person simply because the experimenter kept saying, “The experiment requires that you continue.” This experiment is almost always described as a study of obedience to authority. Indeed it is. But it is more than that; it is also a demonstration of long-term results of self-justification. 36
Imagine that a distinguished-looking man in a white lab coat walks up to you and offers you twenty dollars to participate in a scientific experiment. He says, “I want you to inflict five hundred volts of incredibly painful shock to another person to help us understand the role of punishment in learning.” Chances are you would refuse; the money isn’t worth it to harm another person, even for science. Of course, a few people would do it for twenty bucks, but most would tell the scientist where he could stick his money.
Now suppose the scientist lures you along more gradually. Suppose he offers you twenty dollars to administer a minuscule amount of shock, say ten volts, to a fellow in the adjoining room to see if this zap will improve the man’s ability to learn. The experimenter even tries the ten volts on you, and you can barely feel it. So you agree. It’s harmless and the study seems pretty interesting. (Besides, you’ve always wanted to know whether spanking your kids will get them to shape up.) You go along for the moment, and now the experimenter tells you that if the learner gets the wrong answer, you must move to the next toggle switch, which delivers a shock of twenty volts. Again, it’s a small and harmless jolt. Because you just gave the learner ten, you see no reason why you shouldn’t give him twenty. And once you give him twenty, you say to yourself, “Thirty isn’t much more than twenty, so I’ll go to thirty.” He makes another mistake, and the scientist says, “Please administer the next level– forty volts.”
Where do you draw the line? When do you decide enough is enough? Will you keep going to 450 volts, or even beyond that, to a switch marked XXX DANGER? When people were asked in advance how far they imagined they would go, almost no one said they would go to 450. But when they were actually in the situation, two-thirds of them went all the way to the maximum level they believed was dangerous. They did this by justifying each step as they went along: “This small shock doesn’t hurt; twenty isn’t much worse than ten; if I’ve given twenty, why not thirty?” Every time they justified a step, they committed themselves further. By the time people were administering what they believed were strong shocks, most found it difficult to justify a decision to quit. Participants who resisted early in the study, questioning the very validity of the procedure, were less likely to become trapped by it and more likely to walk out.
The Milgram experiment shows us how ordinary people can end up doing immoral and harmful things through a chain reaction of behavior and subsequent self-justification. When we, as observers, look at them in puzzlement or dismay, we fail to realize that we are often looking at the end of a long, slow process down that pyramid. At his sentencing, Magruder said to Judge John Sirica: “I know what I have done, and Your Honor knows what I have done. Somewhere between my ambition and my ideals, I lost my ethical compass.” How do you get an honest man to lose his ethical compass? You get him to take one step at a time, and self-justification will do the rest.
Knowing how dissonance works won’t make any of us automatically immune to the allure of self-justification, as Elliot learned when he bought that canoe in a Minnesota January. You can’t say to people, as he did after the initiation experiments, “See how you reduced dissonance? Isn’t that interesting?” and expect them to reply, “Oh, thank you for showing me the real reason I like the group. That sure makes me feel smart!” To preserve our belief that we are smart, all of us will occasionally do dumb things. We can’t help it. We are wired that way.
But this does not mean that we are doomed to keep striving to justify our actions after the fact, to be like Sisyphus, never reaching the top of the hill of self-acceptance. A richer understanding of how and why our minds work as they do is the first step toward breaking the self-justification habit. And that, in turn, requires us to be more mindful of our behavior and the reasons for our choices. It takes time, self-reflection, and willingness.
The conservative columnist William Safire once described the “psychopolitical challenge” that voters face: “how to deal with cognitive dissonance.” 37 He began with a story of his own such challenge. During Bill Clinton’s administration, Safire recounted, he had criticized Hillary Clinton for trying to conceal the identity of the members of her health-care task force. He wrote a column castigating her efforts at secrecy, which he said were toxic to democracy. No dissonance there; those bad Democrats are always doing bad things. Six years later, however, he found that he was “afflicted” by cognitive dissonance when Vice President Dick Cheney, a fellow conservative Republican whom Safire admired, insisted on keeping the identity of his energy-policy task force a secret. What did Safire do? Because of his awareness of dissonance and how it works, he took a deep breath, hitched up his trousers, and did the tough but virtuous thing: He wrote a column publicly criticizing Cheney’s actions. The irony is that because of his criticism of Cheney, Safire received several laudatory letters from liberals– which, he admitted, produced enormous dissonance. Oh Lord, he’d done something those people approved of?
Safire’s ability to recognize his own dissonance and resolve it by doing the fair thing is rare. As we will see, his willingness to concede that his own side made a mistake is something that few are prepared to do. Instead, conservatives and liberals alike will bend over backward to reduce dissonance in a way that is favorable to them and their team. The specific tactics vary, but our efforts at self-justification are all designed to serve our need to feel good about what we have done, what we believe, and who we are.
..::” When a human harbors the intention to HARM another… a powerful factor comes into play: the need to “JUSTIFY” the attack… once the “attacker” justifies the attack and starts down a path of labeling and blaming the victim, he becomes likely to obsess about physically and psychologically attacking his victim with even GREATER ferocity the next chance he gets… [in order to justify the ego’s preservation, “to be RIGHT”]… this is called “COGNITIVE DISSONANCE” ..:: Book Title: “Mistakes Were Made [but not by me]” By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson :: www.EcoDelMar.org/elliot-aronson/
Book Link: www.goo.gl/yMII3h
…:: Excerpt from the article by www.DavidBristow.com :: https://thecuriouspeople.wordpress.com/2013/08/21/mistakes-were-made-but-not-by-me/
Book Title: Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, a fascinating and easy-to- read book about the clever ways we all justify “foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts.”
Here is a very useful illustration of what they’re talking about. On p. 32 they ask you to imagine two students who are tempted to cheat on a crucial test. Both have moderate attitudes toward cheating and are otherwise similar. One cheats and one doesn’t. One sacrifices a good grade; the other sacrifices integrity. “Their decisions are a hair’s breadth apart; it could easily have gone the other way for each of them.”
How will they feel about cheating a week later? The authors predict that the cheater will minimize its seriousness, while the one who resisted temptation will now hold a harsher, more punitive attitude toward cheating.
Here’s where it gets interesting:
..::”By the time the students are through with their increasingly intense levels of self-justification, two things have happened: one, they are now very far apart from one another; and two, they have internalized their beliefs and are convinced that they have always felt that way. It is as if they started off at the top of a pyramid, a millimeter apart; but by the time they have finished justifying their individual actions, they have slid to the bottom and now stand on opposite corners of its base… It’s the people who almost decide to live in glass houses who throw the first stones. (p. 33)
The pyramid metaphor applies to most important decisions, and the authors say it blurs the common distinction between good guys and bad guys. Throughout the remainder of the book they show how the pyramid of choice plays out in a multitude of contexts, such as the story of Jeb Stuart Magruder, who started off as an idealistic employee in President Nixon’s administration and ended up as a key player in the Watergate break in. “How do you get an honest man to lose his ethical compass?” the authors ask. “You get him to take one step at a time, and self-justification will do the rest.” (p. 37)
“Recovered memory” psychotherapists slide down the pyramid when they ignore the malleability of memory and are faced with the damage caused by false memories of abuse; police interrogators face it when they coerce a confession that later proves to be false. Couples in troubled marriages come to view their own negative behavior as a reaction to circumstance but their spouse’s negative behavior as an expression of fundamental character.
Regarding injustice and cruelty, we learn that, “Feeling like a victim of injustice in one situation does not make us less likely to commit an injustice against someone else, nor does it make us more sympathetic to victims. It’s as if there is a brick wall between those two sets of experiences, blocking our ability to see the other side.” (p. 192)
Again, we tend to see the world in terms of good guys and bad guys, tend to think of evil as a thing with a life of its own, a dark force lurking out there like a predator. The reality is that everyone sees themselves as good guys who are fully justified in what they’re doing. “Evil” is what that looks like when seen from the other side.
It’s often said that science can’t teach us morality. In fact, science can inform our moral choices by revealing the consequences of actions and the psychological mechanisms and cognitive biases that tend to distort our picture of the world. One of the things I most appreciate about this book is how deeply rooted it is scientific research. The pyramid of choice is a metaphor, and cognitive dissonance is a theory, but like a good theory it generates testable hypotheses, and years and years of experimentation under controlled circumstances shows that, yep, this is how our brains tend to work.
And that knowledge allows us to step back from ourselves and look at our choices and attitudes in a new light. That’s never easy, and we can never hope to do it perfectly, but we can get better at it. And this could make a huge difference in relationships, criminal justice, conflict resolution… the whole world of human relations that’s so fraught with misunderstanding. The first step in learning how to do better is learning where you tend to go wrong.