Home > Lessons > Lessons from Mistakes Were Made #1, Dissonance Theory and Osama

Lessons from Mistakes Were Made #1, Dissonance Theory and Osama

Warning, I get a tad religious and political. If those things make your brain catch fire, you have other things to do today than read this blog. Go do them.

I’ve been reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) (Amazon). It’s a fascinating look at cognitive dissonance, which is, briefly, a discomfort that arises from holding two different thoughts simultaneously. Dissonance theory is predicts that we then modify our experience of the moment or our memories to reduce the dissonance. The book is full of case studies and scientific evidence I won’t go into over much, but I will provide a summary of one example.

The book discusses an experiment where people were given a description of a girl. In the description she does one generous thing and exhibits one annoying trait. Some of the people were then asked to write a letter of recommendation for the girl. Others were asked to write a letter of complaint to the housing authority. The remainder of the people (the control) wrote nothing. The people who wrote the letters invented facts about the girl in question to flesh out their letters. Regardless of which they wrote, when they were later asked their opinions, their opinions on the girl had changed (recommendation writers favored her; complaint writers disfavored her). They remembered details they wrote as if those details had been in the original essay. The control remembered the girl more accurately and had no opinion.

The books is interesting and definitely gives me ideas for how characters should interact. I’ll pull more things from it and discuss narrative implications in the coming days.

Today, though, I wanted to use the book to discuss my own dissonance. As a Christian and a man who likes to think of himself as moral, I’m anti-killing. Jesus had a fair amount to say on the subject of killing, and none of it would find itself in the ‘pro’ column. I believe in Him and His message. Even if you don’t, you, dear reader, probably aren’t going to kill anyone today or any other day, so, to varying degrees, you likely are anti-killing humans and consider yourself moral. (Note the caveat, ‘likely’) But today, we have news the US has finally killed Osama bin Laden. As an American, I’m pro the killing of the man who led al-Qaeda and, along with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, was behind the attacks on 9/11. People, good people, worked toward this goal for a decade, and finally, we got him. There is, I think, an apparent dissonance here. I’m anti-killing except when I’m not. My mind tries to resolve the dissonance, as is its wont.

“Hey”, it says, “God is always killing people in the Old Testament. One of the Judges is even an assassin. Take that!”

“But wait,” my mind also replies, “vengeance is God’s. He’s pretty clear on that. The people who kill in the name of the Lord, but without His permission, meet harsh ends.”

It continues on like that for some time. I’m unsure how my brain will resolve the issue other than to let the event fall into the past and then stop worrying about it. That seems likely.

I don’t bring these things up to discuss either religion or politics on the Internet, I don’t debate that here. It’s an ugly forum for it. I bring this up mostly because it’s topical, and it’s happening in my head.

From a writing perspective, it gives me fuel for the writing fire. In the novel I’m currently working on, my characters all consider themselves moral. They also all belong to systems designed by fallible humans and so are on the wrong side of certain issues. Issues that will result in the death of innocents. Most of my characters will feel dissonance very much like what I feel today. Some will move past it quickly— either the killing was perfectly justified or it wasn’t. Their response to their dissonance will ‘radicalize’ them into sides. One or two, however, will feel sharply the sting of their own hypocrisy. These few will wrestle with these ideas. The heart of their struggle will not be won with swords, but when they come to understand which virtues and ideas they hold most dear, for it is the idea we hold more dearly that always wins.

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  1. Studnougat
    May 3, 2011 at 11:30 am

    Interesting post. I have often had a similar thought process, although I tend to conclude that if we were to be Christ-like, we would forgive every crime and let everyone go free with no punishment. Which begs the question, why have any laws at all? Why establish any authority? But that doesn’t make any sense. We are supposed to respect authority because God has appointed those in authority (Romans 13:1), but we must also disobey authority if it asks us to disobey God (Acts 5:26-29). What then if we are part of a democracy and our votes establish authority/laws? So many questions, but at least one is answered, Osama has met his maker and has been judged.

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