Lessons from Mistakes Were Made , Dissonance and Evil

May 5, 2011 Leave a comment

I finished Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), and I really enjoyed the book. Anyone who is a student of the human condition would, I think, find the book enlightening. Of course, if you spend ~$10 on it and force yourself to read it, self-justification will help you to believe it was worth it.

The authors have a chapter on evil that puts a fine point on many of the things I thought about as I was going through the book, and highlights why it was a good read for me as a writer. People often become evil, they stipulate, not out of a desire to be evil, but out of a desire to be good. This is really a research-backed way of saying, “everyone has his reasons”. They use, among others, the example of the guards at Abu Ghraib. These guards were, likely, the heroes of their own stories. Especially after they had already done some minor torture and humiliation, they were in a difficult situation and were confronted with two, dissonant, thoughts.

  • I am a hero and a good guy
  • I have inflicted pain and humiliation on people

The way they resolved these two thoughts was not to stop doing harm, but to come to a place where they understood themselves to be especially virtuous and for their victims to be especially worthy of the torture the guards inflicted upon them. Every act of humiliation only served radicalize them further down the road of self-justification. People can, and do, recoil from this and choose to face their problems, but those are heroes and the topic of a different post. Also, one could probably talk about a bucketful of psychological theories with regards to the soldiers: groupthink, aggression theory, social identity theory, etc.) I’m focusing on dissonance for now.

I imagine some of the best antagonists, especially the mortal ones, start out not only thinking of themselves as good, but also being good in truth. They are moral people who make a mistake that causes them some fair amount of dissonance. The antagonists then justify their mistake instead of facing it. This causes them to reinterpret all past and future events with their new understanding of morality. They operate this way until they find another excuse to slip, or they perpetuate the original mistake again. This further pushes them from being the moral people they once were and edges them closer to villainy. By the time they have become the dragon and the person with the lowest cost (the protagonist) confronts them, their view of the world has become so skewed that when the protagonist doesn’t agree with them then the protagonist must be the villain. My goal, then, is to deliver such a villain, or multiple such villains, in my novels, and to give the reader a tour of the downward spiral. I want to explore not only the fallen, but the sensation of watching the antagonist fall. That should make the final confrontation more gripping and satisfying.

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Today’s Post

May 3, 2011 2 comments

Sunday my wife and I bought our first food processor. It took me less than five minutes to put the sharpness of the blades to the test. The blades are, as the many warning labels attest, sharp. As a writer, I can think of no worse minor injury than the one I inflicted on myself Sunday. The tip of my left index finger was ripped open. I bled some, but the problem is more in writing over long stretches. Yesterday I wrote a fairly long post, but only produced 1,000 words (half of my daily goal) for my novel. Today, I’m giving the blog a rest so I can force my way through the pain to 2,000 words.

This is my life. I injure myself in stupid ways. Of course since that’s a belief I hold about myself, any evidence to the contrary produces dissonance. Hmmm.

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

May 2, 2011 1 comment

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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Death-Star Economics

April 28, 2011 Leave a comment

I found this article on the economic sense of the Death Star and thought it deserved a repost.

One of the authors posited the question:

What’s the economic calculus behind the Empire’s tactic of A) building a Death Star, B) intimidating planets into submission with the threat of destruction, and C) actually carrying through with said destruction if the planet doesn’t comply?

What follows is a good discussion of how the Death Star made perfectly good sense, from a certain point of view. The Romans apparently used the same strategy in their empire. If a city seemed to be harboring more rebels, they would raze the city to keep the others in line. It mostly worked for them.

Additionally, there is a discussion of ‘playing chicken’ in the game theory sense. If one convinces his opponent he is crazy and will do what ever he needs to do to win, his opponent will often capitulate. From this perspective, the Emperor may have hoped to destroy Alderaan and save the galaxy. Spoiler: it didn’t work.

I don’t have much to add to the article, but it’s a fun read, so check it out.

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Game Theory and the Narrative #4, Battle of the Sexes

April 27, 2011 2 comments

A Battle of the Sexes, in game theory terms, is a game where two players have no perfect solutions. They only have acceptable and unacceptable solutions.

The common example, from which the scenario derives its name, is this:

A husband and wife have agreed to go out for an evening. Neither can remember where they have agreed to go. They would both rather go anywhere together than be apart. The husband recalls they agreed to go to a boxing match, which he would prefer; the wife remembers agreeing to go to an opera, which she prefers.

In this scenario, the husband achieves maximum happiness in only one condition, going to the boxing match with his wife; and the wife only achieves maximum happiness at the opera with her husband. Neither achieves any happiness if they go their separate ways. In the end, there are two ‘best’ solutions. They both go to either the opera or the boxing match. Mathematically, it doesn’t really matter which, though of course to people it matters whose preference is observed.

In a narrative, we want to see protagonists aligned this way. We want all of the protagonists rowing in the same direction, but we don’t want them all perfectly happy about it. We want some to think they’re going the wrong way or at the wrong speed. Dissatisfaction is human, and to see it in our protagonists reaffirms their humanity. Sticking together despite their disagreements is part of what makes them protagonists. They are willing to sacrifice for the greater good. They get more satisfaction from going with the team than striking out on their own.

We can think about the Fellowship of the Ring. Merry, Pippin, Sam, Frodo, Gandolf, Aragorn, Boromir, Gimli, and Legolas often disagreed about how the should get to Mordor, but once a decision was made, they, while the Company lasted anyway, stuck together despite their individual reservations. Different characters determined the direction the Fellowship took, too. At different points Gandolf, Aragorn, and Frodo all pick a course and the rest follow.

For our heroes, being together is strictly better than any outcome where they are separated.

Game Theory and the Narrative #3, Stag Hunt

April 26, 2011 Leave a comment

A Stag Hunt is a game similar to the prisoner’s dilemma, in that it is a game about trust and working with a partner (or partners).

Jean Jacques Rousseau proposed a scenario wherein two men went hunting a stag. They could either lay in wait for the stag together, or either one could hunt a hare. The stag will feed both men and provide a surplus; a hare will feed only the hunter who kills it with no surplus. Hunting a hare ends any possibility of catching another hare or the stag. In order for both hunters to eat, each must trust the other to continue to wait for the stag. It is clearly the best solution to the situation, but as time continues each hunter must continue to gamble that the other hunter will not grow too impatient. There are variants of the game where the hunters may, or may not, talk to one another, which can have an important effect on their coordination.

For the narrative, we should understand that readers want protagonists to work together for the greater good- for them to make the best choice in this scenario and wait for the stag. Dramatic tension can be inserted by making it look as if the protagonists wont wait for the stag, or, better yet, making one of the hunters an antagonist, which would lead the reader to believe the protagonist will lose the game based on his overabundant trust. The antagonist might, believably, choose to wait for the best solution, or he might, also believably, choose to be selfish after waiting ‘long enough’.

In effect, the final book of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy has two, or more, protagonists engaging in a high-stakes, non-coordinated stag hunt. The effect is thrilling, because the reader is never sure all protagonists will all continue to seek the best overall solution (the ‘stag’). Sanderson does a great job of giving different protagonists options that seem appealing but less full-filling (‘hares’).

Game Theory and the Narrative #2, Prisoner’s Dilemma

April 25, 2011 1 comment

I’ve decided to spend some time exploring how game theory can inform an author’s perspective on the narrative. I started this in my discussion of dragon-slaying, and I enjoyed writing that. My intent with these is to learn a bit about human nature and how that can and should impact my writing.

Today, I’m going to focus on one of the best known game theory problems: the prisoner’s dilemma. As Wikipedia tells us a classic example of the prisoner’s dilemma is this:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

Rational players, in repeated experiments, consistently choose to defect. While being silent and cooperating could have a nice payoff for both, too much trust is required to take that gamble.

What does this mean for the writer? Generally speaking, people will choose some bad over the possibility of a good if they can also defer a greater bad. In the realm of fantasy, we might rephrase the dilemma to this:

Two protagonists are captured by the antagonists and are separated. Each is offered a deal: each can choose to join the forces of darkness. If one defects and join the forces of darkness and the other stays silent, then the silent one will be killed and the defector will remain in place, perhaps to affect the final fate of the world. If both remain silent, the forces of darkness will keep them prisoner, but won’t kill them- the knowledge they have is too valuable. If both defect, the forces of darkness will have all of the knowledge it needs to destroy the world, but they are both still alive and in place with the small hope of affecting the final fate of the world.

As a translation, that’s a bit rough around the edges, perhaps, but it tells us rational protagonists may do things we, emotionally, don’t want them to do on the hope that they can achieve a pyrrhic victory.

Another thing this tells me is this: antagonists are often rational actors, protagonists rarely are. Emotionally, we want to boo the person who makes the rational choice here. Conversely, a fantasy protagonist will often hope and trust beyond reason. This is something we enjoy in them. We respect them for it. Trust and hope in others in the face of betrayal is Christ-like. Christian and non-Christian alike want such in their fantasy protagonists. Which means, in this case, a protagonist will likely short-circuit the prisoner’s dilemma. The best narrative would be to establish such a dilemma and have it seem as if the protagonist will do the rational thing. Then have him do something unexpected and heroic.