Monday, July 30, 2007

Heroes, Villains, and Cognitive Dissonance

An interesting experiment from the world of psychology: When people were asked to describe an instance in their lives when they had hurt someone, most insisted that their harmful acts had been either justified or unavoidable. They also portrayed their actions as having caused only brief pain to others.

But when people were asked to describe an incident when someone had hurt THEM, they invariably described the actions as senseless, immoral, and despicable, never “unavoidable.” They also reported the pain as lasting a long time. Ironically, the hurts described were basically the same—betrayals, lies, acts of unkindness. (If you’re interested in reading more about this experiment, just Google Roy Baumeister, the social psychologist who conducted it.)

The technical name for this is cognitive dissonance. It seems that when we do something that hurts others, a part of us knows our action is despicable. This is true both on an individual level, such as when a man cheats on his spouse, and on a national level, such as when one country attacks another and causes the deaths of hundreds of thousands—or even millions—of innocents. Since most people believe they are fundamentally good people, these actions produce a conflict, or dissonance. People solve this dissonance either by reinterpreting their actions to minimize their responsibility, thus recasting their actions in a different light, or—in the case of the massive civilian casualties in Iraq or the WWII concentration camps in Germany—rejecting whatever evidence might prove something too unpleasant to assimilate.

Of course, this is all happening at a subconscious level, and not everyone does this to the same extent. In fact, some people spend years beating themselves up for transgressions that really were largely avoidable. Which leads me to wonder if certain cultures are more prone to collective cognitive dissonance than others. Many Germans, for instance, have spent the last sixty years in a paroxysm of guilt over WWII. The United States, however, still has yet to face the truth about everything from the genocide it perpetrated against the Native Americans to the atomic bomb it dropped on Hiroshima to the more recent invasion of Iraq.

But I’m drifting from my point here, which is that as writers, we need to remember this: most people don’t see themselves as evil. So no matter how despicable your villain, he needs to be the hero of his own story. He needs to see his actions as justified. That’s when the richest—and most chilling-characters are created.


Steve Malley said...

Hear, hear! Well put!

Americans do have an almost unbelievable tendency to see themselves as 'white hats'. I think it's all the westerns we grow up with.

I remember the early years of IraqWar II, the baffled faces on Yanks when they found out how many people outside their shores saw the 'Crusade for Freedom' as the 'Grab for Oil on a Phony Excuse', or possibly 'Make Poppa Bush Proud and Haliburton's Directors Happy'.

It really, really upsets us to go abroad and find countries we suppose to be 'good' see us as 'bad'. You can almost see the gears shear off in the poor souls' heads...

Farrah Rochon said...

Thank you so much for this, Candace. I seriously need to go through my old psych books and research all the cool stuff I learned those many years ago. I know there are tons of psychology constructs that can be applied to character development.

Kate S said...

Great post, Candice. So true.

Charles Gramlich said...

Yes and yes. Even the villains see themselves as heroes of their own story. Great truth there. cognitive dissonance can be quite powerful at gradually pushing people to do things they originally would resist doing, as well. Brainwashing practices often include it as a technique.

liz fenwick said...

Great point that villains are the heros' of their own story - important point. Thanks.