Law in Contemporary Society
Recognition of Error and the Creation of Space for Conscious, Script-Free Thought -- By MelissaMitgang - 27 Feb 2009

The Con

Five years ago, while I was standing on the subway platform waiting for a train to arrive, a seemingly impoverished man approached and asked for my help. He had a very sick daughter, he said, and he needed help paying for her medication.

“You look religious,” he said. “I’m from Israel, and we share a faith. Will you help my daughter?”

“This doesn’t sound right,” I thought, but after a few minutes of conversation (I was, after all, stranded on that platform), I thought, “What if he does have a sick daughter? What if my inaction will bring more suffering to a little girl?”

And in allowing myself to be cast, or, in the phrasing of Arthur Allen Leff, "altercast," as a pious person with a deep, religious connection to this stranger, I succumbed to the con (link text,p. 29).

Cognitive Dissonance

We allow ourselves to be led to make choices that don’t synthesize with our sense of self every single day, in ways large and small. Why don’t we recognize these decisions for the missteps that they are? While our reaction to cognitive dissonance bars the acknowledgement of many of our mistakes, there are times when our erroneous actions are so divorced from our concept of self that we will recognize our faulty choice. This recognition creates a space in which conscious, script-free choice may operate.

Proponents of cognitive dissonance theory posit that after an individual makes a choice, he or she will attempt to rationalize the decision in the face of evidence that it was a wrong one. In “The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Elliot Aronson explains, “The individual experiencing dissonance will seek biased information and evaluations designed to make his decision appear more reasonable," (link text, p. 13). Our reaction to cognitive dissonance allows us to construct our own reality so as to divorce it from actual reality, rendering ignorance of our mistakes the default rather than the exception.

Dissonance is strongest when our self-concept conflicts with our behavior (link text, p. 27). For instance, my conception of myself as a smart, discerning person conflicted with my behavior on that subway platform. It took five minutes for a stranger to con me out of $60, and nearly five days for me to admit that I had allowed myself to be conned.

As Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter discuss in their study, When Prophecy Fails, commitment to a belief is necessary for the believer to hold onto his or her conviction in the face of confirmation that it is untrue. Commitment is defined as “some important action that is difficult to undo” (Festinger 4). I was able to admit my mistake because I had not committed very much to it; losing $60 is not particularly important or undoable.

Despite Our Need for Consonance, We Are Capable of Admitting Error

Sometimes, however, a mistake is so egregious, or a decision is so antithetical to our self-conception, that we realize we have erred even after strong commitment. In other words, sometimes our need for consonance is trumped by other needs, and we acknowledge error as a result. Aronson explains, “If a person is ever going to grow, improve, and avoid repeating the same errors, he must sooner or later learn to profit from past mistakes. One cannot profit from one’s mistakes without first admitting that one has made a mistake" (link text, p. 30).

Recognizing Error Enables Conscious, Script-Free Thought

It is at this point, after our rationalizing mechanism has been overcome and we recognize that we have erred, that the possibility of conscious choice presents itself. Acknowledging that we chose the wrong path, or that we allowed someone else to choose the wrong path for us, frees us to proceed with an awareness of both the script from which we were reading and the direction in which we would like to turn.

Destruction of a Script by an Outside Force is an Obstacle to Conscious Thought

When we choose a new path because our old path has disintegrated, rather than because we acknowledge that our old path was a mistake, we risk losing the ability to sharpen our self-awareness and refine our conception of reality.

For instance, the fact that many of us will no longer have the option of working for a large firm threatens to foreclose a potential avenue of growth. Instead of acknowledging error and altering our lives accordingly, we will be in danger of exchanging one script for another, without ever considering the compatibility of our self concepts, values, and careers. Instead, we will perceive the dearth of jobs as reason enough for our change in course. Aronson explains, “Any threat provides cognitions that are consonant with not performing the activity; and the more severe the threat, the greater the consonance…a mild threat provides less justification, leading the individual to add justifications of his own in the form of convincing himself that he does not like to perform that activity” (link text, pp. 4,5). While Aronson speaks of rationalization here, I believe the reasoning is applicable to rational thought as well. A very serious threat (such as the complete absence of jobs) would preclude thought because it alone is a sufficient explanation for a “decision” to pursue an alternate career path. If, on the other hand, we are presented with a minor threat (law firm positions become a bit harder to find or less profitable, or we are faced with firsthand evidence concerning an aspect of firm work that is dissonant with our sense of self), we would (at least potentially) be led to think about the disconnect between our self concepts and our career paths, and the opportunity for growth and conscious choice would present itself.

I do not mean to suggest that positive development cannot follow from a strong threat or the decimation of a path. Instead, I suggest that having an avenue unequivocally foreclosed presents an obstacle in the way of conscious thought. Recognition of that barrier, in turn, is central to surmounting it. After one path has disappeared, “what next?” becomes the pressing question. The answer can be arrived at with deliberate, purposeful thought, rather than merely succumbing to the “threat” and allowing ourselves to be altercast anew, if we are truly cognizant of both the forces at play and our ultimate goals.

I was unfortunately unable to find an online copy of When Prophecy Fails, and I am including a footnote as a result.

Festinger, Leon, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter. When Prophecy Fails. Minneapolis: U. Minneapolis Press, 1956.

Also, please note that I did not include outline headings, footnotes, or links towards my word limit.

  • But you could easily have tightened the piece so it was comfortably instead of only barely under the word limit. The distance between where you start and where you wind up, for example, is really too far to bridge: you cannot link your introduction to your conclusion. So, important as the story with which you open is to you, there's a hard question to face about whether to leave it in. If you begin without it you gain sufficient space, at the expense of developing the sense of personal connection, to address other important issues. The expense isn't slight, and one might make the choice either way, I agree.

  • But there are other issues to confront. You use a very significant amount of machinery, which you introduce and describe very well, to reach the very modest conclusion described in your last paragraph. The mismatch between the very large-scale phenomena discussed elsewhere, particularly the repression of cognitive dissonance, and the plea for self-awareness on which you end seems to demand further development or modification. That's a clue, I think, that the last section probably requires rethinking.

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