Law in Contemporary Society
Recognition of Error and the Avoidance of Repressive “Decision”-Making Patterns -- By MelissaMitgang?

“I didn’t hit him. He ran into my fist.” -My 8-year-old nephew.

Cognitive Dissonance

Like my nephew, who considers himself to be a gentle, studious boy, we each make choices that don’t synthesize with our senses of self every day, in ways large and small. Why don’t we recognize these decisions for the missteps that they are? While our reactions to cognitive dissonance bar the acknowledgement of many mistakes, there are times when our actions are so divorced from our self-concepts that we will recognize our faulty choices, creating space for informed choice. Internal and external monitoring can help expand this narrow space of conscious thought, enabling us to make intelligent choices that reinforce rather than conflict with our values.

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 divorce our constructed reality from actual reality, rendering ignorance of our mistakes the default rather than the exception. 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).

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 an individual’s self-conception, that he or she recognizes the error even after strong commitment. In other words, sometimes the need for consonance is trumped by other needs, and error is acknowledged. 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 mechanisms have been overcome and we recognize error, that the possibility of conscious choice presents itself. Acknowledging the choice of a wrong path 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 paths have disintegrated, rather than because we acknowledge that our old paths were mistakes, we risk losing the ability to sharpen our self-awareness. 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 considering the compatibility of our self concepts and careers. Instead, we will perceive the dearth of jobs as reason enough for our changes in course. Aronson explains, “Any threat provides cognitions that are consonant with not performing the activity…a mild threat provides less justification, leading the individual to add justifications of his own” (link text, pp. 4,5). A very serious threat (such as the absence of jobs) would preclude thought because it alone is a sufficient explanation for a “decision” to pursue an alternate career path. When an avenue is foreclosed, an obstacle is placed 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.

Conscious Decision-Making in a World of Dissonance

The answer can be arrived at with purposeful thought, if we are willing to give ourselves and others an honest, front-seat look at our decision-making process. Both internal and external monitoring are essential in order to avoid repressing dissonant information and to facilitate informed decision-making about, among other things, our careers.

First, it’s important to understand how our minds work. In Mistakes were Made (but not by me), Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson suggest, “Once we understand how and when we need to reduce dissonance, we can become more vigilant about the process,” by identifying dissonant cognitions and questioning our motives ([link text]]p. 225). This is, at best, a partial answer, because understanding that we sometimes repress information will not ensure that we will identify situations in which we are actually doing so. Furthermore, even when we do realize that we are in danger of repression, we can easily mistake rationalization for rational thought.

However, an awareness of how our minds react can be particularly helpful in two regards. First, such awareness may help us reserve judgment about and commitment to a career path until we have fully researched our options. This is important because once we’ve made commitments, cognitive dissonance will kick in, filtering out information that conflicts with our choices. Second, we should not turn to others who have already decided upon a path for advice, because they are likely to repress dissonance regarding their choice. Turning to our peers who are in the information-gathering stage will be more helpful ([link text]]p. 23).

External monitoring is an important complement to self-monitoring. In the context of choosing a legal career, it should include comprehensive, personalized career advisement, a required first-year course that helps students reason through their career choices, and a close group of honest friends willing to examine one another’s decisions.

The first two of these options are expensive and may be perceived by the administration as contrary to Columbia’s interests; if we want these services, we’re going to have to demand them. Their importance in helping us arrive at unbiased decisions cannot be overstated. Without intervention from an outside source, our cognitions and repressions are a closed-loop circuit, as we reinforce both our own and one another’s self-serving rationalizations ([link text]]p. 105, 144).

Taken together, external and internal monitoring are not guarantees against poor career choices and faulty decisions in general. But they are safeguards that can help us avoid the pitfalls of repressing cognitive dissonance and arrive at reasoned decisions that are compatible with our values and 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.

-- MelissaMitgang - 20 Apr 2009

  • I think this was a very effective revision. It did exactly what you needed it to do. This essay is finished, in my view.


Webs Webs

r3 - 22 Aug 2009 - 22:26:48 - EbenMoglen
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM