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 fell into his script and succumbed to the con (link text,p. 29).

Cognitive Dissonance

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. I thought of myself as a smart, perceptive person. And yet the man in the subway had been able to subvert that by casting me in in the role of willing giver. We allow ourselves to be led to make choices that don’t synthesize with our sense of self every single day. But recognizing these missteps, even after we've made them, can be difficult.

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.

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

Confronting error allows for greater freedom of choice in the future. By acknowledging the mistakes of the past, it is possible to proceed in a new direction, conscious of the old scripts and more aware of desirable outcomes.

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

When scripts are destroyed by an outside force rather than through recognizing error, opportunities for conscious reflection can be lost. The rationalizations that allowed us to continue playing out undesirable scripts have not been peeled back to expose the cognitive dissonance underneath. So when choosing a new path, we can fall into similar traps as before.

The evaporation of many large firm jobs in the recent economic climate will force many law students to enter jobs that they had not considered when entering law school. There is a substantial risk that 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. Simply perceiving the dearth of jobs as reason enough for our change in course won't lead to personal growth. As 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. Even if we don't choose a firm job, simply choosing another job that pays the bills would just be falling into a similar script. If we want to more freely choose a self-actualizing career, we need to start by recognizing the hazard in carrying on without having confronted error.

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r3 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:27:20 - IanSullivan
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