Sunday, November 13, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance As Inner Conflict: Part 1

All mainstream movies are about characters struggling with personal transformation. The concept of cognitive dissonance offers insight into why a character might resist change.

A while ago I read a wonderful book called Mistakes Were made, But Not By Me, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It’s full of eye-opening insights about how people go about convincing themselves they are doing the right thing, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The human mind has evolved to be able to cope with two contradictory thoughts, by reasoning away the contradiction. Thought A is, say, a positive thought about oneself, and thought B is a negative thought about your choice or your actions. The underlying idea is that once you commit to a position, however seemingly insignificant, your (unconscious) priority becomes to justify that position by selectively noticing things that support it and ignoring things that don’t. The authors call this “self-justification.”

A simple example might be the decision to buy a certain kind of car. Before you decide which make or model, you shop around, weigh up pros and cons of various types of cars, etc. But after you’ve signed the deal, you only pick up new information that confirms your choice of new car and proves that other cars are inferior. Even if this isn’t correct.

Bad Choices Lead To Cognitive Dissonance
However, this phenomenon isn’t limited to the purchase of consumer goods. It applies to any choice a person makes. How you vote, who you marry, where you choose to live, what school you send your kids to, career choices, and so on. And what’s most important in terms of writing a screenplay is, it also applies to decisions you have secret doubts about or even deeply regret… In other words: Inner conflict.

Here’s how a character’s cognitive dissonance could be relevant to the beginning of a screenplay, where the story world is being established, as are the main character’s goal and weakness. Remember, for our purposes, cognitive dissonance means reconciling two contradictory thoughts by (unconsciously) reasoning away the contradiction. This leads to the denial of a problem, rationalizations that cover up the problem, avoidance of the problem altogether, etc. This is precisely the kind of unfulfilled state you want your main character in at the beginning of your story, in order to create both inner and outer conflict and to create the potential for emotional growth—at a price.

Rationalizing Away Cognitive Dissonance
We all know her: The neighbour who’s all smiles and cheerfulness, but who’s married to a scumbag. Everyone knows he treats her like dirt, but the more people urge her to consider a life away from him, in which she’ll find real love and affection, the more she insists that she’s really very happy with the scumbag. The cognitive dissonance here is this: Thought A = I’m an intelligent, loving woman. Thought B = I’m married to an abusive bully. Those two thoughts are dissonant, they contradict each other. The coping strategy here, is self-justification through rationalization: My husband’s under a lot of pressure, he’s not good at expressing his feelings, he’s such a good lover… and so on. What does that set up in terms of story? It promises the audience that a character who rationalizes away a problem like this, is going to be confronted with what they’re denying, later in the story.

A classic movie example is Bruce Willis’s character in Die Hard, who after six months is still angry at his estranged wife for choosing her career above their marriage. His cognitive dissonance: Thought A = She makes me feel like a loser; thought B = I’m lonely, I miss her. His rationalization for not praising her achievements and showing her affection: I’m a tough guy, I don’t need her, I can manage fine on my own, she’ll realize she needs me sooner or later, etc.

Another example might be Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in 500 Days of Summer, who hangs on to the delusion that the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with, feels the same way about him, despite plenty of clues to contradict this. His cognitive dissonance: Thought A = This girl is the best thing that’s ever happened to me; thought B = This girl is totally unwilling to commit to me. His rationalizations for not heeding his 12-year old half-sister’s advice to forget the girl and move on: But we like the same music; this isn’t what women are really like; she just hasn’t realize yet that wants to be more than just friends, etc.

Cognitive Dissonance Questionnaire
Here are a few questions that might help bring this concept into focus for the beginning of your own screenplay, or at any other point where it feels relevant:

  • What dissonance between contradictory thoughts does your character reason away?
  • How is this self-justification visible in their actions and choices?
  • What other character benefits from the contradiction?
  • What evidence is the character (deliberately) ignoring?
  • Which of the character’s contradictory thoughts do they really need to reject?
  • What is the character afraid will happen if they resolve the dissonance?
  • What does the character stand to gain if they resolve the dissonance?

Theses are just some suggestions. There are inevitably lots of other ways to explore this aspect of a character. But part of the fun of writing, I find, is discovering your own way.

Next time, I’ll have a look at how cognitive dissonance manifests when a character is confronted with their dissonance, but continues to resist change.