Crimes and Misdemeanors by Woody Allen is an excellent movie. Of course, this isn’t a movie review, but an article about cognitive dissonance. So why the movie reference? It is a nice example of how people deal with cognitive dissonance.
What I found most compelling about the movie was the struggle that the main character, Judah, has with himself between his life long rejection of religion and superstition and the Jewish religion that his father raised him and his siblings in. As a youngster he questioned his father’s beliefs and as a man, he openly rejected them, but after he commits a terrible crime, he is racked with guilt to the point of a mental breakdown.
At the end of the movie, he is at a wedding reception talking to Cliff, the idealist and romantic, played by Woody Allen. Cliff is despondent over a lost love and sardonically says, thinking about his brother-in-law who got the woman Cliff was in love with, that he was contemplating murder. Judah, knowing that Cliff is an aspiring film director, tells him that he has this great plot for a movie about murder with a twist.
“And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background which he’d rejected are suddenly stirred up. He hears his father’s voice. He imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse-an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person-a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s scott-free. His life is completely back to normal. Back to his protected world of wealth and privilege.”
Cliff, the idealist and moralist, says that the murder would never be able to live with what he did and, if he were directing that movie, he’d have him confess to the police, becoming the moral authority of the story. He says that it would be a great tragedy. Judah chides him by telling him that his ending only happens in the movies, he is talking about reality.
The meaning is clear, we can, and do, rationalize away those things that cause us guilt, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves.
I have written before here about cognitive dissonance, the theory that people, when faced with uncomfortable facts that contradict their world view, will resolve the dissonance by either accepting the truth and rejecting their world view, or rationalizing the facts away, so as to be able to live with themselves. The situation portrayed in the film is very similar, in that Judah had to rationalize away the crime he had committed in order to live with himself. After all, the reasoning goes, if he turned himself in he would destroy his family and himself end up in prison for life, and what would that accomplish; who would that benefit? It is a very seductive and, in some way, reasonable way of resolving the guilt he feels. Of course, this goes against our concept of morality.
This is an extreme example of one way a person can resolve cognitive dissonance, but it is representative of what people do everyday, to one degree or another.
It might be as simple as seeing something terrible on the news like a starving child and changing the channel to avoid the discomfort we feel. Perhaps it is something that challenges a cherished belief, as evolution does for a creationist, or global warming does for an industrialist. Or, as in the extreme case of the movie, rationalizing away a murder. What all of these have in common, in greater or lesser degree, is cognitive dissonance.
The plights of Judah does highlight one aspect of cognitive dissonance that isn’t mentioned very much, the idea of morality.
Sometimes, cognitive dissonance forces us to make a choice that goes against our sense of morality. This creates even more cognitive dissonance because not only are we ignoring facts that we find painful, but now we are ignoring the moral consequences of our decisions in accepting belief over truth. This makes it all the more difficult to accept the truth and throw our world view that we know, or at least suspect, is wrong. We become more and more deeply invested in our belief. This can push us past the point of willful ignorance or indifference, into hatred and violence.
An example of this would be one group of people who are at odds with another group, perhaps two tribes, two religions, or two nations. While members of each group know, deep inside, that they are all have much in common, their both being human, they develop erroneous beliefs about each other to the point that, eventually, they have vilified one another so completely as to have convinced themselves that the other group are somehow less than human. This leads to violence that is justified in their own minds because they can tell themselves that the other group is not really human. This is cognitive dissonance on a very large scale. Of course it is much more complicated than simple cognitive dissonance and involves psychology and sociology. Still, cognitive dissonance plays a very large roll on an individual basis.
Does this mean that being more aware of cognitive dissonance can lead us to become more moral? Conversely, does ignorance of it lead to immoral behavior. The movie doesn’t answer these questions and neither can I. Judah is shown as having moved on with his life, in fact, his life is better than ever. Cliff is left alone with his idealism, even though it has failed him once again. This is as real as it gets, and real life is messy and arbitrary, however, being actively aware of our own cognitive dissonance and that of others can only help to make things better.
Jay Walker is a skeptical writer and blogger. He has been published in AIM Magazine and various local newspapers. He is also the author of the Freethinking For Dummies blog at http://freethinkingfordummies.com.