By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, July 9, 2007
Psychologists once conducted a simple experiment with far-reaching implications: They asked people to describe an instance in their lives when they had hurt someone and another instance when they had been hurt by someone else. The incidents that people described were similar whether they saw themselves in the role of victim or perpetrator -- they were familiar betrayals, lies and acts of unkindness.
When people described events in which they were the perpetrators of wrongdoing, they invariably said their actions had caused only brief pain to others. Many said the hurtful acts were justified or could not have been prevented.
When people reported the same kinds of incidents as victims, however, they invariably described the actions as inexplicable, senseless and immoral. Victims never felt that the wrongdoing was unavoidable. And they reported that the pain lasted a long time.
The most interesting aspect of social psychologist Roy Baumeister's study was that the same people dealing with the same kinds of hurt perceive hurtful actions in entirely different ways, depending on whether they are the ones causing the hurt or the ones being hurt.
These differing perceptions are a central cause of conflict in our personal, professional and political lives. For Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, they explain everything from the Middle East conflict to why President Bush commuted the prison sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff who was recently convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in a case involving the outing of a CIA agent.
The different perceptions of victims and perpetrators in Baumeister's experiment are a result of a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance, Tavris and Aronson argue in a new book titled "Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me)." When we do something that hurts others, there is a part of us that recognizes our action as despicable. But that comes into conflict -- into dissonance -- with our belief that we are good people. The solution? We reinterpret our hurtful actions to minimize our responsibility and downplay the pain we have caused.
When we are victims, on the other hand, it would feel dissonant to empathize with our wrongdoers. No, it is much easier to see their actions as inexplicable and immoral.
The important thing to remember, and the reason this has bearing on Bush's actions in the Libby case, Tavris and Aronson say, is that the process happens at an entirely subconscious level. People don't consciously tell themselves to minimize the consequences of their hurtful actions or to maximize the culpability of those who have done them wrong -- that, in fact, would defeat the point of the mental juggling act. The people in Baumeister's experiment did not realize they were acting in contrary ways depending on whether they were victims or perpetrators.
Bush's handling of the Libby case, and the way the nation as a whole has dealt with the Iraq war, reek of cognitive dissonance, Tavris and Aronson say.
"Republicans and Democrats have both been very busy reducing dissonance over the Iraq decision," said Tavris, an independent researcher who works in Los Angeles. "The Republicans who were most in support of the war continue to believe that weapons of mass destruction have been found and al-Qaeda was in Iraq and Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were in cahoots. They reduce their dissonance by rejecting evidence they were wrong."
"Half of all Democrats supported the war," she added. "They have reduced dissonance by conveniently forgetting they once supported the war. . . . That is the way memory works and the way the brain works. We ignore, forget or dismiss information that suggests we might be wrong. We rewrite our memories to confirm what we believe."
Aronson, who works at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said that while self-justification is a universal human trait -- and in some cases quite helpful for retaining our sanity -- the Bush administration has taken the trait to such an extreme that it prompted the two researchers to write a book about the phenomenon.
Aronson said the bias toward self-justification explains the administration's shifting rationale for the Iraq war and why Bush could not have allowed Libby to go to prison: "If Scooter Libby, working with the blessing of the vice president, lied about what he did in order to protect higher-ups, he is a good guy, he is loyal. It is an exquisite example of self-justification because the good guys are defined as those who are loyal to the cause even if the cause is wrong."
For Bush to have allowed Libby to go to jail, he would have had to live with the idea that someone who he thought was a good and loyal soldier was being punished for being a good and loyal soldier -- a fairly extreme form of cognitive dissonance. The only way to keep such cognitive dissonance at bay, the psychologists said, was for Bush to see Libby's prison sentence as overly harsh and do away with it altogether, even though Bush, both as president and governor of Texas, has long prided himself on refusing clemency to felons.
"He sees no inconsistency, just as we cannot see our own inconsistencies even though they are strikingly clear to everyone else," Tavris said. "He is protecting one of his own, but his reasoning is consistent with the way the mind works to preserve consistency."