Carol Tavris
Elliot Aronson

Mistakes Were Made

When you do anything that harms someone else—get them in trouble, verbally abuse them, or punch them out—a powerful new factor comes into play: the need to justify what you did. Take a boy who goes along with a group of his fellow seventh graders who are taunting and bullying a weaker kid who did them no harm. The boy likes being part of the gang but his heart really isn't in the bullying. Later, he feels some
dissonance about what he did. 'How can a decent kid like me,' he wonders, 'have done such a cruel thing to a nice, innocent little kid like him?' To reduce dissonance, he will try to convince himself that the victim is neither nice nor innocent: 'He is such a nerd and cry-baby. Besides, he would have done the same to me if he had the chance.' Once the boy starts down the path of blaming the victim, he becomes more likely to beat up on the victim with even greater ferocity the next chance he gets. Justifying his first hurtful act sets the stage for more aggression. That's why the catharsis hypothesis is wrong.

The first experiment that demonstrated this actually came as a complete surprise to the investigator. Michael Kahn, then a graduate student in clinical psychology at Harvard, designed an ingenious experiment that he was sure would demonstrate the benefits of catharsis. Posing as a medical technician, Kahn took polygraph and blood pressure measurements from college students, one at a time, allegedly as part of a medical experiment. As he was taking these measurements, Kahn feigned annoyance and made some insulting remarks to the students (having to do with their mothers). The students got angry: their blood pressure soared. In the experimental condition, the students were allowed to vent their anger by informing Kahn's supervisor of his insults; thus, they believed they were getting him into big trouble. In the control condition, the students did not get a chance to express their anger.

Kahn, a good Freudian, was astonished by the results: Catharsis was a total fop. The people who were allowed to express their anger about Kahn felt far greater animosity toward him than did those who were not given that opportunity. In addition, expressing their anger increased their already heightened blood pressure; the high blood pressure of those who were not allowed to express their anger soon returned to normal. Seeking an explanation for this unexpected pattern, Kahn discovered dissonance theory, which was just getting attention at the time, and realized it could beautifully account for his results. Because the students thought they had gotten him into serious trouble, they had to justify their action by convincing themselves that he deserved it, thus increasing their anger against him—and their blood pressure.

Children learn to justify their aggressive actions early: They hit a younger sibling, who starts to cry, and immediately claim, 'But he started it! He deserved it!' Most parents find these childish self-justifications to be of no great consequence, and usually they aren't. But it is sobering to realize that the same mechanism underlies the behavior of gangs who bully weaker children, employers who mistreat workers, lovers who abuse each other, police officers who continue beating a suspect who has surrendered, tyrants who imprison and torture ethnic minorities, and soldiers who commit atrocities against civilians. In all these cases, a vicious circle is created: Aggression begets self-justification, which begets more aggression. Fyodor Dostoevsky understood perfectly how this process works. In The Brothers Karamazov, he has Fyodor Pavlovitch, the brothers' scoundrel of a father, recall 'how he had once in the past been asked, "Why do you hate so and so, so much?" And he had answered them, with his shameless, impudence, "I'll tell you. He has done me no harm. But I played him a dirty trick, and ever since I have hated him."'

Fortunately, dissonance theory also shows us how a person's generous actions can create a spiral of benevolence and compassion, a 'virtuous circle.' When people do a good deed, particularly when they do it on a whim or by chance, they will come to see the beneficiary of their generosity in a warmer light. Their cognition that they went out of their way to do a favor for this person is dissonant with any negative feelings they might have had about him. In effect, after doing the favor, they ask themselves: 'Why would I do something nice for a jerk? Therefore, he's not as big a jerk as I thought he was—as a matter of fact, he is a pretty nice guy who deserves a break.'

Several experiments have supported this prediction. In one, college students participated in a contest where they won a substantial sum of money. Afterward, the experimenter approached one third of them and explained that he was using his own funds for the experiment and was running short, which meant he might be forced to close down the experiment prematurely. He asked, 'As a special favor to me, would you mind returning the money you won?' (They all agreed.) A second group was also asked to return the money, but this time it was the departmental secretary who made the request, explaining that the psychology department research fund was running low. (They still all agreed.) The remaining participants were not asked to return their winnings at all. Finally, everyone filled out a questionnaire that included an opportunity to rate the experimenter. Participants who had been cajoled into doing a special favor for him liked him the best; they convinced themselves he was a particularly fine, deserving fellow. The others thought he was pretty nice but not anywhere near as wonderful as the people who had done him a personal favor believed.

Although scientific research on the virtuous circle is new, the general idea may have been discovered in the eighteenth century by Benjamin Franklin, a serious student of human nature as well as science and politics. While serving in the Pennsylvania legislature, Franklin was disturbed by the opposition and animosity of a fellow legislator. So he set out to win him over. He didn't do it, he wrote, by 'paying any servile respect to him'—that is, by doing the other man a favor—but by inducing his target to do a favor for him—loaning him a rare book from his library:
He sent it immediately and I returned it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favor. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, 'He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.