Resonance without Emotions: The Empty Can (Not Setsuko’s)

This is written for my Japanese Film & Literature class in the summer of 2017.

Both The Empty Can by Hayashi Kyoko and Grave of the Fireflies by Isao Takahata told a story about the WWII in Japan and how it scarred the life of civilians. However the two stories use very distinct ways to resonate with their audiences. The former not only features an empty can but also leaves the emotional aspect of the story empty, focusing on objective descriptions of the A-bomb event in Nagasaki, an technique that pushes the audience back to the spot and urges them to develop their own feelings towards the event. Whereas the latter’s method is more hands-on, directly feeding the audience both what happened and how they should be feeling. It is not surprising that people sympathize with Setsuko, the little girl in Grave of the Fireflies. More unexpectedly, Hayashi’s approach is also able to bring the audience with her and in this case reflect more on the event itself.

Admittedly, Grave of Fireflies has been very successful in what it intends to do; starting with one of the most famous and depressing scenes in anime, it has moved millions to tears since its first release in 1988. After all, who could hold their tears seeing a little girl with an empty candy can dying in a shelter? However, what do the audience feel seeing a little girl closing her eyes with her older brother crying to death by her side? They feel sad for the characters. They think the war was horrific and against humanity. As simple as that. There is no space for the audience to ponder or to imagine. All the emotions have been delicately laid out for them. And they just need to follow the plot and shed tears. It is sad and moving and all, but it is somebody’s story, not theirs.

Now what do they feel when they see “the figure of a girl [Kinuko] as child, standing in the ruins of her home, bending over to pick up the bones of her mother and father from beneath the white ash” appeared before them in the dim light? They might wonder if she cried for her parents, for the lost home, or for the future in which she had to walk alone. They might also wonder if she was afraid, lost, or even angry. The audience did not know as they were not told. It has been left to them to decide how she felt as how they would feel in her position. Leaving a blank space such as this forces the audience to fill it in themselves which can only be achieved by putting themselves into the story and the shoes of the characters. Different people of course might develop different feelings. Whatever they did feel, sorrow, anguish, or loss, they would all reach the same conclusion: the war was horrific and against humanity. However the process remains substantial: this time they reach the conclusion themselves, by going through “their emotions” and living through “their stories”.

Being students/teachers for so many years, we all know how important it is for people to come up with their own solution. This way, not only do they remember it better, they also understand it. More than anything else, leaving blanks in the right spaces is an art, the one in which The Empty Can surely does a good job.

Self-standards Model of Cognitive Dissonance


Self-standards model (SSM) was proposed to integrate competing theories of self-relevant thoughts of cognitive dissonance. Among many, the following three stood in the center of the debate

  • Self-consistent theory/Self as expectancy The theory suggests that dissonance arises when the behavior differ from the expectation based on self-attributes. And the reduction is through self-justification of behavior while maintaining self-expectancies.
    • The theory thus suggests that people with low self-esteem or mild depression do not experience dissonance when their behavior is at odds with socially acceptable standards.
  • Self-affirmation theory/Self as resource Similar to self-consistent theory, self-affirmation theory suggests that dissonance occurs when the behavior threatens one’s self concept. In contrast to the former, self-affirmation theory asserts that the self-system is global in the sense that the goal of dissonance reduction is not to savage a specific self-image endangered by the discrepant behavior but to recover the overall system.
    • Despite its seemingly similarity to the self-consistent theory, self-affirmation theory makes vastly different predictions on the role of self-esteem in dissonance. According to its perspective, people with high self-esteem are less vulnerable to dissonance because self-reflection provides them with more affirmations of their competence/morality, which in turn reduces the need of self-justification.
  • New look model/Self as irrelevance New look suggests that dissonance is aroused when the behavior violates normative or socially acceptable norms/standards.

SSM incorporates all three models above at the cost of complicating the framework quite a lot. In short it specifies conditions for which theories/procedures are relevant at different stage of the process.

  1. The behavior can be evaluated by social or personal standards depending on the contexts and cues. For the former, the evaluation will be nomothetic thus will not be moderated by self-esteem (New look theory).
  2. If the evaluation is idiographic and no other cognitions of self are accessible, self-justification will be sought to reduce the dissonance. What if other cognitions are accessible?
  3. If the accessible cognition is positive and relevant, then it serves as an expectancy. As a result, high self-esteem people will show more self-justification than low self-esteem ones. (Self-consistent theory).
  4. If the accessible cognition is positive, irrelevant, and self-descriptive, then it serves as a resource. Consequently, high self-esteem people will show less self-justification than low self-esteem ones. (Self-affirmation theory).
    • If the cognition is not self-descriptive, people still have to seek self-justification to reduce dissonance.
    • Caveat: people with high self-esteem are more likely to perceive positive traits as self-descriptive.

[1]Stone, Jeff, and Joel Cooper. “A self-standards model of cognitive dissonance.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 37.3 (2001): 228-243.
[2]Cooper, Joel. Cognitive dissonance: 50 years of a classic theory. Sage, 2007.
P.S. The flow of this entry follows closely to [1] as I personally think that it provides a more concise yet logical history of the development of SSM while [2] is decorated with more empirical/experimental evidences that motivated the development.

Cognitive Dissonance

I just finished reading Cooper’s book on the topic and would very much like to write down what I get out of it.

Cognitive dissonance was first envisioned by Leon Festinger in the 1950s. The theory started out elegant and simple: With consistent cognitions, individuals experience uneasiness and discomfort thus are motivated to reduce the inconsistency. Here cognitions can refer to actions, beliefs, attitudes, and so on. Inconsistency can be due to inconsistent attitude and action. One of the many experimental paradigms to test the theory runs as follows: subjects are asked to evaluate a certain proposition arguing against her/his position. Lastly attitude is elicited again. For instance, subjects (usually college students) are asked about their attitudes towards increasing tuition. Expectedly most of them are against it thus are asked to write an essay/make a speech for tuition increase after which they are asked again about their attitudes on the issue. (All results will be discussed under this paradigm for exposition.) Typical findings on these experiments show that subjects change their attitudes closer to what they (are asked to) advocate. According to Festinger, subjects experience cognitive dissonance: writing an essay for tuition raise is inconsistent with their attitude against a raise. As a result of the dissonance, subjects are motivated to reduce the inconsistency. In this case (as in many other cases), changing one’s attitude is easier than changing a committed action.

The theory is appealing as it explains, elegantly, experiments and observations. However humans are hardly that simple (thus the struggle of social scientists). In the following years, many experiments and theories are raised to clarify and complete the theory. I will first discuss efforts on verifying the physiological manifestation of dissonance and then talk about modifiers found that largely rewrite the whole story.

One of the first questions raised against the theory concerns the motivated drive (Chapter 3 of the book) Festinger highlighted in his original composition. Simply put (especially intuitive to economists), psychologists wondered if people really experience tension states/arousal/emotions or anything with a physiological trait thus are motivated/driven to reduce inconsistent or is it just a metaphor/as-if argument. With the hep of misattribution and two-factor theory, experiments show that the uneasiness is experienced

  • Two-factor model of Schachter and Singer (1962): an experience of emotion is based on two factors: arousal and the attachment of a cognitive label to that arousal. They conducted experiments to show that the factors are separable in the sense that how the arousal is experienced is affected by the label provided. In short, the experience of emotion is labile.
  • Back to dissonance: subjects who take placebo but think they take a drug which might cause uneasiness and discomfort, do not change their attitudes as much after the essay task. Similarly, subjects who think they take a drug that might cause relaxation change their attitudes more after the task.
  • These experiments show that when provided with a convenient label of their discomfort, subjects do not attribute the arousal to inconsistent cognitions thus make no effort in reducing consistency.

These are good news for the theory which solidify the original ‘guess’ of Festinger. Now the ‘bad’ news: New Look Model and Self-Standards Model (SSM henceforth) that largely kill the original idea of the theory. SSM is basically an extension of the former; some years passed before the birth of SSM but I will skip the struggle and talk directly about SSM as if it were a success in one shot (but it is really not).

  • The following experimental results forced researchers to rethink about the theory: No/little attitude change is observed if (1) subjects are not presented with a choice, (2) the action does not result in any aversive and foreseeable consequence, or (3) the behavior is expected by some (social/personal) standard. For the essay task,
    1. Attitude changes if subjects are asked if they would like to write such an essay (high-choice treatments) and no changes if subjects have to do so (low-choice treatments).
    2. Attitude changes if the essay is to be presented to the college committee and no if it is destroyed after completion. Attitude changes if the essay might be viewed by the committee and no if it comes as a complete surprise (unforeseeable).
    3. This point cannot be demonstrated with the paradigm and plays an important role in turning Festinger’s theory up-side-down. So I will discuss it in more details in the next entry.

Just as a side note: the experiments become more intriguing as the theory gets more complicated. The levels (plural really) of deception used in these experiments stunned me, an economist who sleeps with the dogma that deception is not allowed in experiments.

Okay this entry is getting too long to bear even for myself. I am gonna end here.

[1]Cooper, Joel. Cognitive dissonance: 50 years of a classic theory. Sage, 2007.
P.S. This is a very nicely written book: well-organized and fun to read. Perfect as an introduction into the theory.