SAN FRANCISCO — In a session here, Cpt Matt Richter, MD, a fourth-year psychiatry resident at Walter Reed Medical Center, described how Game of Thrones delivers cognitive dissonance through non-traditional plot elements. He also identified characters according to Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.
“Traditional storytelling is meant to reinforce the six stages of moral development,” Richter said. “The protagonists get rewarded for following them, and the villains are the people who don’t follow, or follow them incorrectly.”
He explained Kohlberg’s stages of morality, which consist of three levels: preconventional, conventional and postconventional. Within each of these levels exists two substages, creating a total of six stages of moral development:
Stage 1: obedience and punishment;
Stage 2: self-interest driven (or, “how does this affect me?”)
Stage 3: conforming to social standards (or, “how does this benefit my relationships?”)
Stage 4: authority and social order (eg, obey laws in society)
Stage 5: social contract drives law formation (or, laws have purpose)
Stage 6: universal ethical principles-driven (this includes the “veil of ignorance” concept; ie, you decide what’s right without knowing what role you’ll play)
In the context of Game of Thrones (GoT), Ned Stark is a clear protagonist who operates at stage 6 of Kohlberg’s scale by always doing the right thing. When he discovers that John Arryn — hand of the king to Robert Baratheon — was poisoned for uncovering that Robert’s children were illegitimate, he gives Cersei the opportunity to take her illegitimate children and leave King’s Landing. According to Richter, this raises the question of whether this was a truly moral, or truly stupid decision. But it is here that Ned is operating under the “veil of ignorance” at the highest stage of the moral scale. What does he get in return for such morality? He’s beheaded by Cersei Lannister. In a clear diversion from the traditional storytelling path, GoT creates a believable world, setting up a traditional hero — or stage-6 responder — then kills him off.
The reason this is so jarring and keeps many viewers/readers coming back for more, has to do with cognitive dissonance — when you expect things to go one way, but the real world does not match up with your expectations. “Game of Thrones does this all the time,” Richter said.
“Kohlberg’s stages of moral development give us a framework to understand, what is the traditional story? How is it supposed to go? How is my own life supposed to go? Life is messy and it doesn’t always fit that framework and GoT is messy, too. Some of the most interesting moments are when it subverts those expectations,” he said. “In popular media, like GoT, it can really help us explore these uncomfortable truths and make us more prepared to talk about therapy.” - by Stacey L. Adams
Yer a psychiatrist, Harry! Learning psychiatric concepts through the fictional worlds of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. Presented at: APA Annual Meeting; May 18-23, 2019; San Francisco.
Disclosures: Richter reports no relevant financial disclosures.