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The Psychology of the Lost Son: by Gwyneth Tonkin

Cognitive Processing

Therefore, if behaviour can be caused by selfless motives, why is the older son choosing to act in his own self-interest? What thought patterns are determining his behaviour? Let us imagine that he is capable of altruistic feeling, a not impossible suggestion given his father’s characteristics, which he would have experienced and according to believers in social learning theory (Bandura, 1971) therefore also learnt. Thus he would be experiencing conflict at his happiness to have his younger brother back as well as the annoyance at the lack of punishment given, particularly as his moral reasoning dictates that irresponsible behaviour should result in punishment. The thought processes of this son might be indicative of the belief in a just world hypothesis put forward by Lerner in 1980 and having been further supported by research (Sutton & Douglas, 2005; Kurst et al., 2000). This is a way of thinking that rationalises our world in saying that people get what they deserve. It is often lodged at the victims of crime to say that somehow they deserved it because the thought that terrible things can happen to innocent people is not a thought we like to hold. Simultaneously holding these two contradictory thoughts (happiness at his brother’s return and frustration over a lack of deserved judgement) would result in conflict, known as cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). Such conflict of thoughts would result in a psychological state motivating the older son to think in a way that provides some consonance. The older son thus uses anger to make these thoughts compatible. Being angry at his father’s perceived lack of judgement is over-ruling the happiness felt at the brother’s return and thus resolving any dissonance. So the older son’s apparent irrational response at his lost brother’s return can be adequately explained by the theory of cognitive dissonance.

As far as cognitive reasoning is useful in explaining the behaviours shown by the older son, they can account for the younger son’s display of real attitude change shown in his repentance. According to Bergin (1994) repentance has three elements, all of which can clearly be seen in the youngest son’s behaviour and thinking. These are self-confrontation involving recognising the truth of ourselves and our errors for example, “I have sinned against heaven and against you” [v18 & 21]. This kind of thinking can be avoided by the use of defence mechanisms (Freud, 1937) such as denial or rationalisation (something the older son might be using in order to avoid having to repent of his selfish behaviour by rationalising his brother and father as being in the wrong) but which the younger son does not use. Self-control is the second element of repentance and the younger son displays this by changing his pattern of behaviour e.g. “so he got up and went to his father” [v 20]. The final part of Bergin’s description of repentance is self-sacrifice whereby restitution and reconciliation is achieved. This is portrayed by the father’s reaction “...while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” [v20]. It is evident that the youngest son in the story experiences the process of repentance that Bergin describes.

The behaviour change of the younger son can also be explained cognitively with the theory of planned behaviour posited by Ajzen (1985, 2002) in which he assumes that people consider the consequences of behaviour before they perform certain acts. It is hypothesised that intention is an important factor in behavioural change and that these intentions develop from a person’s perception of the behaviour as positive or negative, society’s perception of the behaviour and self-efficacy (an individual’s perceived ability to perform a task, which is affected by such factors as past experience and peer pressure). The younger son clearly demonstrates the main features of this model of behaviour change. Firstly, he has a belief about the consequences of his return, in that he knows there will be some judgement, i.e. that he will not be called son anymore, but that there might be a chance of being hired as a worker. He shows behavioural intention (an individual’s readiness to perform a given behaviour) by getting up and immediately going to his father once he has thought through his behaviour. He also has high perceived behavioural control shown in the reasoning he displays whilst planning his redemption speech. This lends support to Ajzen’s premise that planned behaviour is influenced by attitudes, subjective norms and perceived behavioural control.