Understanding Rashomon effect and its role in today’s society

It’s a known fact that history is written by those who win the war.

Now how did this come to happen? The conquered also survived to tell the tale, didn’t they? They did write about it, albeit a different version. Since the winner’s voice is loud and reaches far and wide, it becomes heard much better. Every war has two sides, every debate too. And it depends on where we stand that determines our perspective on it which differs. When the narrative changes with the version of the person speaking, it’s generally called as the Rashomon effect, coming from the eponymous Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa. The film introduced the real and experimental Kurosawa to the world, apart from winning him many international awards.

Rashomon effect is seen in many instances where perspectives change with narratives, when multiple witnesses of a particular event give diverse testimonies. Why, every wedding ceremony or even a table laid out meticulously by a chef has diverse opinions. Those who pay for the wedding tell a different story from those who get married and then those who attend it. Same is with the chef, the customer and his guests. In serious cases, these varying narratives and testimonies could lead to much confusion and even delayed justice in worse cases.

How do perspectives vary

For humans, it’s not very easy to understand things completely and accurately all the time. So when we there are gaps in our understanding of what’s exactly happening around us, we create stories to fill the gaps and firmly believe them to be true. That has been our millennia old obsession with stories, the exact reason why even today, humans bond over stories and use them ever so frequently. Stories come up as a means of our brains to make sense of what’s happening. Conversely, when something is told as a story, the brain accepts it more readily than it would , had it been told as dry facts. So each one has his/her own version of life’s “Stories”. Interestingly, each observer believes that his version is the closest to being the truth. When multiple versions emerge, we get disparaging narratives. In a normal context this could be acceptable to a certain extent. Things go awry when it comes to commenting on political matters, violence or sensitive subjects.

Rashomon effect in real life

This kind of multiple version of the same event could happen to us in our everyday lives as well. Why, psychologists say it even happens in our own heads all the time. Haven’t we all experienced the dilemmas many times? Haven’t we denied, defended or fought with some aspect in our own minds? Or that time when we hold on a particular notion and then we get influenced by someone else’s opinion of the same thing? Why even the media plays a huge role in sending us conflicting messages. What we accept and believe becomes the version we adopt finally.

It’s not that each person who narrates a different version or opinion is lying. To each person, that is the true version as per his/her perspective. These perspectives are based on that person’s psyche, his upbringing, experiences in life (good or bad), understanding of facts, depth of thought and rationale, his strength of the moral compass and a sense of empathy towards other people.
 However, a third person gets confused with these conflicting versions because he has to depend on what they are saying (as true).

Such dilemmas come to the fore especially for leaders when they deal with moral issues. They also face such dilemmas when they inquire about certain issues in the organization and each party narrates a different version, expecting it to be believed as true. How do you find what is the real fact of the matter when all versions seem completely plausible? The classic example for the Rashomon effect is that of the four blind men and an elephant. To each of the four who touch the tail, the ears, the legs and the stomach, the elephant signifies that shape and they believe it to be true.

Handling the truth in face of the Rashomon effect

Now coming to what a leader must do in such situations. Life is not like the movie where the director depicts a story from different perspectives and the viewer is left to his own discretion to identify with one. In fact, such is the impact that may times, viewers kind of empathise with the anti-hero!  In real life, you may have to find a solution in such cases, which becomes utterly difficult when each party holds on to their versions. When different people narrate disparate versions, all you have to do is understand the situation yourself. Also, one cannot be judgmental that all those persons are lying, they might not. Get these people together and arrive at a unified vision. See together how things look different from each one’s angle. That makes matters easy when you sit across the table and put forth your perspectives. It clarifies doubts, removes the fog and also brings you face to face with others’ perspective. Neils Bohr famously said, the opposite of the profound truth may well be another profound truth’ which holds true in this case.

In today’s context, we frequently encounter the Rashomon effect with reference to the media that shows us diverse perspectives of a single event. Every media house has its own ideology and they look at an event from that perspective. They portray that event with that impact. It is left to the discretion of the viewers to take a consolidated viewpoint and then assimilate the content broadcast by the media. One must not get affected by any one media and needs to look at several other sources before making a personal opinion. In all these cases, it is crucial to look at things froma  neutral vantage point and be objective at all times to avoid falling into the trap. Imagine how it would be before the judges sitting in courts who have to face competing advocates who pitch vehemently for their clients. The judge knows how to see through the facts and make his own objective decision based on a consolidated view. It is the similar way we need to behave in the face of such cases.

Did you notice any corrections to be made on this page? Submit your feedback here. We will take the necessary action.