Persona 5 and The Difficulties of Changing One’s Mind

With all the Persona 5 announcements lately, what better way to celebrate than diving deep into what makes the original game truly shine?

People change their minds all the time. That’s something that’s inevitable as you grow up and experience new aspects to your world that will either challenge your current mindset or open it up to a possibility you never knew existed. However, it generally doesn’t happen overnight, and the catalyst for said change is definitely not going to be something minor to the person whose cognitive viewpoint is affected. Throughout the majority of the time you’ll spend playing Persona 5, your protagonist is a convicted felon for a crime he didn’t commit, and no matter how much time you spend getting good grades and acting like a model student, your classmates will treat you with disdain and refuse to have anything to do with you. This is because they cannot look past the criminal label you have been saddled with, and since Japan itself is a really strict country where court rulings are harder to remove than superglue, good luck finding the major event that will allow people’s cognition of you to change.

Thankfully, the lead character in Persona 5 has two things on his side to help find said event: a smartphone app that’ll allow him to use superpowers to directly brainwash people and a city full of similarly affected individuals who’ll help him out if he helps them out in return.

Cultural Cognition is the theory that we shape our opinions to conform to the views of the groups with which we most strongly identify. That does two things. It creates solidarity in the group, which increases the chances that our group’s views will prevail in society (e.g. our party is in power). And it strengthens the group’s acceptance of us as members in good standing. – David Ropeik

At its heart, Persona 5 is a story about the disaffected youth of Japan fighting against the injustices brought upon them by the inevitable problems that occur from the country’s strict traditions combined with the general public’s laissez faire approach to dealing with said downsides. It’s a little difficult to determine the exact reason for why this cognitive mindset came to define the majority of Japan’s current culture, but I don’t think that really matters in the long run. You can specify the exact details regarding America’s racial history and how it continues to give birth to prejudice to this day, but when you get down to it, said problems exist and they need to be fixed. However, not many people are actually willing to fix them, and a majority of the folks who do want change tend to go about things the wrong way, with the election of Donald Trump being considered as one of the greatest mistakes the US has made, as well as the large amount of support given to Persona 5’s main antagonist – who without spoiling anything, is a person who wants to rule the country for the sake of ruling it with the needs of the common folk being a secondary reason at best.

Why don’t more people strive for change to these obvious problems? Well I’m just one person, but I assume they’re not striving for change for the same reason that I’m not going out of my way to attend LGBT rallies and such: because there are too many social science factors that define the human being to take into account when determining whether the cognitive mind is open to achieving something. My personal factors alone consist of living in a city where driving is a pain, most of my gay/bi/trans friends living in a different state or country altogether, writing for an obscure anime blog, and not wanting to get bombarded by over a thousand people on Twitter telling me that I’m wrong. Basically, I live in an enclosed world of my own creation and no matter how much I try to change or expand my cognition, I want to do it whilst still living by some fundamental rules I chose for myself.

There’s nothing wrong with that as a concept, as without limits to our mindset, we either end up having no personal identity of our own, or we can get swayed very easily to another person’s point of view, which is a good way to let civilization fall into ruin. That same logic can even be applied to favorite anime lists and how if the number of anime you love goes too high, it stops being personal and comes off more like “those anime you’ve heard about? Yeah I’ve watched ’em”. Plus, it’s a necessity for your own personal safety. You can’t assume that all convicted felons were wrongly accused just like how you can’t lend aid to all the homeless people on the street. I know a woman whose kind nature to squatters led to her wallet and phone getting stolen, and while her personality has led to her getting a thousand friends on Facebook (including me), I’d rather not have to make multiple calls on someone else’s line.

Nevertheless, the majority of Japan – as well as most countries for that matter – ended up making the battlements to their mind so strong that said defenses shut out those who don’t agree with their viewpoint with little room for discussion or compromise. Sure sacrifices are always inevitable, and a good way to minimize damage is to follow a path that pleases the majority. At the same time however, the majority can be – and often is – wrong. Especially when the life that the majority strives for actively promotes sweeping the minority under the rug without at least attempting to help them. Worst of all, when that minority is swept under the rug, there’s a good chance they might become the very thing the majority is trying to prevent as retaliation. Just look at the Phantom Thieves of Heart and how society’s wrongs turned them into supernatural vigilantes who take the law into their own hands. And unfortunately, they’re a rare exception. Most people take a far worse path.

But even with the problem recognized, what can you do from there? How can you go about changing the public’s cognition when changing even one person’s mind is in of itself a tall task? Throughout the game, the protagonist will meet many people who are also suffering from society’s woes, from a politician who has good things to say but is held down by a scandal-ridden past and the fact that he doesn’t belong to a major party, to a back-alley doctor whose talent and contributions to the world of medicine were silenced by a mediocre superior who got to where he is due to nepotism. While these characters are in a similar circumstance to the player, they will not open up to you until you form a give-and-take relationship with them, and you need to have the skills to hold up your end of the bargain. With all the effort it takes to win over someone you have commonalities with (who in of themselves can’t win over the people they want to win over) how do you go about opening the minds of people who aren’t in those situations? Who got through life with nothing more than the minimal troubles everyone else has? Or those who never had a social life because they were born street rats?

Facts and truths are small potatoes compared to the living circumstances, confirmation biases, and cognitive dissonances all human beings have. Even with all of Persona 5’s accomplishments, there are people who find its treatment of gay people or its literal translation too big of an obstacle to appreciate, as well as the people who go “I don’t play games to learn stuff I can watch on the news” or the people who just don’t like JRPGs in general, and thus don’t care about what its analysis on the human cognition. Hell, most people don’t acknowledge the “cognitive” aspects of the story despite the constant mention of the word. And of course, Persona 5 is a video game, so it has to make the gameplay fun or else it might as well have just been a book. I’ve been in the world of opinions long enough to know that while “the ends don’t justify the means” isn’t a black and white philosophy, you shouldn’t support “the ends justify the means” under any circumstance. You need to entertain first and foremost, even if the level of entertainment differs between mediums.

Being persuasive and having an open tone are good factors to take into account when it comes to convincing others to see your point of view, but at the end of the day, you need something big to capture one person’s attention, and you need popularity to capture multiple people’s attention. The Dark Knight may have raised the standards for comic book movies when it came out in 2008, but all of its contributions wouldn’t mean anything to the industry if it wasn’t popular. In the Phantom Thieves’ case, they have the current superhero hype along with how they use their powers against increasingly influential figures to gain the popularity needed to accept their non-lethal methods of changing society. And said figures were incredibly hard to take down, requiring multiple days of planning and infiltration, defeating the cognitive versions of their evil selves with the cognitive versions of their rebellion, and all whilst trying to blend in with where society put them at in the first place.

Obviously this is not something you can replicate in real life, but that doesn’t matter. My colleague (or as much as you can be a colleague on the Internet) Frog got popular through an educational look at anime fandom’s activities combined with his love for light novels aka one of the most popular mediums associated with this hobby as well as social skills on the net. However, he didn’t get to where he is by copying all those professional anime writers he clearly looks up to, and consequently you shouldn’t copy him for similar reasons. Even if you can’t overwrite someone’s cognition by beating up their inner self (warning: attempting this in real life is ill-advised), you can inflict change through other means. It may not be as effective as what other people can do, but going through life comparing yourself to others is not a healthy way to live.

Going to be a little spoiler-ific here, so if you haven’t beaten the game and plan to, don’t read further. At the end of Persona 5, the Phantom Thieves lose their powers, and consequently the ability to forcefully overwrite cognition. In other words, they themselves have to eventually resign to the inevitable fact that they can’t replicate the lives of their past selves. While said sacrifice was for the sake of creating real change on a worldwide scale, the ultimate impact from said change is minimal with the only noticeable outcome being a few criminals reforming and the public being more aware that maybe we should pay attention to the guy who has interesting things to say, regardless of their background.

Like most anime-ish products that tackle Japan’s societal issues, while it can open up people’s minds all it wants, Persona 5 doesn’t have a real solution to the problem, and it shouldn’t be obligated to as it’s a video game. This minimal success however, is a small issue compared to what the thieves ended up achieving for themselves in the process: a place to belong in the society that so previously shunned them. And thanks to said achievement, they’re able to save a certain friend from a label that prevented people from seeing who he really is, proving that at the end of the day, the real heroes are the ones who can play by the rules and still win.

Strengthening the group, helping it win dominance, and having the group accept us, matters. A lot. Humans are social animals. We depend on our groups, our tribes, literally for our survival. When our group’s views prevail, and our group accepts us, our survival chances go up. So the Cultural Cognition motivation to  conform our opinions to those of the groups/tribes with which we identify is powerful. And it would be consistent with that interpretation that the more threatened we feel, by economic uncertainty, or threats of terrorism, or environmental doom and gloom, the more we circle the wagons of our opinions to keep the tribe together and keep ourselves safe…and the more fierce grow the inflexible “Culture War” polarities that impede compromise and progress. The self-affirmation research seems to support this. It appears that the less threatened we feel, the more flexible our opinions are likely to be. – David Ropeik

There’s no one way to approach the cognition of the masses just like how there’s no one way to approach individual cognitions, or even how there’s no one goal to be obtained from affecting it. However, a common goal that I think all humans should strive for in regards to affecting other people’s minds is to become a member of the society they inhabit. You don’t have to become shackled by it, but I highly recommend playing by its rules and dismissing any anti-conformist statements thrown your way by doing so. At the end of the day, most people don’t want to be alone, and finding your place in the world is a very good way to avoid an isolated life. And you know what the good news is? There are so many ways to belong that still fit within certain rules that there’s bound to be a way that’ll let you do whatever you want. Even if I don’t have the time to participate in a protest, nor do I volunteer at a soup kitchen, I’ll still support those who do however I can while giving back to society through my job. I know that sounds a little selfish in abstract, but like I said, human beings and the social sciences that define them are complicated.

Just remember that none of the ways to fit in modern society involve criminal violence. Because one common thing about human beings is that most of them are very dismissive of murderers and sex offenders to the point that even people who understate how they’re not the nicest people in the world will frown upon you if you have that label. When you cross that line, the bridge that connects to the cognition you want to affect tends to get burnt with no possibility of repairing it or building a new bridge. Well I tell a lie. You can try to build a new bridge. Just be careful of the fifty shotgun-wielding guards that are patrolling the other side thanks to your actions.

And if you were framed, well…the odds will definitely be against you. But as long as you’re truly innocent, there will always be an opportunity to find one nearby person in society who’s willing to notice the unfair giant discriminatory stain on your back and help beat the rubbish mentality it brings into submission.

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