Cognitive Dissonance & Self-Justification [1]

January 14, 2011

Summarised in extracts from the opening couple of chapters of “Mistakes Were Made”, by Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson (Harvest 2007):-

Self-justification is not the same thing as lying [to others] or making excuses.
[It] is lying to [yourself]. That is why self-justification is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie [to others]. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done. In fact, come to think of it, it was the right thing. “There was nothing else I could have done.” “Actually it was a brilliant solution to the problem.” “I was doing the best for the nation.” “Those bastards deserved what they got.” “I’m entitled.”
T&A 4

Aldous Huxley was right when he said, “There is probably no such thing as a conscious hypocrite.” It seems unlikely that Newt Gingrich said to himself, “My, what a hypocrite I am. There I was, all reled up about Bill Clinton’s sexual affair, while I was having an extramarital affair of my own right here in town.” Similarly, the prominent evangelist Ted Haggard seemed oblivious to the hypocrisy of publicly fulminating against homosexuality while enjoying his own sexual relationship with a male prostitute.”
T&A 5

… between the conscious lie to fool others and unconscious self-justification to fool ourselves lies a fascinating gray area, patrolled by that unreliable, self-serving historian – memory.

[During Watergate, according to] John Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House counsel … those who made up the stories were believing their own lies.
T&A 6

By understanding the inner workings of self-justification, we can … make sense of … things that people do that would otherwise seem unfathomable or crazy. We can answer the question so many people ask when they look at ruthless dictators, greedy corporate CEOs, religious zealots who murder in the name of God, priests who molest children, or people who cheat their siblings out of a family inheritance: How in the world can they live with themselves? The answer is: exactly the way the rest of us do.

Self-justification has costs and benefits. By itself, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It lets us sleep at night. Without it, we would prolong the awful pangs of embarrassment. We would torture ourselves with regret over the road not taken or over how badly we navigated the road we did take. We would agonize in the aftermath of almost every decision: Did we do the right thing, marry the right person, buy the right house, choose the best car, enter the right career? Yet mindless self-justification, like quicksand, can draw us deeper into disaster. It blocks our ability to even see our errors, let alone correct them. It distorts reality, keeping us from getting all the information we need and assessing issues clearly. It prolongs and widens rifts between lovers, friends, and nations. It keeps us from letting go of unhealthy habits. It permits the guilty to avoid taking responsibility for their deeds. And it keeps many professionals from changing outdated attitudes and procedures that can be harmful to the public.

None of us can live without making blunders. But we do have the ability to say: “This is not working out here. This is not making sense.” To err is human, but humans then have a choice between covering up or fessing up.
T&A 9-10


One Response to “Cognitive Dissonance & Self-Justification [1]”

  1. Jack Marinello said

    Well said. Concisely written. Helpful to me in my searching to understand self.

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