In the light of the debated disclosure of the CIA interrogations, the racial tension ignited by the Ferguson shooting case of Michael Brown, the NFL’s handling of Domestic Violence and the continued evidence of Campus Rape, it is worth asking why we justify regrettable actions.
The question is meant neither to condone or condemn, but to examine the human tendency that is applicable to a range of behavior from small infractions to atrocity.
One of the most relevant considerations of self-justification from a psychological perspective is Carol Travis and Elliot Aronson’s well named book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).
What Travis and Aronson suggest is that most of us have a difficult time admitting mistakes and even when faced with evidence–will defend our position with Self-Justification.
“It wasn’t actually an affair.”
“The country had to be safe.”
“Any woman going to a Fraternity Party knows what will happen.”
What is Self-Justification?
Self-justification is not the same as sociopathic misuse of others, lying to others or making excuses for a mistake or harmful action to another.
Self-justification is a defense against feeling badly about ourselves by convincing ourselves that what we did was the best thing we could do.
Self-justification is fueled by memories that are “pruned and shaped” to re-enforce the bias, revisionist history to lower culpability and a distancing from disconfirming data to the point where we actually believe that what we have convinced ourselves is true.
- Have you or your partner ever been shocked at each other’s version of the cause of an argument?
- Have you ever been startled by a public official’s version of the news or his/her transgression?
Why Do We Do This?
The psychological theory that causes us to self-justify regardless of the reality of our actions is called cognitive dissonance.
Proposed by psychologist, Leon Festinger, cognitive dissonance is centered on our need to achieve internal consistency. According to Festinger, we have an inner need to ensure that our beliefs and behaviors are consistent.
We feel cognitive dissonance with associated tension and pressure to relieve it when our beliefs and behaviors are inconsistent–particularly when our behavior or belief is inconsistent with our self-image, positive view of self or worldview.
- He is a great coach—he could not be a child predator.
- All police officers are racist.
- Psychologists would never be involved in policy that does harm.
According to Travis and Aronson, the need to quell dissonance is so strong that people will find a way to ignore or dismiss disconfirming data to maintain or strengthen their existing belief. Findings will be considered irrelevant and even lack of evidence will be perceived as confirming.
Self-justification as the way to reduce dissonance caused by what we did or what we need to believe is powerful, emotionally driven, and sits just beneath consciousness-which is what makes it so dangerous!
- When we need blind spots in order to be right, then we are actually stuck.
- We are imprisoned by rigidity of thinking. We won’t hear our spouses, our children, or those who confront us. They also become stuck in our bias.
- There will be no opportunity to ask forgiveness, make amends, or start again.
- There will be no lessons learned or changes in our life path.
Is There Another Way?
If we suspend self-justification to tolerate the dissonance of being wrong, of seeing the other’s perspective, of accepting blame, we will lose the illusion of control.
- We will give others a voice. We will let them touch us.
- We will gain the freedom to be human, fallible, capable of growing and knowing ourselves and others.
- When we have the courage to see what is discrepant in our version of ourself or our version of the world, we will have the chance to feel mutual trust from unexpected places.
“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give (life) a meaning.”(Jean-Paul Satre)