The Engine of Self Justification

Aug 22 2010

“The fox who longed for grapes, beholds with pain
The tempting clusters were too high to gain;
Grieved in his heart he forced a careless smile,
And cried ,‘They’re sharp and hardly worth my while.”
-  Aphra Behn

Cognitive dissonance is one of the better known ideas in psychology, although we often forget the powerful effects of our need to justify our actions.  Watching a (now old) documentary on the build up to the Iraq War last night , I can’t help thinking that the actions of those involved was a classic case of cognitive dissonance (rather than evil intent).   The Wikipedia article is worth quoting:

  • Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously.  The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying.  It is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology.

Voting is a behaviour which is driven by our emotions and then justified by post-rationalisation.  We all tend to adapt our beliefs to fit with our behaviour – at least I do, and I’m sure many of you do too!  Some recent research has shown that when presented with specific political policies, individuals will adapt their beliefs to fit their behaviours.  For instance, when presented with a policy that they do not like, subjects changed their opinion of the policy when told it came from the party that they supported.  What’s more, they still maintained that their decision making was rational, and that it was only other people who would be influenced by broader party beliefs!

These changes are known as confirmation bias.  For example, a smoker needs to reconcile the belief that “smoking might kill me” with “I smoke two packs of cigarettes a day”.   This might lead them to adopt beliefs such as “the smoking statistics are misleading” or “my grandfather smoked until he was 95 and was always healthy”.  Such beliefs are adopted to reduce cognitive tension or, as Aronson argued, to maintain our positive self perception (ie to protect our self image).

In business and market research, it pays to watch out for cognitive dissonance.  It’s all too easy to reject the evidence which doesn’t fit your previous decisions and beliefs, and to look for things which do.  Researchers always need to be wary of this in developing and testing hypotheses in research data.  Always look for the evidence which can disprove a theory or idea as well as the evidence which will support it.  Ask yourself, what will it take to disprove or reject this idea, as well as what will it take to confirm it?  Use structured frameworks to assess different evidence and how it contributes to supporting or not supporting your conclusions.  For example, place each piece of relevant data in a two dimensional map according to the strength (importance) of that data and whether or not it supports a specific conclusion.

Don’t succumb to the engine of self-justification.  The more aware you are of how cognitive dissonance works, the easier it is to avoid.

REFERENCES

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (2008)

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