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 electronic cigarettes and I’m sure many of you do too! I recommend the ones from slim’s ejuice.  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! On other related article on how to quit smoking and use vape visit best vape juice storage and safety. You can also check out the different bongs and other wholesale pipes being sold online.

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”, he needs to understand that it is better for him to get e liquid UK for electronic cigarettes which are less harmful.   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). If you are looking to quit, e-cigs are a preferred start off point if you can’t go cold turkey. Check out the MigVapor online e cig website for your options, as well as advise on making the big change.

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)

2 responses so far

  1. Really did enjoy reading your post, looking at the concepts of mind and thought, Would you say referring back to your smoking paragraph that smoking is more mind over matter?

    I agree that Electronic Cigarettes are a safer method, but it must have something to do with a person mind will power that removes them from
    a smoking habit.

    I say this as I know a person that smoked 50 cigarettes per day, he has now for the better moved over to E-Cigs but is now stuck on them and addicted to E-Liquids, even though he has reduced his nicotine levels

    To me, its like out of the frying pan into the fat

    What is your view on this?

  2. Thanks for your feedback – actually this article was written by a friend of mine (I don’t smoke myself).

    Changing behaviour is difficult, as it is driven by triggers and reinforced by rewards. The person you know successfully replaced one reward with another, but I presume still smokes in the same situations and contexts? Will power is definitely very important, but it’s also worth considering what can be done about the triggers of the behaviour (context) and whether there are alternative rewards that provide similar reinforcement to an alternative behaviour.

    For example, if you don’t want to eat fatty foods from the fridge when you come home late at night, then don’t buy them in the first place, or buy something healthy instead and put that in the same place in the fridge. Or if you always smoke when socialising with other people who also smoke, then maybe try to see them less often or in a place where it’s not possible to smoke. Can you replace the reward of e-cigarettes with an alternative (e.g., candy)?

    Ultimately, it’s down to the individual as you say, but we all have some control over our environment and can avoid at least some of the triggers of behaviours that we want to reduce or stop, and replace them with healthier or more acceptable options.

    Neil

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