Guest Author - Paula Petrie
Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, is a book I wish everyone would read
Ever wonder why our childish dreams of changing the world become too complicated? Or how other people can become so wrapped up in a simple point? And why families often can’t seem to get along? The answer is dissonance or difference of opinion. Cognitive dissonance, that is.
In “Mistakes Were Made” the authors relate that during the second presidential candidates’ debate between Bush and Kerry. President Bush (said: When people ask about mistakes) they’re trying to say; Did you make a mistake going into Iraq? And the answer is, “Absolutely not.” It was the right decision. Now you asked what mistakes (did I make.) I made some mistakes in appointing people, but I’m not going to name them. I don’t want to hurt their feelings on national TV.”
Can you apologize, admit you were mistaken? Or like the rest of us, are you good at rationalizing your actions?
This month, I’ve been strictly budgeting. I have a plan for every penny. However, yesterday I was feeling physically lousy. I was also very busy, so by dinnertime I did something I never do, I ordered Take-out. The meal cost was compounded by tax, a delivery charge, a cost for debit at the door, and of course the forgotten tip. I felt so guilty. The guilt however didn’t last long, because I began to rationalize how sensible it was for me to do this at the time, and how my kids deserved the treat on this long weekend, as we didn’t go away, or spend much money on other things. Soon I had justified my actions and Take-out became our deserved treat.
“...Self-justification, or overriding feelings of conflict within us, works to minimize any bad feelings we might have as doers of harm, and to maximize any righteous feelings we might have as victims,” say Travis and Aronson. “Without self-justification, we might be left standing emotionally naked, unprotected, in a pool of regrets and losses.”
“Yet, in final analysis,” they add, “ we believe this is worth it, because no matter how painful it can be to let go of self-justification, the result teaches us something deeply important about ourselves and can bring the peace of insight and self-acceptance.”
Self-justification is more than just a personal frustration within a family or between marriage partners; this book illuminates how politicians, police officers, lawyers, therapists, dictators, doctors, and even Oprah Winfrey have inadvertently veered off the path of truth and moral conduct. Cognitive dissidence from one in a position of power can cause great suffering for many people.
But, sometimes without cognitive dissidence accepting the reality of our lives and mistakes would be unbearably painful. The people who as a rule accept the consequences of their actions are the ones who risk being fired, humiliation, becoming crippled by shame or lapsing into a deeply depressive state. But, when we realize the reality of our situations, as Oprah put it, doing the right thing is not that hard.
Ethics, stereotyping, blind spots and distorted realities, pseudoscience, and even memories are the allies of self-justification and self-protection.
“As long as we are convinced that we are completely objective, above corruption, and immune to prejudice...” say the authors. Basically, we have set ourselves up.
It’s always a draw. You may politely concede defeat. You may even (though doubtful) believe it. But, in the end the thing about life is that through cognitive dissonance, we all have our own perspective. Admitting a mistake without adding the “saving-face” spin is tough to do. And, as a civilized society one of the most important things that we could do is accept this about each other and ourselves. We are all tragically flawed. What we can do may be, hopefully, develop a little deeper understanding for ourselves.
As the authors put it, “An appreciation of how dissonance works, in ourselves and others, gives us some ways to override our wiring. And to protect us from those who can’t. Once we understand how and when we need to reduce dissonance, we can become more vigilant about the process and often nip it in the bud: like Oprah, we can catch ourselves before we slide too far down the pyramid.”
Personally, I think disodence is a form of self-protection. If used with care, disodence allows us balance, (to see the bigger picture) to live without self-judgement or judging others. It is how we conduct our lives that matters.
For our children, when we understand self-justification ourselves, we are able to help them grow without a fear of failure or being wrong, so they can instead look at mistakes as useful information.
And, as for my take-out, I know the timing of that reward was off. But, by admitting that it was a mistake and allowing myself to make this mistake without the badgering internal dialogue, my understanding of the pitfalls has been strengthened for upcoming temptations. This helps me to “grow and grow up.” As the authors point out, sometimes it’s not a need to admit that we have made mistakes, it’s letting go of the need to be right.
This is a great read, woven together with an enormous amount of research and detail. You won’t be disappointed.