Why do we dodge responsibility when things fall apart? Why are leaders unable to own up when they screw up? Why do we have endless marital squabbles over who is right? Are we all liars? Or do we believe the stories we tell?
One reason is that we’re all hard-wired for self-justification. Here’s why: All of us share the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for an action that turns out to be harmful, immoral or just plain stupid. Most will never be in a position to make decisions affecting the lives of people. But whether the consequences of our mistakes are trivial or tragic, on a small scale or national canvas, most of us find it difficult, if not impossible, to say, “I was wrong; I made a mistake.”
It goes further than that: Most people when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. The Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification.
Politicians are the most visible self-justifiers, which is why they provide such vivid examples. They have refined the art of speaking in the passive voice; when their backs are against the wall, they will reluctantly acknowledge error, but not responsibility. Oh all right, mistakes were made, but not by me; by someone else, who shall remain nameless. When Republican Henry Kissinger said that “the administration” may have made mistakes in Viet Nam, he was sidestepping the fact that as national security advisor and secretary of state (simultaneously) he, in effect, was the administration. This self-justification allowed him to accept the Nobel Peace Prize without hesitation, a small history fact that many Republican who scoffed the “dumbing down” of the Prize that went to President Obama’s seem to forget.
We look at politicians, business and religious leaders with amusement or alarm or horror, but, psychologically, what they do is not different in kind, though certainly in consequence, from what most of us have done at one time or another in our private lives. We stay in an unhappy relationship because we’ve invested so much time in making it work. We stay in a deadening job way too long because we look for all the reasons to justify staying and are unable to assess precisely the benefits of leaving. We self-righteously create a rift with a friend or relative over some real or imagined slight, yet see ourselves as the pursuers of peace, justice and balance – if only the other side would make amends.
The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions – especially wrong ones – is an unpleasant feeling called, “cognitive dissonance.” It is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions or ideas, or attitudes, or beliefs or opinions that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke to relax me.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it.
Dissonance is so disquieting because to hold two ideas that contradict each other is to flirt with absurdity, and most humans spend most of their lives trying to convince that our existence is not absurd. So, people try to make sense out of contradictory ideas and lead lives that are, at least in their minds, consistent and meaningful. Dissonance explains why Wall Street investors can justify receiving millions of dollars in bonuses after receiving trillions of dollars in citizen-funded bailouts while one out of every five mortgages in the country is in foreclosure.
Dissonance theory also explores the self-flattering idea that people process information logically. On the contrary, if the new information is consistent with our beliefs, we think it is well founded and useful. But if it’s not, then it’s just stupid. So compelling is the need to consonance that when people are forced to look at the disconfirming evidence, they will find a way to criticize, distort, or dismiss it so that they can maintain or even strengthen their existing beliefs. This mental contortion is called the “confirmation bias.” And it is on full display in Congress as members of the House and Senate confirm their biases in the healthcare debate, which when you think about it, really has nothing to do with patient health or care, but how insurance companies distribute money to hospitals and doctors.
Perhaps, in the end, Huxley was right when he said “There is probably no such thing as a conscious hypocrite.”