The Fascinating and Scary Internal Force that Convinces Us Our Actions & Beliefs Are Right: Self-Justification
Have you ever heard these quotes from the late President Nixon? ”I was not lying. I said things that later on seemed to be untrue.” Or, “I’m not a crook.” It may seem like a common occurrence for politicians, business leaders, and celebrities to get called out on something they’ve done or said (or posted on social media) and then publicly deny it. Can’t they see all the evidence that shows they were wrong?
I’ve been reading a fascinating book that dives into the psychology behind why we refute information that goes against our beliefs, that proves we’ve made a mistake, or that shows we’ve said or done something that goes against our values. In “Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts,” Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson provide intriguing research and humorous examples of the self-defense mechanism we use to protect our integrity called self-justification.
For example, when someone feels that they are a law-abiding citizen, but they frequently go over the speed limit, they may unconsciously justify it. It’s not a big deal. Other people do it too. (I can relate.) If the act is more serious, they may even convince themselves that they never said or did it at all! “I’m not a crook!” We may know they’re lying, but they’re convinced they’re right. At first, it sounds crazy, but the book provides numerous studies and examples from the news and from our own lives.
This same phenomenon reinforces our current beliefs even when we’re confronted with strong evidence that we’re wrong. Self-justification creates a filter; if we’re forced to look at evidence that contradicts our beliefs, we find a way to criticize, distort, or dismiss it. But we embrace information that reinforces our beliefs or actions and feel validated. See! Just like I’ve always said.
Our brains are wired to find consistency between what we do and the desire to feel good about ourselves. When there is cognitive dissonance, where the information contradicts our integrity, we try to salvage our self-esteem rather than own up to our mistakes.
“The brain is designed with blind spots, optical and psychological, and one of its cleverest tricks is to confer on us the comforting delusion that we, personally, do not have any.”
So, how does this relate to positivity? As you know, our relationships and interactions with others have a huge influence on how we feel. The more we understand why people say and do the things they do, the more understanding and hopefully patience and empathy we can have for each other. Awareness of the internal force of self-justification is key. See if you can notice any self-justification in others or yourself (much more difficult) this week.