WHY WE JUSTIFY FOOLISH BELIEFS, BAD DECISIONS, AND HURTFUL ACTS
Mistakes Were Made is a book written by two distinguished psychologists, Carol Travis and Elliot Aronson. The book looks at the role of dissonance theory and describes how self-justification and self-deception keep people from changing their minds even if compelling contrary evidence is presented to them. The reason why people do not change their minds is the fact that the evidence, that is presented to them, is often dissonant with the self-image of an individual. The book seeks to explain the role of self-justification in human life. It explains how and why we create fictions that free us from responsibilities and restore the belief that we have in our intelligence, moral rectitude, and correctness. In addition, the authors assess the various repercussions of negligence to responsibility and help the reader by revealing how it can be overcome. The first chapter of this book explains the concept of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is described as an unpleasant feeling which causes us to rely on self-justification. It is the driving force behind the justification of our actions and decisions. More often than not, the actions and decisions that we tend to justify are the wrong ones. The writers define the theory of cognitive dissonance in a more elaborate way, stating that it is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as ‘ smoking is a bad thing to do because it could kill me’ and ‘I smoke two packs a day’(Tavris & Aronson, 2008, p. 13). Cognitive dissonance creates a mental discomfort because people know what they ought to do and do not rest until they achieve what they want. However, in most cases, achieving the ultimate goal becomes rather difficult and therefore people end up compromising and justifying their actions because they are beneficial in some way; either minor or major.
Cognitive dissonance, through self-justification makes us believe that our individual judgments are more independent and are less biased or, in any case, are not biased when they are compared with those of others (Tavris & Aronson, 2008, p. 43). According to the authors, the main reason why we believe this to be true is the fact that we rely on introspection to tell us our thoughts and feelings and not take into consideration the thoughts and feelings of others. This is a norm amongst all humans. Self-justification is also a cause of prejudice. In the book, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles is used as an example of showing that every human is prejudicial to a certain extent. When entering the museum, there are two doors. One door is marked prejudiced and the other is marked unprejudiced. The door marked unprejudiced is always locked therefore the only way in is through the prejudiced door. The message that this entries send out is the fact that through the theory of cognitive dissonance, we all have some aspects of prejudice in us. Another issue, that is borne as a result of cognitive dissonance, is the fact that we are all unaware of our blind spots. The authors liken us to fish; just like fish are unaware of the fact that they live in water, we are often unaware of our various blind spots. Marynia Farnham is used as an example to show, how clueless we are of our blind spots. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, she rose to fame for championing for women to stay at home moms. The irony of it all is the fact that she herself was a physician who had two children and had not devoted herself to a fulltime job of raising her two children (Tavris & Aronson, 2008, p.44).
Cognitive dissonance is not only limited to an individual. It matures from the perception of an individual to that of a group. When it reaches the level of groupings, what is normally born of it is the term “US”. When people identify themselves using this term, then to them, all the other people are not part of them. In other words, “they invariably perceive everybody else as not-us (Tavris & Aronson, 2008, p.58).The notion of “us” brings about several concepts. The first concept is group discrimination. Group discrimination is more or less co-related to ethnocentrisms. This is the belief that one’s culture, race, or religion is superior to any other. People tend to be group discriminants because of the fact that discriminating against a group that they are not part of makes them feel much closer, and to have more intricate attachment to the group that they are affiliated to (Tavris & Aronson, 2008, p. 59).The second concept is group self-justification. Groups use stereotypes to justify their actions of discrimination. The authors give an example of the black community. Members of the black community have been enslaved, and deprived of some specific human rights. Therefore the groups, that discriminate against the black community, justify their actions and avoid feeling guilty for looking down upon them, because the fact that they are deprived of some rights, makes them less competent than those that have been accorded the privilege of these rights (Tavris & Aronson, 2008, p. 60). The third concept, associated with groups, is group deception. This concept seeks to show how members of a particular grouping are deceived by their own actions or beliefs. Group deception is the result of group discrimination and group self-justification. Dwelling on the example of the black community, members of other groupings , for a long time, have been deceived that blacks are incompetent people. This deception has come to be simply because of the stereotype which people have put on blacks as a way of justifying their opinion.
Cognitive dissonance is a theory that is developed on a personal basis and also on an accumulative front. It slowly grows from the point where an individual is caught up between two cognitions. However, because, in most cases, we as humans want to incline on the wrong cognition, we often have a propensity to justify our choice. It is in our human nature to deny the fact that we are inherently wrong. As humans, we are always seeking for something or someone that we can identify with. For this reason, self-justification is not sufficient enough to make us feel that we are completely free of guilt. We therefore go seeking for other individuals who can identify with the two cognitions that we may be torn in between. When in a group, we can easily justify our actions because of the unity that we derive from the grouping. When an individual finds a group in which their actions are not condemned, then group self-justification develops to group discrimination. People within that particular group discriminate against people who might be in opposition of the ideas or notions that the group may stand for. In essence, group discrimination makes an individual feel that they are much closer to their affiliate group. At this particular point, members of the group are no longer torn in between the two cognitions which they were previously in. The reason is because they have justified their actions so much to the point of believing that their action is indeed right. This is the stage which has been identified as group deception.