Tag Archives: integrity

Defending even our worst ideas


La la la, this chimp can't hear you

I’m reading Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, where they try to account for why people justify errors and evil acts, deflect blame, and dismiss any evidence suggesting that they’re wrong.

The general idea is that we’re constantly trying to resolve cognitive dissonance: the presence of two conflicting ideas or concepts in our minds. The urgency with which we need to resolve cognitive dissonance increases to the extent that one of our core beliefs about ourselves is threatened.

For example, most people have the following belief about themselves: “I’m sane, decent, and competent.” (For some it could be, “I’m a peerless brilliant hero who shines an unquenchable light upon the mere mortals of this world.”)

But let’s say someone who has a good self-concept does something bad, believes in something idiotic, or identifies with something (or someone) evil or foolish. Suddenly the mind begins to question itself: “I’m a good person… but I just cheated on this test” or “I’m a smart person… but I just got suckered into spending $100 on a fad diet pill that made me gain weight” or “I worked for years and years promoting my pet scientific hypothesis… but now there’s a bunch of evidence debunking it” or “I strongly identify with and even love this awesome star football player… but now people are saying he beats his wife?”

So what does the brain do?

Many times, even without us being consciously aware of it, it minimizes the threat. We come up with justifications for cheating or lying, we double-down and defend an outworn idea, we rationalize why wasting our money or being duped was actually the smart thing, and we defend abusers, rapists and murderers even after their guilt has been proven. (People also find justification for abuse, rape, or murder that they themselves have perpetrated or turned a blind eye to as it was happening… this is the power of self-justification and our need to protect our psyche.) Our faulty memory can also swoop in and save the day, helping us gloss over details that detract from the rosy picture we have about ourselves while emphasizing the details (or inventing details) that support us.

So far the examples I’ve given are for people who have a basically good self-concept. What about people who think poorly of themselves?

Apparently the same thing happens, only in that case they’re protecting a negative self-image. If you think poorly of your intelligence, you might write off a good test score as a fluke. If you think you’re unattractive, then you dismiss someone’s flirtations by misinterpreting them or by thinking to yourself, “They like me now, but wait until they see the real me.” It’s amazing how hard the brain will work to protect core beliefs, even when they’re toxic.

The more we’re invested in something, for better or worse, the more we want to defend it and preserving our identities and what we believe is most important to our sense of self. I’ll be interested in what insights the book shares on catching yourself at these self-justifications and changing core beliefs.