Self-Justification: Why People Do Crappy Things, Part 1

Cross-post with Eponymy’s Delight:

In a recent post I offered a hypothetical example of a bullied teenager whose diagnosis of “mental disorder” absolves his tormentors of responsibility, and even bolsters their behavior. Labeling theory holds that the word in question itself is culturally salient, and it is so in part because of both parties’ ability to rewrite experiences in their heads. Self-justification is a mental process discussed in the dissonance theory of psychology, which holds that humans will say or do contradictory, unsavory, or dishonest things in order to reduce cognitive dissonance, the perceived disconnect, and the discomfort resulting from that, between an expectation and an experience.

In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson compile hundreds of sociological studies, politician snafus, cultural documents, and pop culture dramas demonstrating the reign of self-justification in all aspects of human existence:

Dissonance reduction operates like a thermostat, keeping our self-esteem bubbling on high. … [W]e are constantly interpreting the things that happen to us through the filter of those core beliefs [about ourselves]. When they are violated, even by a good experience, it causes us discomfort. (pp. 30-31)

Discomfort that is easily resolved by little lies or excuses to ourselves, that happen so frequently we don’t even process them. I could not even guess when the last time I did this was. I can say that within the past week I have likely pretended a text was lost to cover for not responding to it immediately, swiped a pen because mine kept getting stolen, and cut someone off on the road because they tailed me for a long time before getting ahead of me. These aren’t great moral missteps, but in a situation with patterned stimuli, e.g. an office where the same boss makes ridiculous demands of you or a school where you pass the same awkward-looking kid at his locker every day, it’s not difficult to (a) project insecurities and stress onto others and (b) justify further bad behavior, to the point where you must justify that pen swipe or locker shove by convincing yourself of your rightness so well, you eventually have no problem with stealing money from the company or beating the kid with a baseball bat behind the school.

Indeed, both the (in)famous Milgram experiment and a similar experiment by Ellen Berscheid, the perpetrators in the artificial social situation belittled their victims and in post-study interviews explained that the victims “deserved” the shocks. In the Berscheid experiment, half the perpetrators were told that they would later be the recipient of shocks, and as dissonance theory would predict, “when victims are armed and able to strike back, perpetrators [would] feel less need to reduce dissonance by belittling them . . . . [T[he only participants who denigrated their victims were those who believed the victims were helpless” (200).

Interestingly, the authors don’t address the realms of customer service or office workplaces, or the experience of bullying, but it isn’t difficult to apply their observations. In a store, for example, a customer feels dissonance when they expect one price and get another and decides to belittle the employee to resolve it. Dissonance theory explains why otherwise rational people deal with such confusion in this way, rather than politely asking the staff to check or change to price. Furthermore, they feel able to insult the employee because the rules of customer service dictate that employees are not allowed to retaliate. (This doesn’t seem to be true in other countries.)

Needless to say, it’s much more serious when dissonance reduction of this type occurs among adolescents and leads to bullying, which has a much greater capacity to be fatal or at least permanently psychologically damaging. Self-justification seems to be a natural process empowered by the human brain’s complexity and plasticity, and has many positive effects, including transmitting culture, allowing forgiveness, and bolstering imagination, but we must understand that of all the factors of bullying and harassment, this is likely the only one that’s unchangeable.

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