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Self-justification describes how, when a person encounters cognitive dissonance, or a situation in which a person’s behavior is inconsistent with their beliefs, that person tends to justify the behavior and deny any negative feedback associated with the behavior.
Cognitive Dissonance: The engine of self-justification
The need to justify our actions and decisions, especially the wrong ones, comes from the unpleasant feeling called “cognitive dissonance” (Festinger, 1957). Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent. For example, “smoking will kill me” and yet “I smoke three packs a day.” The most direct way to reduce the dissonance would be to quit smoking. However, if the person failed to quit smoking, he must find another way to reduce the dissonance. He could do so by convincing himself that smoking is not really harmful, or reasoning that smoking is worth the risk because it helps him to relax. There are two main forms of dissonance: hedonistic dissonance and moral dissonance. (Holland, Meertens & Van-Vugt, 2002) Hedonistic dissonance is elicited when people act in a way which results in negative consequences for themselves. For instance, a person is late for a meeting because of traffic but could have been on time had he taken the subway. Contrastingly, moral dissonance is aroused when people act in a way that causes negative consequence for others. For instance, cheating and lying. Dissonance is bothersome in any circumstance while it is especially painful when an important element of self-concept is threatened. For instance, if the idol you identify with is accused of murder, you would feel a great amount of dissonance. This is because the similarities you draw between you and your idol would cause you to feel threatened too.
There are two self-justification strategies: internal self-justification (IS) and external self-justification (ES) (Holland, Meertens & Van-Vugt, 2002). Internal self-justification refers to a change in the way people perceive their actions. It may be an attitude change, trivialization of the negative consequences or denial of the negative consequences. Internal self-justification helps make the negative outcomes more tolerable and is usually elicited by hedonistic dissonance. Besides, external self-justification refers to the use of external excuses to justifying one's actions. The excuses can be a displacement of personal responsibility, lack of personal control or social pressures. External self-justification aims to diminish one's responsibility for a behavior and is usually elicited by moral dissonance. Using the justification of car drivers towards environmental pollution as an illustration (Holland, Meertens & Van-Vugt, 2002), probable internal self-justification strategies include statements like "environmental pollution is less severe than is often suggested.” Probable external self-justification strategies include argument such as "environmental problems will be solved in the future by means of technological innovation." This is how I try to make you feel bad for my inadequacies of trying to make you believe in the smoke and mirrors concept brought forth by Al Gore. Who is only in it for the money and has one of the best Self-justification Strategies in the modern world.
Marriage and self-justification
An 8-year old daughter was left in the rain waiting to get picked up after school. Her parents argue soon after picking her up. The husband thinks to himself that he was busy with work problems and so it was understandable to have forgotten. His wife however, is a housewife, believes that the house has had so many financial problems lately that it was quite normal for things to slip her mind. Also, her husband is inconsiderate so of course he would do something as horrible as neglecting their daughter. Both are determined that they had done nothing wrong as a result of self-justification. They believe they are the better person and that the other has a trait flaw that needs changing. Any opportunity for empathizing or compromising is thrown out the window. With self-justification, there is no room for compromising because “I did nothing wrong” and “he should learn to be more considerate” or” she needs to be more responsible.” Unhappy couples often cannot look past their self-justifications to reason with each other. As more and more disagreements occur, couples would eventually divorce. Self-justification protects our self-esteem and emotions. In the case of marriages however, when self-justification is used against a loved one it often leads to irreconcilable marriages and ends up hurting us.
Law and Disorder
All citizens expect their criminal-justice system to not only convict the guilty, but also to protect the innocent. Unfortunately sometimes innocents are falsely convicted. Without self-justification, citizens that believe the system works would have a hard time processing such dissonant information. Moreover, prosecutors tend to identify suspects through their own life experiences. This increases the chances of prosecutors making wrong decisions, pursuing wrong suspects, and denying their mistakes. More than 75% wrongful convictions are overturned by evidence such as misidentified DNA testings and mistaken eyewitness identifications. (www.innocenceproject.org) (Barry scheck, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer, 2000) If evidence which supports an innocent suspect as being falsely convicted is discovered years later, the judge and jury often deny their mistakes to secure their job. They would also justify that “wait a minute, either this overwhelming evidence is wrong or I was wrong---- and I couldn’t have been wrong because I’m a good guy.” (Chicago Reader, 2003) This helps prosecutors cope with dissonant feelings from making mistakes.
Importance of self-justification in psychological health
Self-justification may sound like just a process that provides excuses for one’s faults or make one under-estimate consequences, but it plays an important role in maintaining psychological health. Steele, Meertens & Vugt (2001) suggested that by engaging in self-justification, people can try to maintain a positive self image. Through self-justification, people can reason with their failures (external justification) or change their attitude towards negative consequences (internal justification) brought by their behaviors. This helps them reduce stress induced by failure or undesirable behavior in a matter that does not conflict with their self-image. For example, when someone fails in an examination, it would be less stressful to think that “the paper is too difficult” than “I am dumb.” Moreover, researchers have found that self-justifiation is negatively correlated to anxiety, depression and loneliness. On the other hand, it is positively correlated to our subjective well-being (Gregg, Kumashiro, Rudich, Rusbult & Sedikides, 2004).
Dwyer, J., Neufeld, P., & Scheck, B. (2000). Actual Innocence. New York: Doubleday. Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
Gregg, A. P., Kumashiro, M., Rudich, E. A., Rusbult, C., & Sedikides, C. (2004). Are Normal Narcissists Psychologically Healthy?: Self-Esteem Matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(3), 400-416.
Holland, R. W., Meertens, R. M., & Van-Vugt, M. (2002). Dissonance on the road: Self esteem as a moderator of internal and external self-justification strategies. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(12), 1713-1724.
Miner, L. (2003, August 1). Why Can’t They Admit They Were Wrong? Chicago Reader. The Innocence Project. Retrieved November 13, 2008, from www.innocenceproject.org