Bookmarks, the Art of Self-Justification: We're All at the Mercy of Cognitive Dissonance

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Bookmarks By Richard Handler

The Art of Self-Justification We're all at the mercy of cognitive dissonance

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson Harcourt Books. 292pp. ISBN 978-0-15-101098-1

Cognitive dissonance is such an elegantly simple idea that it's hard to ­forget: anybody who took Psych 101 can remember it. In fact, as Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson remind us in Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), the term is now even a mainstay of pop culture.

As you may remember, cognitive dissonance is "a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two distinct cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent," write the authors. Obviously, it isn't easy coping with two distinct and contradictory ideas, such as "smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me" and "I smoke two packs a day," at the same time. So cognitive dissonance produces "mental discomfort," ranging from "minor pangs to deep anguish," and people don't rest easy until they've found a way to reduce it.

The resolution for cognitive dissonance is universal: you make up your mind about something you've struggled over, and then you find good reasons to support your decision. After you've made up your mind, you engage in a determined campaign of self-justification to reduce the unpleasant recollection of the dissonance.

This theory has a marvelous creation story. In the 1950s, a young social scientist, Leon Festinger, and two colleagues infiltrated a group that believed the world would end on December 31. The scientists wanted to know what would happen when their prophecy failed. What Festinger and company discovered was that when the world didn't come to an end, the group's disappointment unexpectedly turned into exhilaration: they reasoned that the world had been miraculously spared because of their faith. Their cognitive dissonance--belief that the world would end and the reality that it hadn't--was reduced by their new belief that they'd witnessed a miracle!

This book is lucidly written and full of "aha" examples. How nice that one principle can be applied so handily to almost all of human existence! Why do bad marriages stay together? Why do cops never admit they've sent the wrong people to jail, even after new DNA evidence is introduced? Why did Lyndon Johnson initially struggle with the idea of going full-tilt into Vietnam, only to become a true believer in his own decision afterward? More recently, how was Governor Elliot Spitzer able to think of himself as a watchdog for society's morals even while he patronized call girls? Cognitive dissonance--and the self-justification required to reduce its unpleasant affects--provides one extensively researched answer.

The psychologists who wrote this book have a certain pedigree. Carol Tavris is a respected writer who reports on psychology for popular audiences. Her well-known book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion, published 20 years ago, helped put the lie to the nonsense that getting angry is therapeutic (most of the time, expressing anger only makes you angrier). Elliot Aronson is one of the world's most prominent social psychologists--the only psychologist to have won all three of the American Psychological Association's top awards. As one of Festinger's graduate students, he was there at the inception (well, nearly) of the work that put cognitive dissonance on the map.

Sure, cognitive dissonance is a great theory, and it produces terrific yarns. It's had 50 years to fill its war chest with compelling data. But it's fair to ask the question of even the most readable of books and most distinguished of authors: why reintroduce readers to this familiar theory? Why now? Simply to celebrate its 50th anniversary?

That's one reason given by Aronson. But I think there are two other answers to this question. …