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Justifying and rationalizing questionable preferences

“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” — Benjamin Franklin

Humans are masters of lying and self-deception. We want others to believe us good, fair, responsible and logical, and we place just as much importance on thinking of ourselves this way. Therefore, when people behave in ways that might appear selfish, prejudiced or perverted, they engage a host of strategies designed to justify questionable behavior with rational excuses: “I hired my son because he’s more qualified.” “I promoted Ashley because she does a better job than Aisha.” Or, in the example from our title and the subject of an experimental investigation we report below, “I read Playboy for the articles.”

Masking immoral behavior is not a new phenomenon, of course: A large body of research, dating back at least as far as Freud’s (1894/1962) elaboration of defense mechanisms, suggests that people’s perceptions of the world – and of themselves – are self-serving. Social scientists have long been interested in exploring cases where the human desire to appear moral fails to result in moral behavior, frequently focusing on situations in which people attempt to justify questionable or immoral behavior (Tsang, 2002). Indeed, the many ways in which questionable decisions, policies, or actions are justified and legitimized have been well-documented (Kelman, 2001; Scott & Lyman, 1968). Organizations gain the appearance of morality by conducting affairs in line with accepted standards and values even as they engage in unethical behavior (Elsbach & Sutton, 1992; Suchman, 1995). Individuals, too, are quite skilled at justifying their own immoral behavior while maintaining a view of themselves as moral. Examples abound: People viewed their own showers during a water shortage as justifiable but the showers of others as reflecting their lack of moral fiber (Monin & Norton, 2003), or, in an extreme example, doctors who participated in genocide in Nazi Germany failed to see how their behavior violated the Hippocratic oath (Lifton, 1986).

In this chapter, we first describe two means by which individuals rationalize and justify questionable behavior, one which focuses on preemptive actions people take before engaging in such behavior and one which focuses on concurrent strategies, examining how people restructure situations such that their behavior seems less questionable. We conclude by briefly reviewing two additional strategies for coping with such difficult situations: either forgoing making decisions, or forgetting one’s decisions altogether.

Preemptive Justification of Questionable Behavior

One common means of rationalizing questionable behavior is using the moral “credentials” gained from good behavior in the past to justify behaving badly in the present; people thus engage in preemptive justification, using desirable behaviors to license questionable ones. In a series of clever experiments, Monin and Miller (2001) gave some people the opportunity to credential themselves in a preliminary exercise, and then examined the impact of such licensing on subsequent behavior. For example, participants who had the opportunity to disagree with blatantly sexist statements subsequently felt more licensed to express sexist opinions; similarly, participants who selected an obviously-qualified Black applicant for one position were then more likely to favor a White candidate in a second, more ambiguous situation.

Moral credentials can also apply to matters of personal willpower, with future virtue licensing present misbehavior. Khan and Dhar (2007) explored licensing in acts of self-control. They asked participants to choose between a virtue (fat-free yogurt) and a vice (a cookie), manipulating whether the decision was presented as a series of choices or in isolation. Because participants believed that they would choose the virtuous option in the future, when they viewed the current choice within the context of their future choices, they were more likely to select the vice in the present – and to feel less guilty about it. Most importantly, Khan and Dhar (2007) found that people were deceiving themselves about their likelihood of future virtuous behavior: Two-thirds of participants predicted that they would make the virtuous choice in the second round of decisions, but when that time came, half of them chose the vice (see also Khan & Dhar, 2006). Thus licensing had a net negative effect on behavior, allowing people to engage in suboptimal behavior while feeling good about doing it.

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