The Engine of Self-Delusion: Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, beliefs, attitudes, or opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent. Dissonance produces an uncomfortable mental state the the mind needs to resolve. In resolving dissonance our minds trend towards self-justification which makes it hard to admit mistakes.

Most people, when confronted with evidence they are wrong, do not change their point of view or action but justify it even more.

Self-justification is not the same thing as lying, according to Carol Tavris: “self-justification is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done.”

Self-justification is also the reason that everyone can see a hypocrite in action except for the hypocrite–We can easily point out the moral lapses in others but have a hard time doing so to ourselves.

Most times we resolve the discomfort that dissonance causes by rationalizing (justifying) our actions. Take for example, someone who acknowledges that smoking can kill you yet still smokes or someone who refuses to wear a seat belt despite knowing it improves safety. To reduce the dissonance, he may rationalize not wearing the seat belt with his “above-average” driving ability. The smoker may suggest that smoking helps them maintain a healthy weight or relax.

Cognitive dissonance is the reason why people who voluntarily go through a great deal of pain or embarrassment to get something will be happier with that something than if it came without any suffering.

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