Why we lie to ourselves

By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson via time.com   Article

Why We Lie to Ourselves When We Make Mistakes

To preserve our belief that we are good people

It’s a no-brainer to understand why we lie to others when we’ve been caught making a mistake or doing something wrong: to avoid losing a job, a spouse, a reputation; to avoid a fight, a fine, a prison term; to pass responsibility to someone else. But self-justification occurs when people lie to themselves to avoid the realization they did anything wrong in the first place. It’s the reason that many people justify sticking with a mistaken belief or a disastrous course of action even when evidence shows they are dead wrong.

The motivational mechanism that underlies the reluctance to be wrong, or to change our ways of doing things, is called cognitive dissonance: the discomfort we feel when two beliefs or actions contradict each other. Like hunger, dissonance is uncomfortable, and like hunger, we are motivated to reduce it. …

Dissonance is most painful when information crashes into our view of ourselves as being competent, kind, smart, and ethical—when we have to face the evidence that we have made a bad mistake. We have a choice: either admit the mistake and learn from it (‘Yes, that was a foolish/ incompetent/ unethical thing to do’ or ‘boy, was I ever wrong’) or justify the mistake and keep doing it (‘Everyone cheats a little. Besides, that study was flawed. Besides, it was their fault’). Guess which course of action is most popular? Dissonance reduction is a largely unconscious mechanism that allows us to lie to ourselves so that we can preserve self-esteem and our positive self-images. ‘I’m kind; you’re telling me I hurt you? You started this fight so you deserve whatever I did to you.’ ‘I’m a devoted parent; you’re telling me that not vaccinating my child was a mistake? You think I’m stupid? OK, I agree vaccines don’t cause autism but they are bad for other reasons.’

The implications of dissonance theory are immense, because they show how many problems arise not just from bad people who do bad things, but from good people who justify the bad things they do, in order to preserve their belief that they are good people.”


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