In their book, Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, authors Carol Tarvis and Elliot Aronson define cognitive dissonance as “a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent…” They call cognitive dissonance, “the engine of self-justification” .
I think this book should be required reading for everyone, but especially for anyone trying to make sense of psychopaths. The authors describe research that backs up each premise, but it’s not a dry read because they punctuate the facts with stories from case studies and historical records.
Although it wasn’t explicitly written about psychopaths, for me the book illuminates how a predator and his victim are both operating in a state of cognitive dissonance.
Why We Self-justify
Ben Franklin advised that if you want a big favor, get a small one first. When we do someone a favor, we grow to like them. In other words, you like the people you are nice to. Psychopaths know this and use it in their pity ploys. Their victims self-justify that the psychopath is worthy of their kindness because they wouldn’t do favors for jerks.
Psychopaths are also mired in their own cognitive dissonance. Even sadistic psychopaths, who are aware that they hurt others because they really enjoy it, need to justify that the victims “deserved it”. Ironically, psychopaths can’t see their own cognitive dissonance, but they understand cognitive dissonance in other people very well. By inciting others to participate in small transgressions –racist or sexist jokes, petty theft, minor rule breaking –they lure others down the slippery slope of self- justification. Later, the transgressors believe that even more egregious behavior isn’t that bad, because they’ve already justified it.
Persecutors use cognitive dissonance to seed hatred. When they incite their minions to hurt others, they know that the minions will self-justify by hating the victim. The victim must deserve to be hated. Now the psychopaths have a legion of minions at their command to continue the persecution.
What the book points out, is that no matter which side you are on, you can see the other side self-justifying but you can’t see your own self-justification.
Choose Wisely Because You’ll Be Happy No Matter What You Choose.
Our actions affect our beliefs because we need to justify that we’ve acted correctly. Self-justification reinforces the belief that we have made the right choice, simply because we feel happier believing it. When faced with cognitive dissonance, you’ll justify being happy about your choice and then you’ll choose that behavior again. It’s self-reinforcing. There are angels and the devils inside us. Whichever one we feed, wins.
Bad Memory or Cognitive Dissonance?
It isn’t only our beliefs that change due to our choices, so do our memories. Chapter 3 focuses on the subject of memory and cognitive dissonance. I was amazed to read how fluid history becomes when subjected to cognitive dissonance. Anyone who has had a relationship with a psychopath knows that they rewrite history. Similarly, the victims of psychopaths repress memories or have implanted memories. Chapter 4 continues this vein as it describes how clinical therapists can create and implant false memories in their clients.
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Chapter 5 discusses how law enforcement and the court system can be affected by cognitive dissonance. For me, it was the most revolting chapter. It describes horrible miscarriages of justice that have occurred solely because human beings have their ego invested in being right.
Chapter 6 addresses how self-justification can destroy marriages and relationships. The authors’ give excellent advice when they say, “Successful partners extend to each other, the same self-forgiving ways of thinking we extend to ourselves.” I think this is true –unless you’re married to a psychopath. In that case, you’re forgiving more abuse from your spouse than you would ever forgive from yourself. Although this perspective was not discussed in this chapter, the next chapter did discuss abuse and betrayal.
Chapter 7 ushers in the topic of justification in betrayal. Whether between spouses or countries, this is the most difficult to understand. Perpetrators of evil are not always evil. Sometimes they really aren’t psychopaths and the book describes various experiments in which the mechanism of self-deception allows an otherwise normal person to commit atrocities.
Forgiveness: Separating the Sinner from the Sin.
Chapter 8 is about “Letting Go and Owning Up”. The authors make the case that our culture does not separate the sin from the sinner. Mistakes are difficult to own up to because we feel shame about the mistakes. This describes the bypassed shame of narcissism. Narcissists can never admit to mistakes and that’s why they can never learn from them. In order to overcome cognitive dissonance it’s necessary to own up, atone, and resolve to do better. The mistake is what we did, not who we are. This first step, allows confession to culminate in the process of forgiveness.
Chapter 2 starts with a verse from Matthew 7:3 “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” I had always thought that this verse was a reference to hypocrisy. Now I see that it’s about cognitive dissonance as well.
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