What's Worse Than Lying to Others? Lying to Yourself.

Why it's so hard to admit you're wrong.

James Steinberg

President Donald Trump is the poster boy for the phenomenon of self-justification. He is never wrong; never makes a bad decision; has never done anything illegal, immoral or even fattening. It’s the press, the Democrats and his enemies who make false accusations.

Trump’s core constituency never wavers in itssupport of him, either. Confront them with evidence that he’s made lousy deals, had numerous bankruptcies, accumulated financial conflicts of interest or paid off his sex partners, and they say: He doesn’t really mean that stuff. He exaggerates for effect. He’s fun. And there’s that great tax cut that will help me (eventually).

Some Republicans have gradually peeled away, renouncing their support of him. Those who remain, even those who once derided him, calmly justify their support: He’s not so bad. He’ll load the Supreme Court with our guys. Besides, it’s my party. I’m loyal.

Democrats, of course, are not immune from the same kind of reasoning. All of us, regardless of our political or other group affiliation, are reluctant to change our minds when “ourside” behaves badly — when a program we support proves a failure, a belief we have lived by proves outdated, a person we admire commits an unethical act.

Why is it so hard for people to give up beliefs or behaviors when the evidence clearly indicates that, if they did, their lives, health or work would be improved? The motivational mechanism that underlies the reluctance to be wrong, change our minds, admit serious mistakes or accept unwelcome information is called cognitive dissonance. The theory was developed in the late 1950s by social psychologist Leon Festinger (Elliot’s doctoral adviser at Stanford).

Festinger defined “dissonance” as a state of tension that occurs when a person holds two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent, or when people’s attitudes contradict their behavior. For example: “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces a psychological state as unpleasant as extreme hunger, motivating people to reduce the mental discomfort. So smokers must either quit smoking or convince themselves smoking isn’t really so harmful.

Dissonance theory is supported by hundreds of social and cognitive psychology studies that have identified the human mind’s inherent biases. A central one is confirmation bias — the fact that we seek out and remember information that confirms what we believe, and ignore or forget information that disputes it. Another is the belief that we aren’t biased, everyone else is. In any conflict, from marriage to war, each side is sure they see things clearly and correctly. What is the other side thinking? What the other side is thinking, of course, is that they see things clearly and we are the biased ones.

After his early experimental work with Festinger, Elliot went on to revise the theory, tightening the condition under which dissonance is most painful and we are most motivated to reduce it — namely, when an important element of our self-concept is threatened. We all feel the greatest dissonance when information disputes how we see ourselves or challenges one of our central religious, political or intellectual beliefs. Although I think of myself as an honest person, I might catch myself cheating on my taxes. When that happens, I will be inclined to justify my behavior rather than admit it or change it: Everybody cheats. I would be stupid if I didn’t.

Self-justification is the most common way of reducing dissonance whenever the self-concept is threatened. Because most people see themselves as good, smart, ethical and kind, when confronted with evidence that they did something bad, foolish, immoral or cruel, they tend to reduce dissonance not by changing their positive self-concept but by justifying their behavior. If I am good and kind, then the bad or unkind thing I did was warranted: They started it. He deserved it. I was only following orders.

What our research repeatedly demonstrates is that the nonconscious mechanism of self-justification is not the same thing as consciously lying or making excuses to save face, a marriage or a job. Self-justification is therefore more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit, conscious lie, because it allows us to lie to ourselves, blinding us from even becoming aware that we are wrong or did something foolish, unethical or cruel.

Dissonance theory explains why it’s not only bad people who do bad things. More often, the greater problem lies with people who believe they are smart, for example, and who justify their foolish actions precisely to preserve their belief that they are smart and infallible. Trump sees himself as a shrewd “stable genius” and therefore will never admit to himself that he has done anything stupid, foolish or wrong.

Cognitive dissonance is an adaptive, universal mental strategy that allows us to live with most of our decisions and still sleep soundly at night. But how we choose to reduce it — or live with the moral complexities it can create — is learned. After comedian Louis C.K. admitted he had sexually harassed women, his good friend Sarah Silverman posted a video expressing her dismay. She absolutely condemned his behavior, she said, but she also absolutely loves her friend. Silverman could have resolved her dissonance about Louis C.K. as most people would — by trivializing his behavior, or by ending their friendship. Instead, she made a harder, more complex decision: to condemn the act and to continue to love the man.

What Silverman did on a personal level, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres did many years ago on the international stage. In 1985, Peres was thrown into a state of cognitive dissonance when his friend and ally President Ronald Reagan accepted an invitation to pay a state visit to the Kolmeshöhe Cemetery, in Bitburg, Germany. Because 49 Nazi Waffen-SS officers were buried in that cemetery, the announcement of the visit enraged many Americans and Israelis. Reagan, however, did not back down. He visited the cemetery.

When reporters asked Peres what he thought of Reagan’s action, Peres didn’t condemn Reagan personally. He called him “a true friend of the Jewish people and the state of Israel.” Nor did Peres minimize “the painful and grievous error of [Reagan’s] visit to Bitburg.” Instead, he took a third course. “When a friend makes a mistake,” Peres said, “he remains a friend, but the mistake remains a mistake.”

Living with dissonance, as Peres and Silverman have done, allows us to see the world clearly, in all its complexity. Sometimes sleepless nights are called for if we are to own up to our mistakes and learn from them. Tossing and turning can mean we’re on the road to shedding outdated beliefs, preserving important relationships and making wiser decisions in the future.

Social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson are the co-authors of “Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts,” Revised Edition (Mariner, 2015). Tavris is also the co-author of “Estrogen Matters” (Little, Brown Spark, 2018).

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