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Cognitive Dissonance

Hierarchy of Excuses: The Pathetic Path of Least Resistance

Our excuses match our distress, but it's all bad faith.

No excuses!

Recent research indicates that the degree of our cognitive dissonance relates to what kind of tactic we choose to reduce the dissonance discomfort. The rank ordering of our strategies and excuses is interesting, but it's only another example of how we live in bad faith.

One of our doctoral students is preparing her job talk for upcoming interviews as she seeks to secure an academic appointment. I had the pleasure of hearing about her research before her defense. I know she'll be successful, she's one of our superstars. Because this is all a "work-in-progress" for her, I'll keep this post anonymous in terms of her identity.

Part of her dissertation research involved experimental work manipulating research participants' distress by the level of cognitive dissonance they experience. She manipulated how much their attitudes differed from their behaviors, and this difference created a dissonance which was experienced emotionally as distress in various ways.

We don't like dissonance and emotional distress. We use various strategies to reduce it. I've written about his before in fact. We use strategies like rationalizing our choice, denying responsibility for our choice, distracting ourselves from the choice we made, or actually changing our behavior to better match our attitude.

The final strategy of behavioral change, although I'd prefer not to call this approach a strategy at all because it is so different from the other choices, is the "best," because it means our lives match our beliefs. We make actions to realign ourselves with our values and beliefs. In doing this, we choose to be the people we want to be. I'll come back to this.

The key finding I want to focus on in this entry is that there is a clear preference structure across participants in terms of these approaches to reducing dissonance. From most preferred to least, these are:

  • Rationalize away the behavior (e.g., It doesn't matter what I do, it's just a drop in the bucket"),
  • Deny responsibility for our behavior (e.g., It's not my role to do this"),
  • Distract ourselves from the dissonance itself (e.g., "I've got other things to think about right now), and, finally (and only under the highest levels of distress/dissonance,
  • Change our behavior (e.g., "I will take the time right now to address this issue").

I'm sure you're not surprised by these results. We use these strategies and more everyday. The contribution that this study is making is that it's an experimental demonstration of how this works, a cause-and-effect piece of research.

Although not particularly surprising given the long history of research on cognitive dissonance, I do find the results disturbing. I think it underscores an issue about our way of being in the world that is, quite frankly, pathetic.

We live in bad faith. Our values and beliefs don't align with our actions, and rather than using this tension to signal the need for change, we take the path of least resistance and excuse ourselves.

Quite reasonably, experimental psychology as a social science simply describes and catalogues these aspects of our psychological functioning. No value is attached to the outcome. It's simply an empirical finding about how we deal with behavior-attitude discrepancies.

However, the moral lesson is there. We're sad excuse makers. These excuses, "strategies for reducing cognitive dissonance," are really just lies we tell to ourselves, and this is the most pathetic part of it.

Why lie to ourselves? Why not just own up to the discrepancy and recognize who we really are by the choices we're making? I think it's because we don't want to face who we really are with these choices. We'd prefer to believe something very positive about ourselves (a pro-environmental attitude for example), so when we act opposite to it (failing to make a pro-environmental behavioral choice), we don't want to face that this choice now defines us. Instead, we strategically reduce the dissonance by lying to ourselves. This is living in bad faith. Living a lie. No authentic engagement in our lives.

We don't have be like this. It's a matter of choice. The descriptive is not prescriptive, and the normative trend need not be what we do the next time we experience the dissonance created by a behavior-attitude discrepancy. Too often we think that the statistically significant differences between group means in our data, no matter how small the experimental effect size, actually applies to each of us as individuals. It doesn't, and it doesn't have to.

Each of us can make the choice to more authentically engage in our lives by taking responsibility for our choices. At the very least, we could openly admit that there is a discrepancy and that we're simply too lazy or indifferent to actually do anything. Instead, we focus on short-term mood repair, we give in to feel good, and make an excuse. Seen like this, I think you might agree that this is a particular kind of pathos.

Choice. We can't escape it, and psychological research doesn't prove that we're destined to reduce dissonance with excuses. The findings just indicate what's typical. My point is that what's typical is an aspect of human pathos, not the human agency upon which the best parts of our lives are built.

So, the next time I feel the discomfort of my actions being different from my values or beliefs, I'll recall this study (and others like it). Some participants in the study did choose to change their actions rather than take the path of least resistance (with rationalizations, denial or distractions). I'll make the choice for change, no more excuses. At least then I'll know where I stand in my own life; not just another member of the herd.

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