The Surprising Reason We Might Look Down on Others’ Choices

This self-protective strategy can create unnecessary tension.

Posted Mar 01, 2017

Roman Kosolapov/Shutterstock
Source: Roman Kosolapov/Shutterstock

One thing that makes life interesting is that we don’t all live it the same way. We choose different careers, different homes, different hobbies, and different romantic and family arrangements. And unless people’s choices involve hurting themselves or others, it doesn't make sense for us to be bothered by the fact that other people take different paths than we do.

And yet, disapproval abounds.

A stay-at-home parent might be familiar with comments implying that they don’t do “real” work, while a working parent or non-parent might have come across the suggestion that their work should be less of a priority than their parenting.

Whatever the choice, you can’t win.

Even if they're well-intentioned, such comments can be hurtful and demeaning. So why are they so common? Cognitive dissonance theory provides one possible explanation.

Whenever we make a big decision, especially one that involves a large investment of effort or resources, we want to feel like we've made the right choice. To ward off regret, we have a tendency to idealize the option we chose and devalue the one we rejected. For example, after someone decides to buy a condo in the city instead of a house in the suburbs, they may start to see city living in a more positive light—and suburban living in a more negative light—than they did before.

For the most part, dissonance reduction is adaptive—it prevents us from falling prey to the grass-is-greener syndrome, or constantly doubting ourselves. Almost anything we do or don’t do in life is likely to have some downsides, and we’re better off not dwelling excessively on them.

One place where these tendencies can go awry, though, is when it creates rifts between people simply because they’ve made different choices. It’s great to focus on the positives of city living, but not when you tell a suburban friend how bad you feel for people who have to drive everywhere. Even if you don’t openly express these thoughts, they can still impact your feelings towards others, which might come out in subtle ways.

In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Waterloo, when parents were reminded of the financial cost of parenting, they were more likely to idealize parenting, compared to participants in a control condition, who were reminded of both the costs and the benefits. Idealization of parenting was measured with items that mostly tapped into the perceptions of non-parents, such as “No matter how accomplished he or she may be, a person will not be fully satisfied with life unless he or she has been a parent” and, “Many non-parents experience a feeling of emptiness in their lives.”

The researchers hypothesized that idealizing parenthood (and devaluing non-parenthood) was a coping strategy related to the stress created by the financial burden of parenthood. Otherwise, the opposite pattern of results would be expected, and reflecting on costs would reduce, not increase, idealization.

These results are likely not unique to parents. Those who choose not to have children might also idealize their lifestyle, just as those who decide to get married or not, or to take a certain job or not, might idealize their chosen paths, sometimes at others’ expense.

So what’s the solution?

Being aware of our tendency to idealize our choices can help keep judgmental impulses in check. It's useful to remember that most decisions have pros and cons; just because a choice has downsides doesn't mean it was wrong or that it needs to be justified against alternatives. 

The next time someone seems to cast a judgmental eye on the choices you’ve made, remember that their judgment may be more about them than about you. Maybe they’re facing stressors you’re unaware of, and just trying their best to cope.