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Cognitive Dissonance

The Hidden Cost of Being a Jerk

It has to do with cognitive dissonance.

Nobody wants to be a jerk. But why not? It is often advantageous to be antisocial, to take that last cookie, pocket the money from the purse found on the subway, or steal a cab from an elderly lady at the airport because you’re in a hurry. So why not just do it? There are no repercussions, are there?

Some people believe that we have a reason not to behave this way because there is some kind of supreme being who keeps track of our good and bad actions. There is a non-religious version of this attitude as well, exemplified by the NBC sitcom The Good Place, where everything you do entails you either gaining or losing points, and then, depending on your grand total, ending up either in the Good Place (something like Heaven) or in the Bad Place (something a lot like Hell).

But even if you don't believe in a supreme being who calculates the overall score of all your actions, you may have moral principles, and behaving like a jerk would conflict with these — say, the principle of not harming people intentionally. But principles are bendable and it is often not clear what follows from them. And there are people — most of us, in fact — who have no firm moral principles. And that's perfectly OK. As Oscar Wilde said, "I like persons better than principles and I like persons with no principles better than anything else in the world."

So why should you care about not behaving like a jerk if you have no firm religious commitments or moral principles? Are there really no repercussions? I would say there are, but they don't concern the afterlife. There are psychological repercussions.

Behaving like a jerk is very rarely in tune with one’s self-image. So if you are being a jerk, you will probably want to forget about it quickly. But that is not easy. You need to make sure that the memory of your jerky behavior is kept far away from your self-image. And there is a psychological price to pay for this.

This is a version of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance refers to the icky feeling you get when you do something you're not proud of. When you do something you don't think you should. When, for example, you steal the cab from that elderly lady. You probably don't have the self-image of someone who completely disregards other people’s interests, but this would be in blatant conflict with what you just did, which disregarded the elderly lady's interests.

The human mind is very good at getting rid of this icky feeling of cognitive resonance. In fact, there are at least three mechanisms for reducing cognitive dissonance.

The first is that you can somehow convince yourself that you didn’t do anything wrong. Maybe there was another cab arriving, so the elderly lady didn’t have to wait that long. And you were in a real hurry, so you just had no choice. So, no conflict and no dissonance: What you did was entirely reasonable, and you have no reason to feel icky. Sometimes this is a viable option, but often, when you do something that you're really not proud of, it's not.

The second strategy is to revise your values. Okay, so you really did steal a cab from an elderly lady. But no one is a saint. We all do bad things sometimes. At least nobody got killed. Again, there's no conflict or dissonance here, but you do need to think of yourself a little bit differently from the way you used to. It will be a little more difficult to think of yourself as a nice caring person. That is a serious price to pay.

If you find it too farfetched to lie to yourself about whether you really stole that cab, or about your own values, the third option—and probably the most commonly employed—is compartmentalization. You just try to put the cab stealing incident out of your mind. You think of something else. Check your phone. Ask the cab driver to crank up the smooth jazz.

But compartmentalization also comes with a serious psychological price. It is not enough to exile this incident to a faraway corner of your mind. Your mind also needs to make sure that it stays there. Your memories of jerk behavior need to be policed at all times so they don't come back and taint your pristine self-image. And this requires constant (if not conscious) mental effort.

This is the hidden cost of being a jerk. Even if you don’t believe in any kind of universal moral rule, it’s not worth paying.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

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