Understanding Our Justification Systems

Five key concepts that stem from the Justification Hypothesis

Posted Nov 01, 2013

“I am too stupid for that,” the woman (I’ll call her Annie) said to me after I asked her what prevented her from going on to pursue a college degree. I asked this question in the context of a psychiatric evaluation I was doing. Annie had been hospitalized following an overdose that she genuinely thought would kill her. A standardized assessment of her intellect had documented that her IQ was in the High Average Range, and in no way shape or form was she “stupid.” But that is how she saw herself. In fact, she saw herself as weak or lacking in most every respect. Although she was of average attractiveness, she saw herself as ugly. Although she could play musical instruments, she saw herself as having no talents. Indeed, she was almost relentless in seeing herself as worthless and inferior. Diagnostically, she met criteria for an Avoidant Personality Disorder and a “double depression.”

I was doing this evaluation at a time when I was thinking a lot about human self-consciousness. As part of my dissertation, I was studying cognitive biases and the fact that most people self-enhance and seek to paint themselves in the most rosy picture the data can justify. But although true of most, people with depression tended not to do this, or at least do it less, with some being grossly self-critical. I was also getting my first real deep exposure to modern psychodynamic theory, and learning about how the self-consciousness system often filters out subconscious motivation. In the language of dynamic defense mechanisms, the woman was “turning against the self.” which is often thought to be a way of redirecting aggression that is dangerous to express. Ultimately, my study of evolutionary theory, social and cognitive psychology, and psychodynamic theory intersected with hearing Annie’s story, and a light bulb went off that allowed me to realize that self-enhancement and turning against the self might be both part of the same basic processes. The light bulb would reveal a key design feature of human self-consciousness.  

One of the most obvious features of Annie’s story was her family history. In what is an all-to-common story line to those who work in psychiatric settings, this woman’s father was a domineering and abusive man, who ruled the household with an iron fist. Her mother was a timid woman, who obviously walked on eggshells. Interestingly, although her father was verbally abusive toward Annie, he was never physically abusive. But he was physically abusive to her older brother. Indeed, she had several distinctive memories of her father beating her brother, telling her brother that he ought to be more like his obedient sister. Upon hearing that aspect of her story, something clicked and, over time, a whole new understanding of self-consciousness emerged in me.

At a primal level, this woman watched her brother be beaten, and yet it was a fate she always somehow avoided. How did she avoid it? One very plausible answer is by turning against herself. As her father behaved the way he did, a natural response would to become angry and defiant and challenging. And, yet, doing so would be highly dangerous. If, on the other hand, she saw herself as weak, unworthy, and undeserving, these beliefs justify submission and deference, which influenced her father’s behavior, namely by avoiding an attack.

In this light then, Annie’s sense that she was lesser than others perhaps stemmed from the same basic process that “normals” engage in when they moderately self-enhance. By thinking that we are a bit smarter, more attractive, or more effective than others, surely that places us in a position to frame what we do in a more influential way. In short, although very different in content, both self-criticalness and self-enhancement might tie into the process of justifying one’s actions to one’s self in a social context. Ultimately, the exchange with Annie led me to formulate the “Justification Hypothesis” which is the idea that our self-consciousness system emerged in the evolutionary landscape as a social reason giving system. That is, we humans were not shaped by evolution for general abstract reasoning, but our reasoning capacities emerged in the context of a social environment where the adaptive task was to generate social reasons for our actions.

Although there are many different directions the Justification Hypothesis can take us, there are five general key concepts that fall from this analysis that I believe people everywhere can benefit from understanding.

1. Language-based beliefs and values are organized into systems of justification. Beliefs and values are not randomly distributed in people’s heads, but instead are networked together to form systems that ultimately function to legitimize action.

2. Justification systems exist at the individual and societal level, and the two are connected. I have my justifications for why I am the way I am. I can explain to my kids why they should follow what I say or to my colleagues why my ideas are valid. At the same time, large scale justifications provide the glue that gives a society a shared identity and worldview in a particular context. I reason the way I do in a way that is deeply connected to my sociocultural context. Think, for example, of how justifications regarding gender roles are different in Canada as opposed to Saudi Arabi, or how they compare today relative to 100 years ago. We exist in a sea of justification and carve out our individual path in that context.

3. Humans have two streams of consciousness, experiencing and justifying.  The justifying capacity of humans is a late evolutionary add on. Prior to it, others animals have been navigating the environment for eons via sensory-perceptual-emotional processes of action investment. Thus, these are two very different systems, the mutual flow of which makes up human consciousness in its totality.

4. For adults, there are two domains of justification, the private and the public. As children, we download the reason giving systems of the social context in which we are born. As our capacities develop, we begin to engage in reasoning on our own. Privately, we must legitimize our own thoughts and develop narrative for who we are and why we do what we do. And, our family, friends, peers, etc. will often want to be informed about what we think and why we do what we do.

5. There is filtering between the experiential, private and public justification systems. In the film Liar Liar, Jim Carey plays a cheese ball lawyer who always is “BSing” his friends, adversaries and family.

The premise of the movie is that his son gets so frustrated by this he wishes his father could not tell a lie for 24 hours, and the movie is largely about the comical situational analysis of the character as the boy’s wish miraculously comes true and the lawyer must say exactly what his private narrator thinks. As such, the movie is a nice example of the private to public filter. Indeed, we all have experience with this, which can be noticed with the question, “What if everyone of your thoughts became public to everyone?” I don’t know anyone who doesn’t find that to be a somewhat troubling thought. The private to public filter is called the Rogerian filter because we generally filter to avoid injuring others in a way that will evoke problematic reactions and judgments.

But, as Freud so clearly noted, we also filter out feelings, images, wishes (experiential processes) from our self-conscious system.

In his book Ego Defenses and the Legitimization of Behavior, Swanson (1988) made exactly this point, explicitly arguing that we should think of all ego defenses as “justifications that people make to themselves and others—justifications so designed that the defender, not just other people, can accept them.” Think back to Annie. It seems highly likely that she had hostile feelings toward her father. However, if those created anxiety, then the belief that she was deserving in some way of his abuse would block her from those feelings. They would be filtered out, or repressed and her system would be returned to equilibrium by the rationalization that she was worthless.

The following diagram depicts the three domains of consciousness and the filters.

I believe that justification systems are one of the most central aspects of human psychology to be understood. I hope this blog jives with your justification system and you find these insights foster a greater understanding of the nature of your justification system and how it relates to your experiential mind and the socio-cultural context in which you live.