I was reading the chapter about self-justification in "Social Animal" yesterday and it was talking about cognitive dissonance. Despite its hi-falutin’ sound, it’s actually a pretty simple idea. When we find ourselves holding two beliefs that contradict each other (e.g. “I’m a truthful person” and “I’ve just lied to someone”), we have the urge to resolve the contradiction some how. Pretty obvious, huh?
Sometimes we can find external justification to resolve the problem (e.g. “I was paid $20 to lie” or “No one will believe the lie anyway”). Unfortunately, too often, in many circumstances, we choose quite irrational ways to deal with the situation. Very often we change our initial basic beliefs to resolve the contradiction and convince ourselves that that’s what we believed all along (e.g. “Lying ain’t so bad”).
Now I’m not going to try to prove this to you (read about it yourself) and the reason has to do with the theory itself. One of the aspects of the theory is that, once you see yourself as invested in a belief, you are not only likely to stick with it, but you will endeavour to change any and all “less important” beliefs that “get in the way”. For example, if I were to present you with an air-tight argument for the accuracy of Cognitive Dissonance Theory, but you had already had a sufficiently strong belief related to the subject (e.g. you belong to the Anti-Cognitive Dissonance Theory Party or even just that you pride yourself on the belief that you’re particularly reasonable and wouldn’t act like that) nothing I say will ever sway you from that belief. Even if I use you as a demonstration in front of hundreds of people showing that that’s how you act or point out several times in the past in which you’ve behaved according to the theory, you will not budge. You will possibly claim that the demonstration was a trick or you didn’t really behave that way in the past. As long as you see one belief as being more important or valuable to your self-image than another, you will justify it in any way you can.
The particularly disappointing part of this theory is that it’s saying that not only do we do irrational things (like getting ourselves into cognitively dissonant situations) but that when we do, we often deal with them in an irrational way.