People are rational beings, highly capable of exercising careful judgment and judicious evaluation before taking action. Research shows that people are often rationalizing creatures as well, quite facile in their ability to justify their own actions, beliefs, and feelings after the fact. This phenomenon, known as self-justification, involves convincing oneself (and others) that what one did, felt, or thought was logically appropriate, even going so far as to invent plausible explanations when it is not immediately apparent why one acted, felt, or thought as one did.
The research that first brought attention to people’s tendency to self-justify was a study of the rumors that arose after an earthquake in India in the 1930s. The report noted a perplexing pattern of rumor transmission: Individuals who lived in an area minimally affected by the devastating event were the ones spreading various stories of future calamities. Why would people who suffered little or no negative effects of the earthquake engage in concocting and communicating ideas that would seemingly only provoke fear and dread? Upon reflecting on these findings, social psychologist Leon Festinger (1919–1989) had the insight that this behavior was not fear-provoking in nature, rather it was fear-justifying. Festinger reasoned that although these individuals were spared the worst of the earthquake, they nonetheless were afraid. Yet the circumstances in their case, having escaped disaster, could not adequately or fully account for the anxiety they were experiencing, which Festinger argued motivated them to create future bleak scenarios that were more commensurate with the dread they already felt, and thus served to justify it.
Festinger went on to develop his cognitive dissonance theory, which provided a conceptual basis for this and other instances of self-justification phenomena. He argued that people have a need for their cognitions (i.e., thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes) to be consistent with one another. When people become aware that an inconsistency exists among two or more cognitions, an unpleasant tension state known as cognitive dissonance arises. People are motivated to reduce the dissonance and do so by changing old, or adding new, cognitions to eliminate the inconsistency.
One of the earliest tests of cognitive dissonance theory and possibly the first systematic demonstration of self-justification consisted of research participants working on an extremely boring task—turning wooden knobs again and again—and then being asked to convince another person that the task was actually quite enjoyable. Participants were offered either $1 or $20 as compensation for agreeing to this latter request, which they all did. Later, participants provided their own evaluation of the knob-turning task. Participants who were promised $20 to convince another person that the knob-turning task was a pleasant experience rated the task very negatively, no different in fact than another group of participants who performed the task but were not asked to misrepresent it to someone else. Those promised $1, however, rated the knob-turning task more positively than did the other two groups of participants. In explaining this result, Festinger and his colleagues argued that unlike $20, $1 in compensation was not psychologically sufficient to justify the discrepancy between what participants really felt about the dull task and their contrary public expression that the task was enjoyable. To diminish this contradiction, and the corresponding dissonance associated with it, participants altered their attitude toward the knob-turning task in a positive direction. Participants’ public expression that the task was interesting was now better justified by their “corrected” attitude.
Later research demonstrated that self-justification helps explain the ubiquity of initiation rituals across human cultures. Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills had participants undergo either a severe, mild, or no screening session (effectively serving as an initiation) before being allowed to take part in what was anticipated to be an interesting discussion on the psychology of sex. All participants then listened to a portion of an ostensibly ongoing group discussion of secondary mating habits in lower animals, which was designed to be dull and banal. Finally, participants were asked to provide their reactions to the discussion and group. Participants who underwent the severe initiation, which required them to exert the most effort and endure the most suffering to gain admittance to the group, expressed more positive reactions than did those who experienced only a mild initiation or no initiation at all. Aronson and Mills argued that the severe initiation was too painful for participants to deny; hence they justified their exertions (simultaneously reducing dissonance) by inflating their estimate of the attractiveness of the group. This particular type of self-justification is often referred to as effort justification.
A particularly troubling manifestation of self-justification occurs when people engage in what has become known as victim derogation or defensive attribution. When we observe bad things happening to good people for no apparent reason, we tend to rationalize that they must have had it coming. Blaming the victim enables us to maintain the perception that the world is a just place in which random victimization does not occur. Similarly, perpetrators of harm often belittle their victims in order to convince themselves that the victims deserved exactly what they got.
SEE ALSO Attribution; Cognitive Dissonance; Festinger, Leon; Natural Disasters; Rituals; Rumors
Aronson, Elliot. 2004. The Social Animal. 9th ed. New York: Worth.
Carli, Linda L. 1999. Cognitive Reconstruction, Hindsight, and Reactions to Victims and Perpetrators. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 25 (8): 966–979.
G. Daniel Lassiter
"Self-Justification." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/self-justification
"Self-Justification." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved March 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/self-justification
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self-jus·ti·fi·ca·tion • n. the justification or excusing of oneself or one's actions. DERIVATIVES: self-jus·tif·i·ca·to·ry adj. self-jus·ti·fy·ing adj.
"self-justification." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/self-justification
"self-justification." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved March 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/self-justification