Psychology: Humans Will Justify Almost Anything

The Nuer and the Dinka tribes of southern Sudan share an unusual custom. Both of these cattle-herding societies remove several of their kids' permanent front teeth as soon as they sprout: two on the top and four to six on the bottom. It's a very painful procedure, done with a fish hook, and it leaves all tribe members with a distinctive slack-jawed look and speech impediments.

This practice probably started long ago, when tetanus was rampant in central Africa. Tetanus causes "lockjaw," but the tooth removal would have allowed children afflicted by this infectious disease to drink liquids even when their jaw muscles clamped shut. Although there has been no tetanus or lockjaw in the southern Sudan for ages, both the Nuer and the Dinka continue the custom of extracting the front teeth. Indeed, they believe the sunken jaw and lower lip are beautiful. People with front teeth, they say, look like jackals.

Social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson describe this odd custom in their new book, "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)," as an example of the psychological process known as cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the extreme emotional discomfort we feel when two important beliefs, attitudes or perceptions collide. Humans cannot tolerate dissonance for long, so they ease the tension by making a change in belief or attitude—and justifying the change. In the case of the Nuer and Dinka, they "choose" to believe that the toothless look is aesthetically pleasing in order to justify the infliction of such trauma on their children. Any connection to health and survival is long gone.

Before you deride this custom as primitive or barbaric, think of something a little closer to home, like a humiliating club initiation. What better way to cultivate allegiance than to make entry an aversive experience? After all, if you voluntarily put yourself through a demeaning or painful ritual, it must be worth it, right? Indeed, as Tavris and Aronson show, there is hardly a realm of life in which we do not "make things OK" to get rid of the emotional discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance. This year is the 50th anniversary of the theory, first proposed by Aronson's mentor, Leon Festinger. The idea has proved remarkably resilient, enduring many theoretical challenges and more than 3,000 experimental tests of its validity, many of which are described in "Mistakes Were Made."

Yet for all the theory's power, Festinger never spelled out just why cognitive inconsistency produces psychological discomfort. Or why that discomfort motivates us to change. Why can't we just live with inconsistency and contradiction? A new generation of psychologists is now taking the theory to the next level, exploring the motivations underlying our sometimes odd beliefs and practices. Some scientists have even begun for the first time to trace psychological discomfort and self-justifying acts to their roots in the brain's complex neurochemistry.

One of these dissonance-theory revisionists is Eddie Harmon-Jones, a Texas A&M psychologist who has run a slew of laboratory experiments on the inner workings of dissonance. Harmon-Jones believes that dissonance is essentially about action, specifically about everyday decision making and choices and commitments. In his view, it's not just abstract "cognitions" in collision. We experience unpleasant emotions whenever life forces us to choose a course of action, but we are not fully convinced it's the right course. Or put another way, when we make an important commitment, the mind instinctively seeks out proof that we've done the smart thing.

Here is a typical experiment: Harmon-Jones assembled a group of college students who were on the record opposing a tuition increase. (Right, they weren't hard to find.) Then he told half the students that they had to write a persuasive essay favoring a 10 percent tuition hike. The other half were told that they could write such an essay, but it was entirely up to them. All of the students in the first group wrote the essay, and some in the second group did as well.

What Harmon-Jones did was experimentally put the students in the second group in a state of emotional conflict by giving them a choice in what they did. By choosing to write the essay, these students were taking a stand, but they didn't believe in their own choice. Harmon-Jones suspected that these conflicted students would somehow have to alleviate their own psychological discomfort, and indeed that is exactly what they did. When questioned later, they—more than those who were forced to write—had altered their beliefs about a tuition hike. In more ways than one, this is akin to deciding that a painful dental extraction is a good thing.

Life's commitments—to a job, a cause, a mate—require big emotional investments, and can carry significant emotional risks. So it stands to reason that the brain might be hard-wired for the mental work of monitoring and justifying choices and actions. Harmon-Jones decided to explore this possibility as well. He attached EEG electrodes to the students' brains just as they began to write the persuasive essay and measured neuronal activity in several regions. He found that the students who were working through psychological conflict had more neuronal firing in their left frontal cortex, a brain region associated with motivation to change. The EEG was basically recording belief change in action. That's how fundamental the need is to defuse dissonance.

What if you make a choice that is really bad and you can't hide from it? What is the mind's strategy for dealing with a colossal mistake? Well, as Tavris and Aronson note, public figures from Henry Kissinger to Ronald Reagan to Scooter Libby and Alberto Gonzales have opted for a simple phrase that deflects all responsibility: mistakes were made. But just as commonly, people who don't want to own up to a mistake become even more entrenched in their belief once it is proven wrong. They throw good money after bad in the market, grab for straws in a dying relationship or send yet more troops to fight a misbegotten war.

Wray Herbert writes the "We're Only Human . . ." blog .