15 May 2013

Explaining to Yourself Your Own Actions - Need for Justification

Finding reasons for our actions is one very interesting and important psychological phenomenon. Self-justification is part of what is called cognitive dissonance which in a nut shell means that we change our beliefs to become congruent with our actions. For example if you would be forced to do something that you don’t agree with such as campaigning for the communist party (assuming that you dislike this party), later on you will start liking the communist party more than before. This is because you have done something that is against your own beliefs and now you have to make sense of your own actions. Because you need to have congruency between your actions and your beliefs and because your actions can’t be changed, you will alter your beliefs about the communist party.

This, however, is not what I am intrigued by. After all cognitive dissonance is a well-known effect and in the last decade it has been challenged and criticized. My interest is more on the side of how we find perfectly reasonable motives for our actions. An example is how we support with solid arguments our purchases. This is very different from cognitive dissonance because in the case of cognitive dissonance there are two major particularities. First a person is somehow forced to do something that is in disagreement with his own beliefs. Second, the person changes his attitudes or his beliefs after the behavior took place.

Imagine the following scenario. You go to a shop with the aim of buying some drapes. The same shop sells cooking-ware and you are magnetically attracted to a nice frying pan. In the spree of the moment you buy it. This was a totally unplanned purchase and not a very necessary one since you have five frying pans. On your way home you are thinking how you are going to explain your purchase to your significant other. While finding arguments for buying the sixth frying pan to provide your better half with, you think that one of the old pans was already too used, that the new one is ceramic coated and you heard on TV that the food cooked in such a frying pan is healthier and so on. Before arriving home, you have already good reasons to support your purchase in front of your better half.

Two very interesting things are that, first, when you made the purchase none of these arguments ever played a role. Cooking-ware manufacturers know that non-professional cooks buy cute stuff and subsequently design the products to be simply irresistibly cute. Your decision to buy the pan was made when you found it to be very nice and think that it would look good in your kitchen. The arguments about needing to replace the old one and the new one being ceramic coated that makes healthier food came only after you made the purchase, on the way back home.

The second interesting thing concerns you coming up with arguments to defend your purchase in front of your life partner who might be a bit critical with buying stuff that is not necessary. However, your better half is not the one who needs convincing the most. The person who needs the solid rational arguments is in fact you! You need to explain your actions to yourself and only after doing this you need to explain them to others. It is not unlikely that your life partner would be satisfied with a simple and more honest answer such as “I bought it because I liked it”. But you need to explain the action to yourself and very likely “because I liked it” is not satisfying enough. It might be an issue of ego, or simply a natural need of knowing that what you do is your choice.

The above mentioned example is quite trivial because it concerns impulsively buying a frying pan. At the same time, the need for justification is present in many areas of our lives. Quite often our actions are not result of our own reasoning and choice, but rather the outcome of a mixture of internal states, emotions and external factors such as the social and physical environments. However, we have the need to believe that there are good reasons for why we do what we do.

Justifying impulse purchases is only one illustration and as mentioned before not a very important one. Let’s think a bit about tax evasion and discrimination. Do we need to justify these behaviors? Of course we do, and I don’t mean in a court of law, but rather in our regular lives.

In my recent trip in my home country, I have encountered several juicy examples of the need for justification. For example, an entrepreneur who has a small business and somehow avoids paying in-full the taxes, explained me that he does so because public services are unsatisfying and the transport infrastructure is poorly developed. These sound like very solid arguments and the sad reality is that they are true. However, small scale tax evasion has nothing to do with bad roads and increased bureaucracy. It is simply something that is done by almost all small businesses to make an extra income. Most small firms do it because other small businesses do it; because it is possible to do it and because there are countless notorious examples of “stealing from the state and getting away with it.” However, going with the herd and following the example of corrupt politicians, business people and public servants are reasons that would make the small scale entrepreneur not very proud. At the same time justifying the small scale tax evasion with real problems such as bureaucracy and bad infrastructure is a lot more comfortable for the entrepreneur.

It goes similarly for discrimination. I have heard a lengthy and elaborate pleading against the Rroma (Gypsy) community and why this minority is the biggest problem of the country. Most of the arguments that supported this thesis were not very solid, but the person providing them was convinced of them. In the end of the so-called explanation, the old gentleman said that when he was a child he had a very negative experience with some members of the Rroma community. In 1934 he was kidnaped by a group of nomad gypsies and rescued by his parents a couple of months later.

The gentleman’s negative feelings towards his experience can’t be challenged, but finding so-called solid arguments to support the idea that an ethnic minority that represents less than 5% of the population is the main problem of the country is a bit far-fetched. However, this person needed to justify his negative feelings and supported them with reasons that in fact have nothing to do with the source of the feelings.

Quite often we justify to ourselves our actions and feelings (attitudes). The dilemma is whether we think before we do something or we think after we have done something and find reasons for our already done actions.

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