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How Good People Do Bad Things: Cognitive Dissonance and Self Image

(3 minute read)

One cold winter day I stopped to give an elderly beggar HK$20. As I handed it over, another passerby, a middle aged Chinese woman, looked sternly at me and started lecturing me on why giving money to beggars is bad. She insisted that they were all from the Mainland and that they were all secretly rich so I was throwing away my money.

Now, people in Hong Kong tend to avoid conflict, so I was puzzled as to why this woman was willing to tell me so directly that I was doing something stupid. After all, if I’d been quietly throwing HK$20 bills on the ground, or handing out lai see packets to everyone in sight I’m sure she would have said nothing. But there was something about seeing me give money to a beggar that enabled her — nay, forced her — to break the bounds of social niceties and give me a good talking to.

The answer, I suspect, lies in the concept of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when we simultaneously hold two contradictory ideas, beliefs or values. For example, thinking “I am a honest person” and “I just stole a towel from a hotel” is a contradiction. As is “I’m a smart person” and “I just lost money on a stupid investment”. It turns out that it’s very uncomfortable for us to hold those contradictory positions at the same time, and we become highly motivated to eliminate the contradiction.

How does cognitive dissonance explain the behavior of the passerby? Well, it’s likely that she thinks of herself as a good member of society, someone who is caring and kind to others. At the same time, she doesn’t like giving money to people on the street. Perhaps she suspects that they’re not very deserving, or that they won’t use the money well, or simply resents the pressure she feels every day when she walks past people with outstretched arms and pleading faces. She has made a decision not to give money to any beggar. But this arouses cognitive dissonance: Kind and caring people give money to those less fortunate, but she doesn’t give money to the very unfortunate beggars that she sees. So she must resolve this contradiction in one of three ways: by changing her behavior and giving money; or deciding that she’s actually not a kind and caring person; or by convincing herself that beggars are posing as poor while actually being very comfortably off.

Clearly, she chose to believe that beggars are not who they claim to be, and this resolved her cognitive dissonance. She was able to continue seeing herself as kind and caring while not giving a cent to people on the street.

Until I came along.

The sight of someone else giving money to a beggar — with a smile offered and a smile returned, which made matters worse — threatened her resolution of her cognitive dissonance. My actions told her that she might be wrong, that beggars are indeed poor and deserving of our help….which could force her to reconsider her image of herself as kind and caring.

Driven by that threat, she took action. It became important for her to defend her position, and to attack me. If she could persuade me to her view of beggars, or at least sow doubt in my mind, then her self image would once again be safe. And so she violated social niceties and told me exactly how naive and ill informed I was.

While this is just one insignificant example of cognitive dissonance, this process is at play in everyone’s daily life. For example:

  • We make an investment that isn’t looking so good. We believe we are smart, but at the same time, smart people don’t make bad investments. So we resolve the contradiction by becoming more attached to our investment, believing that it will eventually turn around and confirm our belief in our intelligence.

  • We cheat on our taxes. We believe we are good and honest, but we also know that good and honest people don’t cheat. So we resolve the contradiction by believing that everyone does it so it’s not so bad, and if we don’t do it we’re being foolish.

  • We have a sexual encounter outside of marriage. We believe we are honorable, the type of person who doesn’t cheat. So we resolve the contradiction by believing that because it was just sex and there was no emotional attachment, it doesn’t count as cheating. Or perhaps that our partner’s behavior forced us into this.

  • We take unused toiletries (and perhaps a towel or bathrobe) from a hotel. We believe we are honest people who never steal, so we resolve the contradiction by believing that the hotel expects us to take these things and have worked such losses into the price of the room.

There’s no getting away from cognitive dissonance: it’s baked into our brains. And in general, it’s very useful, as it enables us to have a positive self image even as we do things that are not quite so positive. However, when it runs amok, it enables us to justify cheating, lying, stealing and bad investments….and can get us into very serious trouble.


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