Written and Narrated by
Robert Prentice, J.D.
Business, Government & Society Department
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin
Cognitive dissonance is the psychological discomfort that we feel when our minds entertain two contradictory concepts at the same time. For example: I should smoke because I enjoy it, and I shouldn’t smoke because it causes cancer. When the concepts have ethical implications, this discomfort is called moral dissonance or ethical dissonance.
Almost all people except psychopaths have a mental picture of themselves as ethical people. But sometimes people find themselves acting in unethical ways. This creates cognitive dissonance. The important thing is how people resolve that moral dissonance. Suppose you think of yourself as a good person, but your boss asked you to mislead customers about the reliability of your company’s new product. This situation creates cognitive dissonance that is psychologically and emotionally uncomfortable. In this context, the dissonance seems to manifest as guilt, an unpleasant emotion that you will wish to resolve.
Now some people will react to this dissonance by refusing to mislead customers, opting to resolve the conflict by acting honestly in order to preserve their self-image. Unfortunately, many people will resolve the dissonance without doing the right thing. For example, they may decide that product misrepresentations are not so unethical after all, because well, customers should be able to look out for themselves. Or they may rationalize that they are only doing what they’ve been ordered to do and therefore they are still good people even though they are doing bad things it’s someone else’s fault. Or they may try to learn as little as possible about the product so they can view their misrepresentations as innocently ignorant rather than intentionally dishonest.
Professor David Luban has noted: “In situation after situation, literally hundreds of experiments reveal that when our conduct clashes with our prior beliefs, our beliefs swing into conformity with our conduct, without our noticing this is going on.” In other words, too often we remind ourselves that we are good people and conclude that what we are doing must not be bad because we are not the kind of people who would do bad things. The human ability to rationalize or in other ways distance ourselves from our bad acts sometimes seems unlimited and unfortunately we can quickly begin to see our wrongdoing as acceptable.
There are no easy answers to cognitive dissonance’s potential for adverse effects upon our moral decision making and actions. But here are three quick suggestions to help minimize or combat cognitive or moral dissonance. First, never ignore that guilty feeling you sometimes get. Stop and honestly analyze why you are feeling it. Second, study the many means our minds use to distance us from our immoral actions and guard against them. Third and last, get to know the most common rationalizations that people use to excuse themselves from living up to their own ethical standards and let those rationalizations be a warning to you whenever you hear yourself using them.