Noisy Apartments, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Cost of Self-Justification

Four years ago, my wife and I moved into an apartment on what is commonly […]

David Zahl / 8.12.11

Four years ago, my wife and I moved into an apartment on what is commonly considered the busiest block in Manhattan, 60th St between 2nd and 3rd Ave, also known as the off-ramp of Queensboro bridge. It is the main entrance point into New York for commercial traffic, as well as one of its prime shopping districts. Night and day, 18-wheelers rolled past our window and taxis honked their horns. Scores of tweens loitered outside Dylan’s Candy Bar, right across the street, and gazillions of tourists inexplicably flocked to California Pizza Kitchen next door.

It was a terrible decision. Sure, the rent was good, and the apartment relatively spacious, but we were living in the middle of a highway. No joke. Having made the decision, I felt responsible, but instead of breaking the lease the moment we realized how bad the noise was, I spent the next six months not-so-subtly trying to convince my better half of the positives of our predicament. “I love having the subway on our corner,” “Our old neighborhood is just a short cab ride away,” “Isn’t it so nice to be able to host guests?,” “The restaurant downstairs sure has some good pizza,” etc. Whenever she’d get down about how insanely unpeaceful our living situation was, I’d feel threatened/judged and respond by pointing out the ingratitude: “We live in the greatest city in the world!” “Don’t you know how many people would kill to live right next to Bloomingdales?!” etc etc etc. [The answer: not many, at least judging by how long it took them to fill the apartment upstairs].

It was pathetic! I had this idea of myself as a responsible guy and budding provider who made wise decisions, yet the decision I/we had made was completely at odds with this self-concept, causing more than a little internal dissonance. I was desperate to justify my actions, not just to my wife but to myself. That I was spending my days trying to get a ministry off the ground that claimed to take “justification by grace through faith” seriously, one that sought to expose the futility (and silliness) of self-justification – let’s just say the irony was/is not lost on me. Of course, occasionally something would puncture my defensiveness–the entire building shaking, for instance–the facade would collapse, and we’d laugh about how ridiculous it all was. Thank God.

That’s simply one, relatively harmless example of the havoc that self-justification wreaks in our lives. The energy we spend trying to reduce cognitive dissonance is enormous, not to mention considerably more transparent than we’d care to admit. It’s there when we hit the ATM, it’s there when we decide what to eat for dinner, it’s there when we make announcements at church (if that’s your thing…), yes, it’s even there when we write a blog post.

This is a long-winded way of explaining why Carol Tavris’ and Elliot Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts is such mandatory reading: it places self-justification at the absolute center of human enterprise, which, coincidentally, is not only where it belongs, but where the Bible puts it as well. The excerpts below delve into some of the underlying factors, primarily how “cognitive dissonance theory” informs identity formation.

In my humble opinion, Tavris and Aronson make the case for (the abiding relevance of) the Reformation insight of simul iustus et peccator – that Christian freedom has to do with being seen by God as simultaneously justified and sinful – about as well as anyone could:

The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisions – especially the wrong ones – is an unpleasant feeling that [psychologist Leon] Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinion) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it.”

Dissonance is disquieting because to hold two ideas that contradict each other is to flirt with absurdity and, as Albert Camus observed, we humans are creatures who spend our lives trying to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd. At the heart of it, Festinger’s theory is about how people strive to make sense out of contradictory ideas and lead lives that are, at least in their own minds, consistent and meaningful.


The more costly a decision, in terms of time, money, effort, or inconvenience, and the more irrevocable its consequences, the greater the dissonance and the greater the need to reduce it by overemphasizing the good things about the choice made. Therefore, when you are about to make a big purchase or an important decision – which car or computer to buy, whether to undergo plastic surgery, or whether to sign up for a costly self-help program – don’t ask someone who has just done it.

Children learn to justify their aggressive actions early: They hit a younger sibling, who starts to cry, and immediately claim, “But he started it! He deserved it!”

Dissonance is bothersome under any circumstance, but it is most painful to people when an important element of their self-concept is threatened – typically when they do something inconsistent with their view of themselves. If an athlete or celebrity you admire is accused of rape, child molestation, or murder, you will feel a pang of dissonance. The more you identify with this person, the greater the dissonance, because more of yourself would be involved. But you would feel a much more devastating rush of dissonance if you regarded yourself as a person of high integrity and you did something criminal. After all, you can always change your allegiance to a celebrity or find another hero. But if you violated your own values, you would feel much greater dissonance because, at the end of the day, you have to go on living with yourself.

Ed. note: Which celebrities do you find yourself most frequently defending? Woody Allen is mine. And while I stand by the idea that a person’s artistic output can/should be evaluated independent of their private life, still… Or maybe you’ve had to deal with this in regard to a theologian or thinker, e.g. in relation to some of Martin Luther’s later writings – ugh! Indeed, some might argue that the entire new perspective on Paul is an exercise in reducing WWII-related cognitive dissonance.

Our convictions about who we are carry us through the day, and we are constantly interpreting the things that happen to us through the filter of those core beliefs. When they are violated, even by a good experience, it causes us discomfort. An appreciation of the power of self-justification helps us understand, therefore, why people who have low self-esteem, or who simply believe that they are incompetent in some domain, are not totally overjoyed when they do something well; why, on the contrary, they often feel like frauds. If the woman who believes she is unlovable meets a terrific guy who starts pursuing her seriously, she will feel momentarily pleased, but that pleasure is likely to be tarnished by a rush of dissonance: “What does he see in me?” Her resolution is unlikely to be “how nice; I must be more appealing than I thought I was.” More likely, it will be “as soon as he discovers the real me, he’ll dump me.” She’ll pay a high price to have that consonance restored.

Self-justification, therefore, is not only about protecting high self-esteem; it’s also about protecting low self-esteem if that is how a person sees himself.

To read about on the role of memory in self-justification, go here.

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7 responses to “Noisy Apartments, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Cost of Self-Justification”

  1. David Ruess says:

    So I have a question about this. Does this mean that the Christian life is one of cognitive dissonance because we are ‘simul iustus et peccator’?
    Or by the Spirit do we ‘feel peace’ or lack of a cognitive dissonance, because He moves us to keep focused on Christ who, for lack of better phrase, ‘speaks a better word?’
    Or do you think the cognitive dissonance is part of the cycle in which we fail against the law and then turn again to Christ?
    Would love to hear your thoughts 🙂

  2. Luke says:

    I’m interested in how “the entire new perspective on Paul is an exercise in reducing WWII-related cognitive dissonance[?]” Learned about the new perspective in seminary. I can’t say I see how they connect. I probably just need to refresh my memory on what exactly the new perspective is. It’s been a while.

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