To think well about yourself, i.e. self-serving bias and cognitive dissonance

kobieta przed lustrem
kobieta przed lustrem

Published: 24-09-2021

The human mind can do a lot to convince you that you are an intelligent and valuable person. We like to have good self-esteem and are reluctant to admit to ourselves that we have done something unfair or unwise.

In psychology, well known is the phenomenon of the so-called self-serving bias, consisting in explaining your own behavior in such a way that you can think about yourself well. When we succeed in something, we say we contributed to it. We have worked hard, we are talented, ambitious and that is why we have succeeded. It is different if we fail – then we blame it on factors beyond our control. The exam was very difficult, the examiner was unfair, we were unlucky, we had a headache, etc … Janusz Czapiński (as cited in: Czapiński, 2001) showed in his survey of over 6,000 respondents how Poles explain their successful or unsuccessful year. The credit for the previous year’s success was taken by 84% of people ascribed to themselves, 43% to fate, 24% to other people and 12% to the authorities. In the case of blame for the fact that the previous year was not successful, only 33% attributed it to themselves, 48% to fate, 27% to other people and as much as 54% to the authorities. Similarly, when asked what their overall life depends on, and not just the previous year, people satisfied with their lives more often indicated themselves as the cause, while those who were dissatisfied – the authorities. For this reason, when the authorities introduce a reform that brings benefits to some people, and losses to others, they are only met with society’s ingratitude, because the victims are very willing to blame the deterioration of their quality of life on the actions of the authorities, while those who benefit from the reform anyway they say that it is their own merit, that their life has improved. Interestingly, self-serving bias does not occur in people who are clinically depressed (Raps et al., 1982), which may suggest that unreasonably good thinking about yourself is necessary for our health.

Our minds can do amazing things to help us think well of ourselves. We cheat ourselves, change our opinion on something, and even distort our memory to maintain our self-esteem. It is very unpleasant for people to feel the so-called cognitive dissonance, which arises when two contradictory cognitive elements (i.e. thoughts, beliefs, attitudes or opinions) occur simultaneously. To remove cognitive dissonance, you can do two things: change your behavior or change your attitude towards such behavior. For example, when we photocopy a book or download a scan placed by someone from the Internet, there are two conflicting beliefs at the same time: the first – “I am an honest man” and the second “I rob the author”. This creates a dissonance that can be reduced in two ways… three ways, actually. The first way is to change your behavior, which is to stop copying books or downloading files. The second way is to change your attitude towards such behavior, that is, convince yourself that it is not theft at all, that the law does not prohibit it, so it is okay, or that the books are too expensive to buy. There is also a third way, which is to admit that you are not honest, but doing so would reduce self-esteem, so very few people will reduce dissonance in this way.

In one study (Mills, 1958), students were asked about their cheating attitudes, and then they entered a competition in which they could win a prize. During the competition, they were not watched by anyone in the room, so they could cheat easily, but in fact, the experimenter secretly saw what was going on inside. About half of the students were cheating and half were not. The next day, the researcher asked the students again about their attitudes towards cheating. Students who cheated in the contest had a more positive attitude towards cheating than before, and those who chose not to take the opportunity were more negative than before. Both groups of students changed their attitudes towards cheating in order to think well about themselves. The belief “I am an honest person, and at the same time I cheated what is dishonest” causes dissonance, therefore people who cheat explain to themselves that it is not a bad thing, because others also do it, because if they wanted us not to cheat, they would watch us better, because the exam is too difficult to pass it without cheating etc. You surely know such explanations from your own experience. Thanks to them, you can cheat unfairly and at the same time still think about yourself well. On the other hand, those who did not cheat would feel uncomfortable knowing that they have missed the opportunity and at the same time believing that it is not a bad thing. So they prefer to believe that cheating is bad and they are honest and therefore don’t cheat.

In another study (Aronson & Mills, 1959), female students were invited to join a sex psychology group, but had to pass a test to get into it. Some of the test subjects in the entrance examination had to read aloud a list of five words about sexual tinge, while the other part read aloud a list of twelve obscene words and excerpts from novels describing sexual scenes. Then, the students, newly admitted to the group on the psychology of sex, heard the discussion that was taking place there. It turned out that the discussion was about sexual behavior in invertebrates. The participants of the discussion stuttered, often interrupted each other, did not finish their sentences, and spoke lengthily and boringly. In a word, a nightmare. Nobody normal should like something like that. And yet… After listening to the discussion, the students judged it. Those students who had to pass a more difficult test to join the group rated the discussion better. They found it much more interesting than those students who had to pass an easier test. How can such irrational judgments be explained? Well, cognitive dissonance. “I went through such a tough test to then listen to some borers stutter and talk nonsense about bugs?” Such a thought would be frustrating, therefore the respondents convinced themselves that the discussion was interesting and it was worth making such sacrifices for it. Other researchers in similar experiments (Gerard, Mathewson, 1966, as cited in: Tavris, Aronson, 2008) obtained the same results. The more difficult it is to get into a group and the more effort it takes to get into a group, the more attractive it seems. For example, if you put a lot of effort into studying for the matura exam, you will probably like the course you are getting into more than if you did not study much for the matura exam.

The dissonance theory has already been studied by many psychologists and explains many different behaviors. One of the first studies to show how cognitive dissonance works was conducted by Michael Kahn in 1966. He assumed that the possibility of venting anger on a person who hurt us should reduce anger, and he wanted to test this hypothesis experimentally. He allegedly tested students’ physiological arousal and blood pressure for the purposes of a medical experiment. During the study, he was rude, irritable and insulted the mothers of the subjects, which made everyone angry, as evidenced by the sharp rise in blood pressure. Half of the respondents had the opportunity to vent their anger by telling the head of the laboratory about the researcher’s behavior, and the other half did not have such an opportunity. Kahn predicted that those who had the opportunity to express their anger at the researcher by complaining to his boss would later feel less angry with him than the other group. It turned out, however, that it was quite the opposite. Those who could vent their anger were even more angry with him later. Their blood pressure after being blamed to the head of the laboratory was higher than before the complaint, while the blood pressure of the second group quickly returned to normal. Why this happened is well explained by the dissonance theory. People who told the head of the laboratory about the behavior of his supervisor were convinced that they had caused him serious trouble. Thinking about yourself that you are a good person and at the same time causing trouble on another person causes cognitive dissonance. To remove this dissonance, people in such situations explain to themselves that the person deserved to create his problems. Therefore, if we hurt someone, we don’t like them even more and we want to hurt them even more. It also works the other way around. If we help someone, our sympathy for that person grows. The belief that you helped someone who did not deserve help would cause cognitive dissonance, so we explain to ourselves that if we helped someone, it means that he/she is a decent person who was worth helping.

We also often feel the so-called post-decision dissonance, which is a special form of cognitive dissonance. It manifests itself in doubts as to the rightness of a decision already made, e.g. purchase of a product. It is also unpleasant, so we try to eliminate it in various ways. One way is to change the rating of the product you have chosen. In one study (Tyszka, Sokołowska, 1996 as cited in: Tyszka, 1999), high school students assessed their pens, and a week later they were informed that in return for help in the study, they could choose one of the three pens they assessed earlier. Before they were given a pen of their choice, they were asked to re-evaluate the three from which they could choose one for themselves. If three pens, of which they could take one, got very similar grades from the subject the week before, student had a difficult choice. So what did the respondent do to facilitate the choice and to be satisfied with it? He/she changed the grades so that the pens differed more from one another. The rating of the selected pen was given higher ratings than a week earlier, and the rating of the unselected one – lower than a week earlier.

Other studies (Knox, Inkster 1968) have shown that after making a decision, we are more confident that it is right than just before making it. People standing in line at the horse racing betting site were asked how confident they were that the horse they wanted to bet would win. Those who had just wagered a certain sum on a horse were asked about the same. Those who just left the counter were more confident that their decision was right than those who hadn’t spent the few more dollars. Few would like to be convinced that they have spent money on a horse that they are not sure will win. “Since I spent money on this horse, I know that he will win” – thanks to this thinking, we can have a better opinion of ourselves.

Interestingly, knowing about the existence of cognitive dissonance and how it works does not always reduce our tendency to remove it at all costs. As reported by Elliot Aronson (Tavris, Aronson, 2008), the students who participated in the study on the difficulty of getting into the group and perceiving its attractiveness learned after the end of the experiment what it was and what it was researching. All the people who underwent the more severe procedure of initiation into the group understood the theory of cognitive dissonance, admitted that it was interesting and that most people would probably act according to this theory, but not them. Each of them said that they really liked the discussion, and in their case it had nothing to do with the difficult task they had to do in the beginning.

Even people who know the dissonance theory very well sometimes succumb to it. Elliot Aronson tells in his book (Tavris & Aronson, 2008) the story of how he bought his first home. Before he and his wife decided to buy a particular house, they had been thinking for a long time whether to buy a house close to the university, which was, however, in an industrial district, so their children would have nowhere to play, or maybe a house in the suburbs, much further from the university, but it’s close to the lake. They finally decided on a house in the suburbs. Shortly after purchasing the house, Elliot brought home a newly purchased kayak. It was only his wife’s amusement that he noticed that it was the middle of winter, and it would be several months before he could go kayaking. However, he clearly needed confirmation that his decision to buy the house there was right.

By the way, I will mention that not all people do everything to be able to think well of themselves. People with low self-esteem sometimes try to think badly of themselves at all costs. This is because, in addition to the self-enhancement, i.e. increasing a good opinion of themselves, people automatically also strive for self-verification, i.e. a coherent image of themselves. We don’t like changing our image. When a person with low self-esteem, who considers himself hopeless, incapable, and not very intelligent, succeeds, for example, does very well in a difficult exam, he/she begins to experience cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, he/she considers himself not very intelligent, and on the other hand, success in the exam says the opposite. What to do with such unpleasant dissonance? You could change your opinion of yourself and your low intelligence. Many people with low self-esteem, however, do not want to change their self-image and prefer to say that success was a result of luck or that the exam was not so difficult at all. Thanks to this, they can still think badly of themselves.

But let’s go back to average people who want to think well of themselves. As I mentioned a few paragraphs above, our selective memory also helps us maintain our high self-esteem. Overall, the analysis of diaries written by research participants shows that we recall pleasant events in our lives better than unpleasant ones (Skowronski, Betz, Thompson, & Shannon, 1991). We also remember positive information about ourselves more easily than negative ones. In one study (Sedikides & Green, 2000), volunteers completed a personality test and then received feedback with a list of 32 behaviors to be expected from the test. In fact, the feedback was prepared in advance and had nothing to do with their test responses. The respondents received positive information about themselves, eg “you would keep secrets when asked to”; “you would offer to care for a neighbor’s child when the babysitter couldn’t come”; “you would never openly brag about your accomplishments.” and negative ones, such as “you would constantly talk about how much stuff there is to be done”; “you would refuse to lend classnotes to a friend who was ill”; “an employer would not rely on you to have an important project completed by the deadline.” 2.5 minutes after reading the feedback, the participants were asked to write down everything they remembered. As you can guess, they remembered more behaviors that spoke well of them than those that spoke badly of them. The fact that the psychological test showed that I can keep my promises is worth remembering, but that I am not reliable at work? … No, it doesn’t matter, you can throw it out of your head after two minutes.

Another example showing how our memory helps us maintain a good impression of ourselves came from Dutch researchers (Lemmens, Knibbe, & Tan, 1988) who asked volunteers to write down daily for 14 days how much alcohol they had drunk each day, and at the end of each week they asked how much in the seven days they had drunk. It turned out that many at the end of the week believed that they drank less than the amount summed from adding up what they wrote down each day. Their weekly responses showed that they drank an average of 22% less than their diaries reported.

Distortions aimed at maintaining a good opinion of oneself can also be seen when evaluating group work. When we work on something together and achieve success, we believe that we have contributed more to the work than our partner. If, on the other hand, we fail, we conclude that we did not contribute to it and we blame our partner. What if the result of working together is average? Then we find that the partner did worse than average, but fortunately our skills are better than average and therefore the overall performance of the team is average (Johnston, 1967 as cited in: Greenwald, 1980). Similarly, when spouses are asked what each spouse contributes to household chores such as cleaning, making breakfast, taking care of the children, usually the sum of their declared contribution is more than 100%, so at least one person overestimates their contribution (Ross, Sicoly , 1979). Even if we know that our contribution to the work of the group was greater than that of other members, in the event of failure, we tend to pass the responsibility on to others (Schlenker & Miller, 1977).


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Author: Maja Kochanowska

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