Self Justification – Defence or a trap?

Self-justification describes how, when a person encounters cognitive dissonance, or a situation in which a person’s behavior is inconsistent with their beliefs, that person tends to justify the behavior and deny any negative feedback associated with the behavior.

Sunita Patel

Most of us have a difficult time admitting mistakes and even when faced with evidence–will defend our position with Self-Justification. I had nothing to do with that woman (a cheating husband) or those cigarettes aren’t mine (teenager confronted by parents).

*What is Self-Justification?

Self-justification describes how, when a person encounters a situation in which a person’s behaviour or action is inconsistent with their beliefs, that person tends to justify the behaviour or actions and deny any negative feedback associated with the behaviour.

*Why Do We Do This?

The psychological theory that causes us to self-justify regardless of the reality of our actions is called Cognitive dissonance. Proposed by psychologist, Leon Festinger, cognitive dissonance is centred on our need to achieve internal consistency. We have an inner need to ensure that our beliefs and behaviours are consistent. We feel cognitive dissonance with associated tension and pressure to relieve it when our beliefs and behaviours are not matching–particularly when our behaviour or belief is inconsistent with our self-image, positive view of self or worldview.

*What does this mean?

There are two very important areas of an individual’s psychological growth that help in maintaining the integrity, one is the self concept – what the person thinks and believes about self and self image- what he is expected to be by parents, school, society, nation and world.

A lot goes in the childhood with dos and don’ts, good and bad, ethical-non ethical, moral-immoral to formulate the self image. Greater gap between self concept and self image can result in degradation of self-image and threat to the integrity and hence the greater the need to justify.

Self-justification often comes into play when “immoral” decisions are undertaken. To keep viewing themselves in a positive light, individuals may rationalize unethical or corrupt decision-making using the aforementioned self-justification strategies.


Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it.

*Private or internal self-justification-
It refers to a change in the way people perceive their actions. It could be an attitude change, denial (I didn’t do it, it’s not me, may be a mistaken identity) or trivialization (what is so big deal! or it isn’t really so bad) of the negative consequences. Private self-justification helps make the negative outcomes more tolerable.

*Public or external self-justification
It involves use of external excuses to justify one’s actions. Public or external self-justification aims to diminish one’s responsibility for behaviour and usually the excuses are peer or social pressure, like a person on diet may say How can I say no to my friend’s birthday cake? Or an alcoholic may say he only drinks socially and because other people expect him to.

Self-justification is a defence against feeling badly about ourselves by convincing ourselves that what we did was the best thing we could do. By itself, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It lets us sleep at night but at the same time it shuts the possibility of seeing the mistakes or keeps us away from reality check, hence leaving any scope for a constructive change.

Acknowledging the discrepancy and allowing self to be fallible and ready to make change is the most important first step to get rid of this pattern.


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