Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve made a mistake you need to tell others about? If so, at the moment you realized, you’d have to fess up to your mistake, you probably felt your chest tighten up and a lump rose in your throat. This is natural, as nobody likes admitting mistakes. But if you did admit your mistake, you probably felt liberated and could find ways to learn from it.

Humans tend to avoid admitting our mistakes by finding self-justifications for them. Your brain is willing to jump through any number of hoops, even fabricating memories to protect you from having to admit a mistake. You’ll learn why admitting your mistakes can be a good thing, and how it can even get you promoted.

Instead of admitting our mistakes, we tend to justify them.

Everyone has done things they shouldn’t have. For example, have you ever munched down an entire family-sized bottle of groundnut in one go? Chances are pretty good you have. But, if you’re like most people, you probably told yourself that, actually, it was okay because, say, you’d had a hard week and fully deserved that little indulgence.

Most people do the same: they seek justifications for actions they know were wrong.

That’s because they want to reduce feeling cognitive dissonance, or the unpleasant feeling of having two conflicting ideas in our heads.

In this case, if you consider yourself someone who adheres to a healthy diet, your overindulgence creates cognitive dissonance. To resolve the dissonance, you come up with a so-called self-justification (e.g., the rough work week) for your actions.

Another example of cognitive dissonance would be someone who bemoans the dangers of smoking while continuing to smoke themselves. To resolve the cognitive dissonance of the conflicting views and behavior, this person will probably come up with a self-justification like, “I don’t smoke that much so the health effects are negligible.”

Unfortunately, these kinds of self-justifications can make us cling to our beliefs even more vehemently – not change our behavior. For example, after making a mistake, we may find a self-justification for it rather than dealing with it head-on and trying to understand why it happened.

One example can be seen in the United States invasion of Iraq. Even though the weapons of mass destruction that served as the justification of war were ultimately not found in Iraq, and the invasion of the country resulted in an increase of Islamic radicalism that the war was meant to diminish, United States president George W. Bush was still convinced that he had made the right decision to go to war. Undoubtedly, this was a way of resolving his cognitive dissonance.

We justify our mistakes by looking at situations in a biased, narrow-minded manner. As we’ve seen, everyone can come up with justifications for their mistakes to avoid cognitive dissonance. So how do we do convince ourselves our justification is right?

Through so-called confirmation bias, or when we see the evidence of the matter in a way that supports our original view. This can make a lack of evidence, or even contradictory evidence, look like evidence that supports our case.

For example, in the United States in the 1980s, many people were driven to a moral panic because they were convinced that satanic cults were infiltrating society’s highest levels and abducting children for satanic rituals. The FBI duly investigated these claims and found no evidence to back them up. But instead of accepting this, confirmation bias led the accusers to assert that this showed precisely how adept the culprits were at hiding their crimes.

Self-justifications and confirmation bias can even change our view on morality through a step-by-step process, known as the pyramid of choice. To better understand this, imagine two people with similar morals both have the opportunity to cheat on their spouses.

According to the pyramid of choice, as they try to decide what to do, they are standing on top of a pyramid. From there, they have a bird’s-eye view of the consequences of their choices: what will happen if they cheat or if they remain faithful.

Now, imagine one of the two decides to cheat while the other stays faithful. This means they both begin to clamber down the pyramid, though along very different paths. As they descend, they lose the overview of their choices and only see the narrow path they’ve chosen.

The tendencies of self-justification and confirmation bias mean that the person who committed adultery will be ever surer that it was the right choice, while the other will become surer of the opposite. As they travel down, their paths diverge further, until they finish at opposite corners of the pyramid with totally different views of morality.

Far from an objective record of the truth, our memory is fabricated and adjusted to suit our needs.

When asked about a prior event, most people are confident that their memory is an accurate representation of what happened. It’s often not true.

First of all, we tend to bias our memories to better suit our current situation, for example, to justify our behavior or our beliefs. This effect was seen in a study conducted in the 1960s, where teenage boys were interviewed about topics concerning sexuality. When the same boys were interviewed as adults, they “remembered” their responses as teenagers as having been more liberal than they were. This was attributed to the fact that they tried to make their memories fit the commonly held view that the 1960s were a sexually liberated era.

Second, sometimes we can even have memories of events that never happened, otherwise known as “false memories.”

For example, millions all over the world believe they’ve encountered aliens or a ghost and even vividly “remember” the details of their encounters. But studies show such encounters are often the result of jet lag and fatigue from, e.g., driving long distances without resting. In these situations, the “abductee” has, experienced sleep paralysis, or feeling paralyzed while being aware of one’s surroundings.

In around 5 percent of sleep paralysis cases, the person also hallucinates, essentially experiencing a waking dream and, in some cases, actually dreams up alien encounters. Although the memories are false, the individuals’ brains still treat them as real, so they become part of their life narrative.

So how can we be sure our memories are authentic?

We need to cross-check them, preferably with undisputed historical facts and accounts.

For example, one author named Benjamin Wilkomirski wrote a popular book about his childhood in Nazi concentration camps. But after historical analysis of the material, his story was proven false. It turned out that he had not suffered in concentration camps, but had written the book based on various other sources as a way to cope with his troubled childhood.

To be continued……

Olusola Bodunrin
Olusola Bodunrin is a social commentator with a passion for gathering facts on social issues. He is writer, businessman, blogger, and wardrobe consultant. He is a graduate of Philosophy from the University of Ado-Ekiti. He anchors – ‘What You Should Know’ on SHEFFA. ‘What You Should Know’ is a column that offers to educate and enlighten the public on general falsehood and myths.