Aggression begets self-justification


The part about anger and catharsis (in Mistakes Were Made) is in chapter 1, about cognitive dissonance. The need to think well of ourselves means we always have to justify our bad shit. The discussion of catharsis theory is a branch of this.

Venting is especially likely to backfire if a person commits an aggressive act against another person directly, which is exactly what cognitive dissonance theory would predict.

When you harm someone, then you have a powerful need to justify that. How do you do that? Convince yourself that the person you harmed is a terrible person who deserves to be harmed.

That would explain a lot, including things that have been puzzling me for a long time. People do a certain kind of harm, a harm that seems blindingly obvious to me. Why doesn’t it make them feel uncomfortable? Why are they so apparently happy to keep doing it, day in and day out? The answer isn’t particularly cheerful. It’s because they’ve convinced themselves that their target is bad enough to deserve 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!” Most parents find these childish self-justifications to be of no great consequence, and usually they aren’t. But it is sobering to realize that the same mechanism underlies the behavior of gangs who bully weaker children, employers who mistreat workers, lovers who abuse each other, police officers who continue beating a suspect who has surrendered, tyrants who imprison and torture ethnic minorities, and soldiers who commit atrocities against civilians. In all these cases, a vicious circle is created: Aggression begets self-justification, which begets more aggression.

Yes, that would explain a lot.

So do I owe the bishop of Phoenix an apology?

(A rhetorical question. I don’t think I do.)

 

 

Comments

  1. says

    Most parents find these childish self-justifications to be of no great consequence

    Their success reinforces them. I had a sibling who used to resort to violence a lot, and my parents never acted. The result: “oh, violence works?”

  2. sharoncrawford says

    It’s a fascinating book — unfortunately, like many books of its type, it’s unlikely to be read by those who have the most to gain from it.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Apologies won’t do it – the Bishop of Phoenix demands a full confession!

  4. Dunc says

    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!”

    And where (or rather, who) do we think they it from, eh?

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