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The Ethical Link Between Our Beliefs and Our Actions

Cognitive Dissonance and Ethical Decision-Making

A highly ethical person knows his or her values, principles and beliefs. Those values, principles and beliefs would then determine one’s actions when faced with an ethical dilemma. A person who does not understand or fully know his or her values, principles and beliefs, might act in an ethical situation without thinking through the consequences to others, known as System 1 thinking, rather than first considering how our actions affect others, or System 2 thinking. Later on, rationalizations may be used to reconcile actions to ethical beliefs and reduce cognitive dissonance, that is, the disconnect between what our belief says we should do and what we actually do.

A person who always justifies or rationalizes his actions has a flexible belief system or is lacking in the moral virtues and consistency in behavior. In effect justifications and rationalizations become the belief system of that person and relativistic’ situational considerations inform decision-making rather than sound ethical principles.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Cognitive dissonance theory is based on three fundamental assumptions.

1. Humans are sensitive to inconsistencies between actions and beliefs.

  • According to the theory, we all recognize, at some level, when we are acting in a way that is inconsistent with our beliefs/attitudes/opinions. In effect, there is a built in alarm that goes off when we notice such an inconsistency, whether we like it or not. For example, if you have a belief that it is wrong to cheat, yet you find yourself cheating on a test, you will notice and be affected by this inconsistency.

2. Recognition of this inconsistency will cause dissonance, and will motivate an individual to resolve the dissonance.

  • Once you recognize that you have violated one of your principles, according to this theory, you won’t just say "oh well". You will feel some sort of mental anguish about this. The degree of dissonance, of course, will vary with the importance of your belief/attitude/principle and with the degree of inconsistency between your behavior and this belief. In any case, according to the theory, the greater the dissonance the more you will be motivated to resolve it.

3. Dissonance will be resolved in one of three basic ways:

Change beliefs

Perhaps the simplest way to resolve dissonance between actions and beliefs is simply to change your beliefs. You could, of course, just decide that cheating is OK. This would take care of any dissonance. However, if the belief is fundamental and important to you such a course of action is unlikely. Moreover, our basic beliefs and attitudes are pretty stable, and people don’t (or shouldn’t) just go around changing basic beliefs/attitudes/opinions all the time, since we rely a lot on our world view in predicting events and organizing our thoughts. Therefore, though this is the simplest option for resolving dissonance it’s probably not the most common.

Change actions

A second option would be to make sure that you never do this action again. The guilt and anxiety can be motivators for changing behavior. So, you may say to yourself that you will never cheat on a test again, and this may aid in resolving the dissonance. However, aversive conditioning (i.e., guilt/anxiety) can often be a pretty poor way of learning, especially if you can train yourself not to feel these things. Plus, you may really benefit in some way from the action that’s inconsistent with your beliefs. So, the trick would be to get rid of this feeling without changing your beliefs or your actions, and this leads us to the third, and probably most common, method of resolution.

Change perception of action

A third and more complex method of resolution is to change the way you view/remember/perceive your action -- rationalize it. For example, you might decide that the test you cheated on was for a dumb class that you didn’t need anyway. Or you may say to yourself that everyone cheats so why not you? In other words, you think about your action in a different manner or context so that it no longer appears to be inconsistent with your beliefs. These relativistic ethics decisions geared to a particular situation makes decision-making uniquely individual without established norms of behavior. If you reflect on this for a moment you will probably recognize why cognitive dissonance has come to be so popular. You may notice such post-hoc re-conceptualizations (rationalizations) of behavior on the part of others all the time, though it’s not so common to see it in one’s self.

Cognitive dissonance seems to be a mantra in politics these days. What are Donald Trump’s true beliefs? Does he love Mexicans and employ thousands of them as he says even though he will act to build a wall at the border and he disparages a judge with a Mexican heritage? What about Hillary Clinton? She seems to say one thing one day (i.e., supports the Trans-Pacific Pipeline deal) just to change her position on the TPP like a chameleon and pledge to veto it simply because Bernie Sanders adopted a position against it that appeals to the general Democratic electorate.

The bottom line is phony behavior is all around us. People say one thing; do another; and sometimes explain it away yet in different terms. To me this indicates a lack of character as an integral part of our national psyche. Rather than being motivated by strong ethical values such as honesty, integrity, respect, and responsibility, all too many are motivated by non-ethical values such as fame…that 30 second You Tube video); fortune…the wealthiest 1% of Americans; and power…any politician.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz on June 8, 2016. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at

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