Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 105, Issue 1, pp 17–25

Managers and Moral Dissonance: Self Justification as a Big Threat to Ethical Management?



DOI: 10.1007/s10551-011-0931-9

Cite this article as:
Lowell, J. J Bus Ethics (2012) 105: 17. doi:10.1007/s10551-011-0931-9


This article discusses the implications of moral dissonance for managers, and how dissonance induced self justification can create an amplifying feedback loop and downward spiral of immoral behaviour. After addressing the nature of moral dissonance, including the difference between moral and hedonistic dissonance, the writer then focuses on dissonance reduction strategies available to managers such as rationalization, self affirmation, self justification, etc. It is noted that there is a considerable literature which views the organization as a potentially corrupting institution and a source of acute levels of moral dissonance. A simplified process model linking immoral behaviour, dissonance and rationalization is mooted, and some recent theories which question traditional dissonance models, including the free choice paradigm (FCP), are considered. The writer concludes that in the light of the above mentioned critical theories, it may be assumed that the levels of moral dissonance, and the extent of rationalization/self justification amongst managers, are more a function of personality and situational factors than previously assumed.


ManagementMoralityCognitive dissonanceMoral dissonanceSelf justificationFree choice paradigm


The truth is that social psychology has not had a major impact on business ethics. However, a number of ground breaking theories which have surfaced over the last half century or so can tell us a great deal about why we might act morally, or otherwise. Because organizations are essentially made up of groups, or teams, it is not surprising that social psychology has something to say about them, and there has been some recognition, from some researchers, of a moral dimension. Janis’s famous concept of groupthink is relevant particularly to ethical decision making (see Sims 1992). Goffman’s work on impression management informs us how managers can deflect the blame for questionable moral conduct (see Konovsky and Jaster 1989), and Zimbardo’s experiments, according to Brady and Logsdon (1988, p. 703), can help students of management understand the importance of “situational factors” when deciding on issues with moral relevance.

While these theories do contribute to business ethics as a discipline, I believe that Festinger’s (1962) concept of cognitive dissonance, above all else, provides a number of superb insights not only into why managers may behave immorally, but also into the reasons why they may continue to behave immorally. Indeed, if Festinger and the legion of researchers who followed him are right, then dissonance and the attendant self justification provide the trigger for even more immoral behaviour. A short scenario may be useful to illustrate the general concept of cognitive dissonance.

A Scenario: How Cognitive Dissonance May Occur

Imagine that 1 day after your retirement as a well paid professor in a university, you find in the street a roll of bank notes worth £500. There is no way of identifying the owner of this money. You therefore have two options: take the money to the nearest police station, or keep it, and tell no one. While you are considering these options, you start to think about your reduced lifestyle since you retired, and the constant stream of bills you have to pay. You may also be trying to imagine the person who would have such a large amount of money in their pocket or purse. You may be saying to yourself, “this money probably belongs to someone quite rich (and careless!), to whom £500 is a relatively small amount. She or he may even be a criminal. If I keep the money, it would not actually hurt anyone because a rich person could easily afford to lose the money, while the criminal has stolen it.” On the other hand you are an honest professional (albeit retired) whose moral standards should be impeachable, and taking the money would go against everything you stand for.

Cognitive Dissonance and Self Justification

The above scenario would not be unthinkable. In fact, we probably face many decisions daily, the outcome of which may make us susceptible to cognitive dissonance: a “state of tension whenever an individual holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent” (Aronson 1995, p. 178). Cognitive dissonance also occurs when one’s behaviour is inconsistent with one’s cognitions. In the above scenario, if you decide to keep the money, it is highly probable that you will be subjected to some kind of dissonance, in that your conduct (i.e. keeping the money) is at odds with your belief in honesty.

Dissonance is such an uncomfortable state, that we intuitively try to reduce it, sometimes by moderating our actions, but far more often through self justification. In our scenario, the finder of the money is using self justification before the fact by questioning whether the money might belong to a criminal, or by suggesting that the owner may not care about losing it. After the money is pocketed, the attempts to reduce dissonance, by self justification, will probably reach a higher level, with the finder saying to her/himself, “Undoubtedly the owner of the money is a criminal and a careless one as well. There is absolutely no way that the money could be traced anyway, and if the money had been handed into the police, it probably would have disappeared. Everyone knows that many policemen are corrupt.” Note that the after the fact self justification is getting less and less rational, and also most (if not all) the justifications are external to the person experiencing the dissonance.

When Leon Festinger and his colleagues coined the term cognitive dissonance over 50 years ago, they certainly believed that this concept would yield a lot more research, but even they did not foresee the massive influence that this relatively simple concept would have on social psychology and many other related fields. Since then dissonance theory has influenced, inter alia, ideas of motivation, perception, attitude, attribution, decision making, all of which are highly relevant in management.

Cooper (2007) identifies three aspects of dissonance which I believe are crucial to understanding it. First, dissonance possesses a magnitude. Or to put it another way, there are levels of dissonance. The higher the level of dissonance, the stronger the drive will be to reduce or eliminate it. Second, and tangentially, “not all cognitions have equal importance” (p. 8). So, for example, if we experience dissonance because we have failed to pay a bill on time, we can reduce that dissonance by changing our attitude to punctual payments of bills (i.e. making payment less important in our mind). Third, because it is easier for people to change attitudes, rather than behaviour, dissonance theories tend to deal with attitudes and those changes.

Furthermore, the need to reduce dissonance is felt more acutely when the person experiences or identifies with one or more of these factors (Sears et al. 1991, pp. 164–166):
  1. 1.

    Irrevocable commitment: Acute dissonance could occur if, for instance, you have signed a watertight contract for the supply of components which turn out to be unsuitable. However, if the contract has a “get out clause” then the dissonance will be less. Also, if a bribe has been accepted, it would very difficult to rescind that act and eventually the ensuing dissonance and other consequences will have to be faced.

  2. 2.

    Foreseeable or foreseen consequences: Dissonance is more acute if you have taken a particular course of action which turns out to be erroneous, when the evidence was obvious and/or compelling. Imagine you are the manager of a factory and you give permission for an employee to empty toxic material into the river, which action leads to the death of thousands of fish. It is probable those consequences were both foreseeable and foreseen, and your dissonance is acute because you were aware of what either could or would have happened.

  3. 3.

    Responsibility for consequences: Despite the fact that foreseeable and foreseen consequences lead to heightened dissonance (see above), if you believe that you are personally not responsible for a harmful act, then dissonance will probably be slight or non existent. If a CEO ordered you to put toxic waste in the river, and you perceive or feel that you are therefore not responsible, dissonance will be minimal whether the consequences were foreseen or foreseeable. Conversely the CEO as the responsible person, and assuming the consequences were foreseeable or foreseen, would be vulnerable to high levels of dissonance.

  4. 4.

    Effort: Quite simply, the more you put into an act, which has harmful consequences, the more dissonance you experience. If you spend much money, time and effort on a pet project which goes wrong, the stronger the need to justify that project. Should your organisation use a selection process which puts potential employees through a rigorous, time consuming and stressful selection process, the more the new employees will value their new positions, regardless of their experiences in the jobs. The individual employee’s perception of the job will be consonant with the difficult selection process, and his/her efforts in gaining that position.


Ultimately, all theories of dissonance highlight and assume a psychological need for consistency and consonance, a need so strong that Sears et al. (1991, p. 157), agreeing with Festinger (1962), state that dissonance “operates much like any other drive: if we are hungry, we do something to reduce our hunger; if we are afraid we do something to reduce our fear; if we feel dissonance we do something to reduce it also.” However, what has to be borne in mind is that when dissonance triggers self justification, it is the self justification which directly causes the reappraisal of motives, attitude, self concept, etc., as a person seeks to rationalize the dissonant behaviour. So, when we discuss the effects of dissonance, we are often referring to self justification.

Moral and Hedonistic Dissonance, External and Internal Justification

This powerful drive to reduce dissonance, mainly through self justification, is certainly activated when we think we have done something morally wrong, and because of our inherent sense of morality, to some degree innate and then honed by our environment (see Bloom 2005; Hauser 2007; Wright 1996, etc.), we feel this dissonance very acutely. This is what we label “moral dissonance.”

Moral dissonance occurs when a person’s behaviour or general cognitions are in conflict with his/her moral values. Or to put it another way moral dissonance is cognitive dissonance, only with a moral dimension. Following on from Holland et al. (2002) I divide cognitive dissonance into two types: moral dissonance and hedonistic (or, hedonic) dissonance. In my model moral dissonance not only has a moral dimension as stated, but the term also suggests (in line with Holland et al. 2002) that the supposedly immoral act harms another person. Lying, fraud, theft and keeping lost money, as above, would be obvious examples. In order to reduce moral dissonance we would normally employ external justification, by which we minimize our responsibility for the dissonant act by calling on excuses out of our control. In our scenario of the found money the justifications ranged from “the money belongs to a thief” to “the police are corrupt.” In contrast, hedonistic dissonance occurs when our actions harm ourselves. Going on a spending spree or betting on horses when we have very little money might be an example of this, and we justify the act by trivialising it and/or its harmful consequences on us. Thus, we might say “it’s only money” or “I’ll soon get it back.” This is internal justification.

Moral Dissonance, Managers and Dissonance Reduction Strategies

Can Organizations Corrupt Managers?

The idea that some organizations are corrupting institutions, whose malign influence creates immoral managers out of previously moral individuals, may sound somewhat extreme, but there are a few people, and not extremists, willing to argue the case (see Cialdini 1996; Darley 1992, 1996; Bakan 2004). Darley in particular has focussed on the socialization of individuals into corrupt ways within organizations, in effect, accusing organizations of deindividuation, by which people are unable to make moral judgments as morally sentient beings. Here, corporate culture ensures that decision makers have little choice when faced with alternative actions: moral actions which would harm the company’s performance, or immoral actions which would boost the firm’s profits. In so many cases, according to Darley, the latter action is chosen. However, although Darley does not deal with the discomfort or dissonance of managers caught up in a corrupt organizational system, he does call for a new social science which would explain how “the individual participates in being trained in the social movement and continues to access individual-level skills in the service of the pathological group projects” (p. 41). Also, I would suggest, we need to know to what extent managers in “pathological organizations” experience moral dissonance; and, to what degree is dissonance moderated by being responsible to higher authority?

Dissonance in Day-to-Day Management

Even in organizations which may not be described as “pathological,” the situations in which managers may experience moral dissonance are many and varied, because they constantly make decisions, frequently using insufficient information. There is some evidence that immoral behaviours by managers, and the ensuing moral dissonance, lead to a reduction in job satisfaction, but the survey by Viswesvaran and Deshpande (1996) was limited and did not address the issue of justification. Moral dissonance is not necessarily caused by outrageously immoral acts, such as the gross managerial immorality which usually involves some kind of corruption, as at Enron or Worldcom. Indeed, the occasional misjudgement or a contestable decision would be sufficient to cause some moral dissonance. However, it is in the former cases of corruption that we should expect to find particularly high levels of moral dissonance among those responsible, assuming the absence of sociopathic traits.

Using a metaphor which they call “The Pyramid of Choice” Tavris and Aronson (2008, p. 32) demonstrate how two psychologically and ethically similar people take two different moral pathways, although they both start from the same point. They use an example involving students deciding whether to cheat, or not, during an exam. I shall use a business-related example, such as two managers in the same organization who both have to decide whether to accept “hospitality” from a corporation which is hoping to supply various components. For both managers, it is a difficult decision, but manager A decides to accept the weekend in Paris, while manager B declines. Remember that in both cases it is a close run thing. However once the deeds have been done, we are likely to see two people with distinctly differing views. According to Tavris and Aronson (2008), self justification of their actions by both individuals creates a moral gap between the two, which becomes wider and wider. Manager A declares that the weekend in Paris would in no way affect her/his judgement when allocating contracts, and that, anyway, everyone participates in corporate hospitality; it was nothing more than that. Manager B says that this type of activity is nothing less than bribery, which is both illegal and immoral, and if she/he were the CEO, the company would stamp down on it hard. There is an obvious and distinct polarization of attitudes. “It is as if they had started off at the top of a pyramid, a millimeter apart; but by the time they have finished justifying their individual actions, they have slid to the bottom and now stand at opposite corners of its base” (Tavris and Aronson 2008, p. 33). As manager A takes each step on the pathway to complete self justification, so it becomes easier, if not a necessity, to perpetrate even more questionable acts, as she/he becomes the victim of entrapment in which more and more of manager A’s effort, time and credibility is invested in risky behaviour.

Having said all that, it is patently obvious that not all managers perceive themselves as sliding down that dangerous slope towards complete moral degradation. Nor do all managers suffer sleepless nights of guilt and self-doubt. This is because all individuals have a number of strategies for moderating the negative effects of dissonance, strategies, some of which become enmeshed with the self justification process.

Normalising and Routinising Morally Dissonant Behaviour

Moral dissonance at any level can lead to some puzzling and counterintuitive behaviour, including, in some cases, an escalation of immoral behaviour, as mentioned. If a manager is already experiencing some dissonance because of the problems involved in making difficult or contestable decisions, then it is very possible that in order to reduce it, she/he may increase the controversial decisions, or create controversy where none existed. What the manager is doing here is attempting to reduce in her/his own mind the importance of the decisions and their impact by normalising these decisions and implying that they are not so important after all. “What’s the fuss?” she is saying, “these are everyday events. No problems!” The scaling up of obviously dissonant behaviour, by decreasing the perceived importance, makes that behaviour consonant with “normal” behaviour or attitudes.

Also according the Tsang (2002, p.29) “Circumstances that are task oriented and routine can … obscure the relevance of moral principles.” Tsang then goes on to explain that the outcome of the routinising of tasks is that the perpetrator of an immoral act focuses not on the repercussions of that act, but on the minutiae of the process. She gives the extreme example of Adolf Eichmann’s contribution to the “final solution” (note the depersonalised euphemism) and his denial of any responsibility. Eichmann, apparently, when questioned, failed to remember significant events, such as his arranging the evacuation of Jews from Bratislava, almost as if it was just another day’s work in a routine job.

Quite obviously there is a huge difference in behaviours between a person who is involved in genocide on a day-to-day basis and even the most corrupt of managers. But, even so, it is a matter of scale. The senior executives at Enron both normalised and routinised outrageously corrupt practices as part of the corporate culture within the upper reaches of the corporation (Cruver 2003). If you can do that, the immoral behaviour, in your version, has no victim. In fact, it is a “victimless crime.”

Blaming and Dehumanising Victims of Dissonant Behaviour

In a survey, using a realistic case study, Konovsky and Jaster (1989) found that business people faced with a potential predicament, i.e. a situation which might endanger their reputation for acting with integrity, overwhelmingly used excuses and justifications, in which they sought to “minimize perceived responsibility for their behaviour” (p. 395). This conduct was analysed by the researchers in the context of Goffman’s theory of impression management, in which the victim of an unreasonable act is blamed, as the guilty party attempts to maintain her/his good reputation in the eyes of others. But impression management and this form of self justification is equally relevant in the analysis of moral dissonance. Remember particularly in the scenario of the money found in the street, how, in order to reduce the finder’s dissonance, the person who lost the money was deemed responsible, blamed and labelled as “careless” or even a “criminal.” Thus, saving one’s face and reducing moral dissonance can both be achieved at the same time, providing a link between positive self perception and moral consonance.

Self justification by blaming the victim is a mechanism well known to social psychologists, and particularly dissonance theorists. Many people who perpetrate atrocities, if they did not use this mechanism would, according to Tavris and Aronson (2008, p. 198) “pay a large psychological price in guilt, anguish, anxiety, nightmares and sleepless nights.” What is frightening about this type of self justification, is that it encourages the perpetrators to scale up the level of cruelty, because they persuade themselves that without doubt the victims deserve punishment, and the “greater the pain [they] inflict on others, the greater the need to justify it to maintain [their] feelings of decency and self worth” (p. 198).

And blaming the victim, particularly in an organizational setting, may not just be the case of individuals’ attitudes. It can be institutionalised. In the UK, since the beginning of the industrial revolution until the 1970s, it was assumed that accidents in the workplace, almost without exception, were caused by workers failing to pay enough attention to what they were doing. Belief in the so called “careless worker model” was shared by managements and trade unions alike and the way to prevent accidents was by exhorting workers to take more care, and not by improving safety measures in the workplace (Bratton and Gold 2003). In this way, managers and trade union officials slept far more soundly with reduced levels of moral dissonance when accidents occurred as they inevitably did.

Denying the humanity of the victims of dissonant behaviour is but a few steps on from blaming the victim. Once again, at an extreme level, the holocaust is an obvious example of this dehumanization. However, we do not need to go as far as genocide to identify this phenomenon in action. For managers who have to make very difficult decisions which detrimentally affect the lives or other people, the dissonance that this produces is substantially reduced if those other people are not perceived as people at all. For instance, in the UK National Health Service critics complain that patients are treated, not as individuals but as numbers (Persaud 2007). Also, there is no doubt the managers of the finance institutions which recently failed through questionable financial practices do not spend much time considering the plight of individuals ruined by their behaviour, even though they are undoubtedly aware of the numbers of people involved. So, although these numbers are staggeringly high, the impact is undoubtedly softened if the human or personal element is ignored.

Self Esteem and Self Affirmation as Dissonance Moderators

When researching dissonance it is very easy to fall into the trap and believe that it affects everybody in generally the same way, and this was a common assumption originally. However, this is not true. Researchers started in the mid 1980s to look at the relationship between the self system (i.e. self esteem, self perception, self image, degree of self affirmation etc.) and levels of dissonance (see Steele and Liu 1983; Holland et al. 2002; Cooper 2007). They were particularly interested to find out whether people with high self esteem might escape the worst effects of dissonance, leading to a limited use of self justification strategies. Not only that, but, from Aronson’s quote below, it may also be the case that people with particularly low levels of self esteem are affected less acutely.

“I would speculate that the types of people who respond to dissonance with honest introspection would have high well-grounded self esteem, or they might have really low self esteem, so they have nothing to lose by saying, ‘Geez, I guess everything I invested in really doesn’t make much sense; I’m really a jerk.’” (Elliott Aronson, quoted by Slater 2005, p. 124).

Self affirmation is the term that is used to describe how individuals are motivated to perceive themselves as good people: generally honest and moral (Cooper 2007). When the self is attacked, either by one’s own foolish actions, (e.g. keeping the money found in the street), or by another persons accusations, the instinctive reaction is to seek immediate reaffirmation of one’s self worth. What is notable, here, is that the reaffirmation action may be totally divorced from the self threatening action or accusation. So, having been accused of laziness at work, or having unjustifiably lost one’s temper, one may seek to bolster one’s self esteem by putting money in a charity box.

It should now be clear that both self affirmation and self justification are used to relieve dissonance. The act of keeping the found money in the earlier scenario may be perceived as a self threat and may also be a source of moral dissonance. However, the method of decreasing the moral dissonance was by external justification (i.e. criticising the owner of the money), but if the affirmation theorists are correct, reaffirmation, even by an unrelated action (e.g. helping a disabled person to cross the road) would also have been effective.

Thibodeau and Aronson (1992) go slightly further, with their self consistency theory, by arguing that dissonance (and I would argue especially moral dissonance) is caused by threats to the self system, such as accusations of (or actual) stupid, harmful or immoral behaviour. Thus, the dissonance is aroused, because the normally positive self concept, and the expectations which it produces, are damaged and are now out of balance with the standard self.

But what does all this tell us particularly about dissonance and managers? Well, apart from the fact that self affirmation may help reduce dissonance, especially moral dissonance, it may also be true that managers, assuming that they generally possess higher levels of self esteem, should be liable to less dissonance. There has been some recent research on the relationship between power, control and self esteem (Wojciske and Struzynska-Kujalowicz 2007; Fast et al. 2009) and, although this is not the place to explore that research in depth, it can be said that in general terms there is a positive relationship between power and self esteem, even though some of the assumed ability of managers to control situations may be illusory.

Indeed, self esteem has long been considered a dissonance moderator, as indicated earlier, but research completed in Europe by Holland et al. (2002) helped confirm this empirically. The researchers created both moral and hedonistic dissonance in a group of car drivers by “confronting [them] with the negative consequences of car driving either for others, that is, moral dissonance (e.g. environment, public health), or for themselves, that is hedonistic dissonance (e.g. travel time).” It was found, as expected, that the respondents with low self esteem utilised more external self justification strategies to lessen moral dissonance, and more internal self justification strategies to reduce hedonistic dissonance. The research, also predictably, found that high self esteem respondents “are less likely to engage in self justification because they experience less discomfort after a self-threat” (Holland et al. 2002, p. 1713). This suggests, I believe, that the high esteem respondents are experiencing constant self affirmation and it is this constant re-affirmation of the self system which allows them to experience potentially dissonance arousing situations, either moral or hedonistic, with little discomfort and less need for self justification, either external or internal.

Why Dissonance may Entrap Managers in a Downward Spiral

In the concept of cognitive dissonance Leon Festinger uncovered an idea, now honed over many years by an army of researchers, which appears to explain the effect of immoral behaviour on all but the most sociopathic of people. I think it is fair to say that the “all” here includes most managers. As Darley (1996), Cialdini (1996), Bakan (2004) and others have argued for some time, all managers are vulnerable to situations created by the very nature of corporations, and it these situational factors, allied with psychological forces, which leave them vulnerable to high levels of moral dissonance. However, managers have also used moderating strategies (e.g. blaming the victim, self affirmation, etc.) without which they would not be able to function. Tsang (2002) labels these strategies collectively as “moral rationalization” which allows “people to convince themselves that their preferred unethical choice is consistent with moral standards” (p. 34). Let’s be clear here: moral rationalization is employed at some time by everybody, but if Darley, Bakan, and Tsang (see above) are right then what we have in corporations is institutionalised self justification and an extreme form of relativism, in which immoral and often very harmful behaviours are internalised and reframed as moral and positive actions. This not an optimistic scenario and a simplified diagram of the dynamics of this cycle is illustrated in Fig. 1.
Fig. 1

Positive amplifying feedback loop of immoral behaviour

In this figure, the reiterative cycle commences with immoral behaviour at the top, which is internalised by various processes of justification, self affirmation, etc. This in turn triggers further and more extreme immoral behaviour, which we call amplification, as the manager is entrapped in the “deadly embrace” of this cycle, and subconsciously adopts a consistent mode of immoral behaviour which, a short while before, would have probably been condemned without reservation.

Why some of the Bases of Dissonance are now Being Questioned

Some readers may well be wondering about the undoubted elements of psychological determinism in this process. They may be asking “is it inevitable that everyone in this position will end up justifying the unjustifiable, with their bad behaviour spiralling out of control?” Well, the good news for doubters is that researchers and writers in psychotherapy (Tompkins and Lawley 2009), in neurology (Ramachandran 1999) and even in economics (Chen 2008) have been chipping away at some of the established foundations of dissonance theory.

According to Tompkins and Lawley (2009) here is now evidence that dissonance can be neutralised, not solely by methods which kick start a positive amplifying feedback loop leading to amplification, but also by using the tension caused by the dissonant acts or beliefs as a springboard for innovation and change. In this model the person is not necessarily entrapped in a cycle of misbehaviour. There is, write these psychotherapists (p. 2) “always a conflict between a person’s ‘misleading representation’ and ‘what you know to be true.’” but their research shows how this person can “migrate from self-DDDing [self-delusion, self-deception and self-denial] to acting from what they know to be true… [This] shows a desire to change as an essential element.” In short, they are suggesting that the need to reduce dissonance, in which one’s need to fill “the gap between a desired outcome and the current situation” (p. 3) can produce that downwards spiral immoral behaviour, but can just as easily also produce a creative tension leading to innovation. This view accords with the needs theories of motivation framed by Maslow, Herzberg and McClelland and much loved by students of management. However, we await the empirical evidence of Tompkins and Lawley’s findings.

World famous neurologist Ramachandran (1999) looks at how the brain and its architecture deal with irrational or contradictory cognitions which do not fit into our established framework of beliefs. He suggests that the left hemisphere of the brain constantly files new cognitions “seamlessly into our preexisting world view” (p. 134). Unfortunately not all cognitions fit snugly into our world view and we have to come up with some way of coping with these dissonant cognitions, and urgently! Ramachandran (p. 134/135) writes:

What your left hemisphere does … is either ignore the anomaly completely or distort it to squeeze it into your preexisting framework, to preserve stability. And this, I suggest, is the essential rationale behind all the so called Freudian defenses – the denials, repressions, confabulations and other forms of self-delusions that govern our daily lives. Far from being maladaptive, such every day defence mechanisms prevent the brain from being hounded into directionless indecision by the “combinatorial explosion” of possible stories that might be written from the material available to the senses. The penalty, of course, is that you are lying to yourself, but it’s a small price to pay for the coherence and stability conferred on the system as a whole.

So far, so good: this explanation appears to support the established ideas of dissonance, but this time from a neurological (and Freudian) perspective. However, Ramachandran further argues that in situations when the cognitions are completely and utterly out of line with the established framework of beliefs there has to be a total reappraisal of the worldview. “The right hemisphere thus forces a “Kuhnian paradigm shift” in response to the anomalies …”(p. 136). This, then, is not the entrapment of an amplifying feedback loop of dissonant and immoral behaviour, but a system characterised by a battle between the brain hemispheres which, when the right hemisphere triumphs, leads to a radical revision of attitudes and behaviour.

Yale economist M. Keith Chen has been looking critically at the notion of rationalization of free choice which underpins much of the established dissonance theory (Chen 2008; Tierney 2008, 2010). Over the last 50 years there have been a number of studies (see Aronson 2004; Cooper 2007; Tavris and Aronson 2008, etc.) which have indicated that once we make a choice (e.g. between two different colour cars, between two different styles of shoes, or between an immoral or moral act) of our own free will (the so-called “free choice paradigm” or FCP) then that choice is subsequently upgraded in our evaluation, and the rejected option is devalued. In this article, I have already given the examples of finding money and accepting “hospitality” during a business deal, and in both these cases FCP would predict that, once chosen, the options of keeping the money and of taking the “hospitality” would subsequently be rationalised as the correct actions, while the alternatives would now be considered even less attractive. This polarization of attitudes towards the options after the choice is made is called “the spreading of preferences.” Although there has already been some evidence that in limited situations self justification through rationalization is sometimes replaced by attitude changes, Chen has set out to undermine systematically the methodology of “these studies (and the free-choice methodology they employ) [which] implicitly assume that before choices are made, a subject’s preferences can be measured perfectly, i.e. with infinite precision, and under-appreciate that a subject’s choices reflect their preferences” (Chen 2008 p. 1). In effect, what Chen is arguing, and tries to prove mathematically, is that in many cases there is no free choice because the subject already has a preference, and, however, small or apparently insignificant that bias towards that one option is, it would nullify the idea that we upgrade or downgrade choices made from two (or more) equally attractive options. Therefore, it is not necessarily the choosing in that situation which creates the spreading of preferences (if it occurs at all), but a preconceived bias.

Of course, this does not negate all those many studies that seemed to confirm the FCP and preference spreading, because there must be many situations in which there is no prejudgment, and the FCP holds up. But it does suggest that in some studies the FCP did not exist. Thus, if Chen is correct, in some studies there was also no dissonance and no self justification through rationalization, because the choice fell in line with a preconceived notion. Consequently, if I choose to keep the money I found in the street, there may be little, if any (moral) dissonance and less need for self justification, because I may have been leaning towards that course of action anyway to such a degree, even subconsciously, that I have no need to spread the preferences by upgrading my choice of action and downgrading the rejected option. And the same process may occur when I decide to accept, or reject, the “hospitality” from my supplier. So, in common sense and general terms, if I have a predisposition to act immorally, there could well be very little, if any, cognitive dissonance and no need for self justification. In my view, by throwing doubt on the FCP experiments, Chen has merely confirmed what should have been obvious anyway.


It is quite strange that the concepts which have been standard fare in social psychology conferences have hardly caused a ripple in the world of business ethics (particularly in Europe), since social psychologists delve into the murky world of crime, evil, immorality and all other types of anti-social behaviour. Not only do social psychologists analyse why people misbehave, particularly in group situations and social settings, coming up with concepts such as deindividuation and diffusion of responsibility, but they also attempt to understand the effect of such behaviour on the actual miscreants.

All in all, there is no doubt that dissonance, in many forms, is a phenomenon widely experienced by humans, in all cultures. The studies above (Chen 2008; Ramachandran 1999; Tompkins and Lawley 2009) have to some degree caused us to look again at the bases of dissonance in all its forms, but have not disproved dissonance theory and its paradigms. In addition, they have forced us to review how dissonance affects diverse individuals in different situations. It should now be said that what was considered to be a general theory of social psychology is less general than previously assumed.

For organizations and managers, the problem of moral dissonance in decision making remains. Remember the “Pyramid of Choice” (Tavris and Aronson 2008) above, where the manager has to choose between two courses of action; one perhaps marginally unethical and one wholly ethical. Once the decision has been made dissonance theory suggests that the process of rationalization and self justification will “spread” the two preferences. And even if Chen (2008, p. 1) is correct and “mere choice may not be enough to induce rationalization,” and that the act of choosing may not in itself create an attitudinal polarization of the options, once the action has been taken the psychological pressure to rationalize and justify is still there in many cases. How the manager firstly decides her/his preference and how she/he then responds to the possible moral dissonance is, even more than we previously assumed, dependent on personality and situational factors.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011