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The Psychology of Not Admitting Mistakes & The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Why is it so difficult to take responsibility?

By Candice GalekPublished 2 years ago 4 min read
Photo via Pixabay

All humans are essentially ego-driven creatures. Starting from a young age we develop an identity — a self-concept and self-image — constructed of our beliefs and how we view ourselves. Most of us think of ourselves as pretty decent people, better than average in certain areas, maybe a little worse than average in a few, but always trying to do our best. We believe we see the world realistically, and act rationally.

When our own thoughts and behaviors, or the accusation of another, challenges our cherished self-concept, we experience what is called cognitive dissonance — a form of mental discomfort and tension. Cognitive dissonance arises when you attempt to hold two conflicting beliefs/attitudes/ideas/opinions at the same time.

For example: “I know smoking is bad for me…but I smoke a pack a day anyway.”

Because our minds crave consonance and clarity over contradiction and conflict, we immediately seek to dissipate the mental tension created by cognitive dissonance. The smoker can reduce their dissonance either by throwing the cigarettes away and trying to quit, or by thinking to himself as he lights up,

“People say that smoking is bad, but my grandfather smoked two packs a day for fifty years and never got cancer. It’s fine.”

When we make mistakes, the gap between our questionable behavior and our sterling self-concept creates cognitive dissonance. We can allay this dissonance either by admitting that we made a mistake and re-valuating our self-concept in light of it, or by justifying the behavior as not in conflict with our self-concept after all. Here are some examples:

You think of yourself as an honest person, but you cheated on your last exam. You can either:

  1. Admit that cheating is wrong and that maybe you’re not as honest as you thought. Or,
  2. Justify the cheating by saying that a lot of other students were doing it too, so it really just leveled the playing field.

You think of yourself as a decent guy and have been casually sleeping with a girl over the course of a few months. You’ve never talked about the relationship, and when she admits she has feelings for you, and you shut her down, she’s pretty crushed. You can either:

  1. Acknowledge that you should have set clear parameters for the relationship and admit you had a role to play in her hurt feelings and didn’t treat her decently. Or,
  2. Tell yourself that you never said anything about a relationship and that it was entirely her fault for letting herself get attached.

You think of yourself as a good friend but one night when you’re out drinking with your buddy you bring up your bitter feelings about something he did in the past, and try to start a fight with him. You can either:

  1. Admit that you’ve been nursing a grudge and didn’t tell him, which isn’t something a good friend would do. Or,
  2. Say that you were totally trashed and didn’t know what you were doing.

You think of yourself as a smart, cutting-edge academic, but when you present a paper you’ve been working on for years, your colleagues point out numerous errors in your conclusions. You can either:

  1. Acknowledge the mistakes and reevaluate your theory and research methods. Or,
  2. Accuse your colleagues of jealously, narrow-mindedness, or bias.

Unsurprisingly, many people, when push comes to shove, lean towards option #2. When our behavior threatens our self-concept, our ego automatically goes into hyper defense mode, circles the wagons, and begins issuing self-justifications designed to protect itself.

The higher the moral, financial, and emotional stakes, the more our self-concept — our very identity — is threatened, the greater the dissonance that arises, the harder it is to admit a mistake, and the more we seek to justify ourselves to preserve our self-image. Self-justifications are not lies, where we know we’re being dishonest, nor are they excuses; rather, we believe the justifications to be true, and truly think that they show we are not to blame. Self-justifications can take many forms.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

The sunk cost fallacy explains how the more we invest in something, the more we fear losing that investment, and will thus continue doing it even we don’t really want to, in order to avoid knowing we wasted our time, money, and/or effort.

  • The law student who decides halfway through his three years that he definitely doesn’t want to be a lawyer, will feel he’s invested too much to drop out now.
  • The man who knows his girlfriend of nine years isn’t right for him can’t bring himself to break up with her and face feeling like that near-decade was a waste.
  • The man who has made a political choice and now sees his choice in a new light and regrets it afterward
  • The man who’s been devoting all his free time to serving his church can’t bring himself to leave even when a sordid scandal involving the minister blows up.

Each is suffering from the sunk-cost fallacy. Each will tell themselves sensible-sounding justifications for why they should continue in their path, when at the heart of it, they really fear losing their investment and feeling like they made a mistake and wasted time, money, and effort. If they continue on, they may come to waste much more, but that’s in the future and the abstract, and is much easier to deal with.


About the Creator

Candice Galek

Miami based entrepreneur turned environmental non-profit founder. Forbes 30 Under 30 Honoree. Inc. Magazine columnist. Always learning.

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