Justifying Bad Habits

visual representation of the amount of coffee one drinks based on their action or emotion.

As humans, one of the most basic and primal feelings we share is a discomfort known as cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is when a person simultaneously holds two or more competing or conflicting beliefs or attitudes. Dissonance is the mental pain that is caused when these attitudes or actions conflict. In order to ease that pain, our brain subconsciously creates self-justifications to reconcile our feelings and actions.

Personally, I drink a lot of coffee. On average, I consume at least one or more large cups of coffee a day. Not only plain coffee, but also I sometimes alternate between chocolate-flavored drinks and drinks with extra espresso. I enjoy coffee and feel as if I absolutely need it sometimes. However, I am fully aware of the negative health effects that come with drinking coffee. According to “Medical News Today,” consuming more than 500 mg of caffeine a day can lead to insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, irritability and an excessively fast heart rate; even moderate amounts of the drug can have negative effects. Although caffeine is a widely used natural stimulant, it also has addictive properties that can lead to withdrawal symptoms.

My coffee drinking habits clearly do not coincide with my knowledge and concerns about the substance, and this cause my cognitive dissonance. According to Elliot Aronson’s The Social Animal, there are two cognitions that my brain must process before the dissonance occurs: I first acknowledge that I drink too much coffee, then acknowledge that drinking too much coffee is harmful to my health. In order to reduce my dissonance, Aronson explains that there are three different methods of correction: I can change my behavior and drink coffee in moderation or stop drinking it altogether, I can justify my behavior by telling myself that the coffee drinking consequences aren’t severe enough to be a concern, or I can add a new cognition and convince myself that I need the coffee in order to function efficiently throughout the day (Aronson).

In order to reduce my cognitive dissonance, I took a combination of two approaches. First, I began by reducing my coffee drinking habit. I try to not exceed more than one cup of coffee a day, but drink it only every other day or less. Then, when I do drink coffee, I justify my behavior by telling myself that it is perfectly healthy to drink if I do so in moderation. My claim isn’t backed by research, but rather a mere conclusion that drinking excess coffee is bad for you; therefore drinking less coffee is less harmful.

Aronson states that we as humans reduce our cognitive dissonances. We all justify our actions in order to help maintain positive outlooks about ourselves. Yet, we are all ignorant to the fact that we are doing it. This type of behavior isn’t rational or irrational, but rather rationalizing – meaning that it simply is what it is. So, in order to correct your feeling of dissonance, do you change your actions, your attitudes, or a bit of both?

Aronson, Elliot. Readings About the Social Animal. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1995.
Whiteman, Honor. (2015, October). Caffeine: how does it affect our health? Medical News Today.

“Justifying Bad Habits,” by Bailey McIntire; edited by Christian Strong.

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