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Understanding Ethical Dissonance

Read on to learn more about ethical dissonance, a key psychological concept.

As someone interested in the field of psychology, you may already be familiar with the concept of cognitive dissonance. This term is used to describe the state of discomfort that occurs when two or more modes of thought contradict each other.1 For example, if you care about the planet but still buy plastic water bottles, you’re likely to experience cognitive dissonance. Ethical dissonance is similar in the sense that it is also triggered by an inconsistency. So, what more should you know about this psychological concept? Below, we go over some key insights on ethical dissonance.

Ethical dissonance is the mental discord related to a contradiction between the desire to uphold a moral self-image and engaging in unethical behavior.

In this way, ethical and cognitive dissonance are alike. However, ethical dissonance—as the name implies—occurs when there are ethical implications at play. Most of us have a mental image of ourselves that supports our belief that we are ethical people. When this image is paired with an ethical dilemma—such as your boss asking you to secretly record a conversation with a co-worker or mislead customers about the quality of a product offering—dissonance arises. And though this discomfort is a common experience, our responses to it may vary.

To reduce ethical dissonance, individuals often resort to justification.

One way people respond to the discomfort experienced in ethical dissonance is through justification. This psychological mechanism is used in an attempt to reduce ethical dissonance and ultimately benefit from unethical behavior. In addition, justification allows an individual to still feel moral despite the wrongdoing. For instance, you may choose to not inform yourself about the faulty product your boss wants you to sell or decide that your customers should educate themselves prior to purchase. In doing so, you try to resolve dissonance by justifying your actions instead of attempting to align your beliefs with your conduct by not promoting a lousy product.

Ethical dissonance can arise after the fact.

Sometimes, we can recognize ethical dissonance prior to taking any actions. This is referred to as anticipated dissonance and can empower individuals with the insight they need to avoid committing a moral violation. When dissonance is not anticipated and instead follows a moral violation, it is referred to as experienced dissonance.2 Ultimately, by becoming more aware of the presence of ethical dissonance we can navigate situations in a way that produces better, healthier outcomes.

There are moral interventions that can be implemented to help control ethical dissonance.

Fortunately, there are various ways individuals can harness ethical dissonance. One way to do this is by reframing how you view ethical dissonance in the first place. Instead of perceiving it as a threat to your self-image, consider it to be the protector of your morals and values. In addition, experienced dissonance can be leveraged in a way that doesn’t promote shame, but instead encourages atonement and prompts better decision-making in the future. 2

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