After surviving the second year of COVID-19, and feeling that her 13th month pay is a license to splurge, marketing professional Lem treated herself to a well-deserved new pair of shoes, until she did the math in her head.
Regret kicked in sooner than she thought. “After ko ma-checkout, naisip ko, wala pa akong regalo para sa kapatid ko. My mom might also ask for money for Christmas noche buena. Pero deserve ko rin naman to, diba?” the 24-year-old told reportr.
Like many corporate slaves who counted down to their 13th month pay, Lem was torn between spending on herself because she deserved it, and setting aside the annual bonus for more practical things.
That’s cognitive dissonance, according to American psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in their book Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), and it drives self-justification to preserve our peace of mind.
Dissonance doesn’t feel good
“Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs when a person holds two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent. Dissonance produces mental discomfort that ranges from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it,” they said.
The concept applies to ideas, attitudes, beliefs and especially to your tangible purchases which are paid for by actual cash. It’s that second of self-doubt when you ask yourself if it made sense to spend thousands on wireless earphones you got solely because your favorite celebrity uses them, not because you actually needed them.
It might kick in immediately or months later, but the manifestation is pretty much the same: since humans dislike the discomfort of dissonance, you’re likely to convince yourself that you bought a high-quality product, it was a good investment, and that you spent money on something that genuinely improves your life (even if it doesn’t).
“Once we make a decision, we have all kinds of tools at our disposal to bolster it,” they said.
Cooking isn’t really your thing but you just laid down a fat stack of cash to buy an airfryer. No, the store won’t take it back when you change your mind on your way back to the condo.
It’s called “irrevocability of decision” when you can’t unmake a decision—the same way you can’t get a refund or return an item. Finality pushes you to justify the decision so it doesn’t appear as a loss or a bad transaction. Cooking via airfryer is healthier anyway, plus you can try out so many recipes at home.
“Dati I bought a fancy watch, mahal, maganda. It wasn’t my style though, but it was on sale. Kailan pa ulit ako makakabili ng ganon?” Lem said. Like most times, it was driven by the need to treat the self, even if there was no reason to.
“The more costly a decision in terms of time, money, effort or inconvenience and the more irrevocable its consequences, the greater the dissonance and the greater the need to reduce it by overemphasizing the good things about the choice made,” the psychologists said.
When you’re about to splurge, don’t ask someone who’s just done it, because chances are high they’ll oversell the pleasure of owning something so they can justify their own purchase. You buying it will doubly justify them.
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“I’m better than this, right?”
“People want to believe that, being smart and rational individuals, they know why they make the choices they do, so they are not always happy when you tell them the actual reason for their actions,” they said.
“Parang ang pangit kasi aminin na nabudol ka lalo na kung mahal. Syempre di mo na sasabihin yon. Or travel, deserve ko ba talaga during a pandemic?” Lem said.
Aronson, the psychologist book author, is not spared from cognitive dissonance. His family bought a new house and though it had been close to a lake, they were lukewarm about their choice. Aronson then bought a canoe for his family, thinking nothing much of it, until his own wife told him he could just be working to reduce the dissonance.
Breaking the cycle
Treating yourself as Christmas nears isn’t bad at all, and spending your 13th month pay on nice things should not be frowned upon. It’s a different story when there’s no longer any reason to spend, or you’re changing who you are just to accommodate the regrettable purchase.
“Dissonance is bothersome under any circumstances, but it is most painful to people when an important element of their self-concept is threatened—typically when they do something that is inconsistent with their view of themselves,” they said.
Usually frugal Yen, not her real name, bought dozens of items from a fast-fashion retailer after watching video hauls on YouTube and TikTok. The items’ quality failed to meet her expectations when they arrived. Refunds were not possible, so the clothes were either given away to friends, donated, or used until they gave out.
“But this does not mean that we are doomed to keep striving to justify our actions after the fact. A richer understanding of how and why our minds work as they do is the first step toward breaking the self-justification habit,” they said.
Yen has since stopped shopping and deleted the app.
“That requires us to be more mindful of our behavior and the reason for our choices. It takes time, self-reflection, and willingness,” they added.