Why It is Not Your Fault


Reader’s note: This is the second part of our 3-part series on cognitive dissonance. Through this series, we illustrate what cognitive dissonance is, where in our daily lives cognitive dissonances may arise, and how we can resolve them in ways that help us resolve our long-term interests.


Please watch this video produced by a local duo, Ryan Tan and Sylvia Chan, before proceeding.

Spoiler Alert!

This short film is my favourite satire piece done on modern day cognitive dissonance and responsibility. If you have watched it, it must have become painfully obvious to you by the end of the video that, had the protagonist not have cheated on his wife in the first place, he would never have to trouble himself, or his friend, with the two corpses. But in the short film, the narrator was made to be oblivious of this fact. He would help the protagonist put the blame on all kinds of situation, claiming that “the universe conspires against him”. There was not an ounce of personal blame or self-examination.

Just like the narrator, many of us engage in this type of thinking to resolve cognitive dissonances. Just like the narrator, many of us are oblivious to how we may be responsible for things that happen in our lives.

In the first part of this series, Why IQ and Hard Work Does Not Translate to Academic Performance, we have looked at the idea of cognitive dissonance. Briefly, it is a psychological state of discomfort, and it occurs when beliefs about who we are or want and what we do are in conflict.

Cognitive dissonance threatens the outlook on oneself. Most of us (if you do not suffer from depression) have a healthy self-esteem, and we always seek, consciously or unconsciously, to maintain it. When cognitive dissonance arises, a common response is for our self-defense mechanisms to set in to protect our self-esteem.

This feeling of discomfort is thus resolved not by acknowledging one’s faults and then changing them, but by shirking responsibility to someone or something else. In the case of the short film, the narrator decided to put the blame on the actions of other parties involved that had led up to the episode. In this way, the narrator, together with us, don’t have to reflect on how the actions of the protagonist contributed to the event. In our own lives, many of us rationalize our actions just like how the narrator in the video does, so that we don’t have to deal with the idea that we are not as capable, or smart, or wonderful as we want or think we are.

Perhaps, we could be fine with deceiving ourselves like that? Perhaps, there is nothing really wrong about this, unless one feels uncomfortable with the notion of deceiving ourselves?

Well, maybe. Except, if we constantly put the blame on someone else, we will never see for ourselves where we went wrong, and where we could be better the next time round. Taking charge of how we deal with our dissonances help us achieve a successful life, however we define it.

In the last part of the series, we look at ways to correct our tendency to resolve dissonances that hinders us from achieving our long-term goals and happiness.

Zi Hui is studying at the National University of Singapore. She has an enduring passion for the human condition, and for how knowledge of it can give clues to how one can best facilitate in life. She majors in Philosophy and Psychology.