You’re not always right. Everybody knows that. So, why does it hurt so much when you’re wrong?

Believe it or not, there’s a reason why this happens and it has everything to do with science.

Identity and the science of cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is to blame here. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort or stress one feels when dealing with conflicting and contradictory beliefs, ideas or values.

It can be both good and bad for you. People often wonder how drug addicts think and how they’re able to justify their drug use. Spoiler alert: it’s cognitive dissonance. It’s not all bad, though — without cognitive dissonance we’d barely be able to function in the real world.

You see, all humans are naturally ego-driven creatures. As we grow — even from our first few moments in life — we develop an identity. At times this self-iamge clashes with reality of your identity. Most often this is when you’ve done something wrong and have to face it. It can also happen with conflicting personal thoughts and beliefs, and when dealing with others. The conflict flares up when the self-image you’ve had for so long becomes challenged, resulting in some truly uncomfortable feelings and emotions.

Cognitive dissonance is most readily identifiable in self-destructive behavior. You know you shouldn’t smoke and research has shown that it’s detrimental to your health. You’ve probably even been known to say, “I know I shouldn’t be doing this,” on countless occasions. You’re aware of the damage this behavior is causing, but cognitive dissonance allows you to continue.

Long story short, it doesn’t feel good admitting to yourself that you’re wrong. It can cause feelings of discomfort, sorrow and even pain.

How your mind fixes that uncomfortable feeling

When it’s time to admit you’re wrong there are a couple of ways your mind alleviates that uncomfortable feeling. You either:

1) Admit you were wrong and reevaluate your self-image and beliefs as a result.


2) Justify the behavior to yourself by programming the belief that it didn’t create a conflict with your self-image in the first place.

To offer another example, let’s consider a student who believes himself to be honest and trustworthy, yet decides to cheat on his next exam. If he follows the first scenario, he would justify his cheating by admitting it’s wrong and that maybe he’s not as honest and trustworthy as he originally thought. If he follows the second scenario, he would justify the cheating by admitting that everyone else was doing it so he might as well do it too, to stay on an even keel.

Most of the time, when you’re faced with a personal conflict like this you’re going to choose option 2. This is a direct result of your ego acting in self-defense. These self-justifications are a natural defense mechanism to not only protect your body, but your mind.

As the stakes are raised — whether they be moral, financial, or emotional — the threat to your self-identity also increases. The greater the threat, and the greater the dissonance, the more difficult it becomes to admit a mistake. Self-justifications aren’t actually lies in the sense that we’re being willfully dishonest; instead, we often actually believe they’re true, and they offer clear-cut evidence as to why it’s not our fault something went wrong.

Cognitive dissonance and false memory

These justifications are often reinforced by our memories over time. Different events and situations get filed away, and they eventually become skewed to the point where they’re more forgiving to our self-image. This is generally why two people who are remembering the same event, recall different things. While they might have different perspectives, their minds are also working to justify everything that happened based on their own conceptions of self. This is one of the many sources of false memory.

That’s not to say your brain’s defense system is all bad. Without our egos, positive self-image and justifications we’d find it extremely hard to function in our day-to-day lives. Imagine spending your day locked in a room, obsessively replaying all the things you did wrong, all the mistakes you made in life, all the embarrassing moments you had and all the times you hurt others. It would lead to a pretty miserable time, that’s for sure.

These self-justifications actually help preserve a positive self-image and keep our confidence solid, so that we can continue living our lives. It’s okay that we do this sometimes — lying to ourselves and justifying our actions — despite how unsavory it may seem. Just be careful not to rely too heavily on self-justification for the things you do wrong. Forfeiting all responsibility for the results of your actions can become equally as detrimental to your life.