I know I’m right, I must be right, I can’t be wrong
Posted on February 15, 2012
We all tend to rationalize decisions after the fact to convince ourselves that what we did was the best thing we could have done. In the end, we filter out evidence that conflicts with the decision we’ve made, leaving only the supporting evidence. This in turn leads to a kind of tunnel vision that forces the choice between denying our own rectitude or ceding to overwhelming evidence that contradicts our own beliefs. “Either the evidence was wrong or I was wrong. I’m a good person, so the evidence must be wrong.” So the sometimes faulty thinking goes.
Or, as psychologists would say, we seek to reduce cognitive dissonance in ingenious, self-deluding ways. We desire consistency when we internalize and act on our beliefs. This helps explain why we feel more satisfied with projects to which we devote great effort, time, and discomfort, i.e., when it doesn’t come easy to us. We tell ourselves, “I’m competent and would not waste my time on worthless endeavor.”
This cognitive mistake applies to us all, but especially to us lawyers. We devote hundreds of hours to our cases, clients and causes. We invest the best of our time and energy to what are often uncertain, occasionally unrewarding, endeavors. This is the inevitable nature of our agency responsibility to our clients and our advocacy for their lawful causes. But this surely enhances the already present risk of self-justification.
The risk of self-justification may be higher still. Lawyers don’t seek merely to explain events and outcomes, but also to justify them. Indeed, the lawyer’s art is justificatory through and through. The best lawyers are those adept at justifying their preferred position by mixing logic, emotional resonance, and moral storytelling. That mixture makes us particularly susceptible to all manner of high minded self–justification, the practice of composing the most personally satisfying, ego-driven rationalization of our decisions, our client’s behavior, and the outcome we achieve or fail to achieve.
Counseling ourselves against becoming overly attached to our arguments is only half the battle, because the adversarial nature of much law practice once again pits the emotional desire to justify our roles (and our client’s) against the goal of rational, law-like resolution of controversies. The internalized notion that we are a system governed by law and not the caprice or whimsy of lawmakers is central to this vision of law as rational, predictable, orderly. It is a worthy ideal. But it is also largely illusory, if brain science is to be trusted.
For example, our emphasis on procedure presupposes a predictable, ordered world that can be controlled – and we can control it. We thus feel threatened when our experience fails to conform to this unspoken assumption. To resolve the threat, we rationalize our behaviors and thinking to preserve our sometimes false sense of procedure, order, and predictability.
Likewise, the law’s focus on objectivity in legal analysis valorizes abstraction and rationality in self-serving ways. What’s more, objectivity as a cast of mind can be isolating, dehumanizing. We may rebel against this objectification by clinging more fervently to the very arguments and beliefs that alienate us in the first instance. In effect, we over-identify with objectivity and procedural order. At the same time, we risk over-identifying with our clients or the arguments we make in their behalf. These two ways of identifying ourselves can and do conflict, thus enhancing the need to self-justify.
In the same vein, the law’s most popular symbol of lady justice with her scales and sword embolden the self-justificatory spirit, promoting a warrior-like, adversarial demeanor that is much at odds with the presumed objectivity of law. By internalizing this combatant mentality, we further incline ourselves toward self-justification, especially of the overly-aggressive and pugnacious behavior varieties.
The solution to these psychological forces is by no means clear since lawyers are trained to think and behave in ways that reinforce the self-justificatory cast of mind. And for good reason: these outlooks can provide much needed stability, consistency and predicability to law, even when counterbalanced by a spirit of advocacy that at its best seeks compromise through healthy, respectful conflict. But left unchecked or unexamined these same forces further insulate us from the kind of introspection that might catch the warping urge to self-justification.
To counter this urge, seek multiple explanations from other trusted sources. Invite dissent. Invite criticism. Listen empathetically to the other side or the many sides to the conflict. Admit mistakes. Only through clear-eyed, humble acknowledgment of our mistakes can we learn. We become better by accepting our mistakes, not by self-justifying them. Let us begin by accepting our pervasive cognitive mistake of self-justification.