My interest in cognitive dissonance and self-justification, and the role they play in the attitudes that road users display towards all sorts of aspects of road use, including towards other road users and towards the rules of the road, was sparked by the incident I wrote about originally, involving a woman on a bike who did not stop to allow me to cross a pedestrian crossing. At the time I was enraged with her for not stopping, although her failure to do so barely inconvenienced me, only preventing me from crossing the road for a few seconds. It reminded me of the feelings I frequently have when I am driving and I’m stopped at red lights at an empty junction, when I see a cyclist blithely going past me, through the red light and across the junction. Why should that annoy me? It doesn’t delay me at all, as the cyclist has no effect on the timing of the lights, so I should barely notice it. But annoy me it does.
Self justification, and particularly internal justification, seem to me to play a big part in these feelings. Let’s look at the situation where the cyclist didn’t stop at the pedestrian crossing. Now, I am (I hope) a careful and considerate driver, and I always stop at pedestrian crossings when there is someone waiting to cross. Clearly, this causes me some small inconvenience, as it delays me a little, but it’s worth it for me to feel like a good driver, a responsible citizen and a nice person. Plus, in my own mind I am justified by the fact that I am obeying a Really Important Rule, even though all of these feelings arise from my own self-justification that the rule is Really Important. So what happens when I see someone breaking the rule as though it doesn’t matter, and not only breaking it, but getting away with breaking it without any apparent ill effect? I hold a belief in my own mind that the rule that drivers and cyclists should stop at a pedestrian crossing is a Really Important rule. This is important to me, because it prevents the cognitive dissonance that would arise if I felt the rule to be less important and therefore that, by obeying it, I was being a bit of a fool, a bit of a sucker, allowing other people to hold me up and therefore giving them my valuable time when I didn’t have to. Faced with the fact that it may not be Really Important, because I can see someone else breaking it and getting away with it, and what’s more, leaving me out of pocket on the time front, since I have been delayed to save her time and effort, what choices does that leave me in order to relieve the cognitive dissonance that results?
Well, I could change my actions, and decide that stopping at pedestrian crossings is a mug’s game, and that I’m not going to do it any more. The trouble with this is that my behaviour in stopping at pedestrian crossings is the result of a very deeply held belief personal belief about myself as a good person, which, when I am in my car, requires me to drive in a certain way, the way I believe a good person would drive. So changing my behaviour will also result in cognitive dissonance. It would also, incidentally, conflict with another personal belief about the stress levels that result from always rushing from place to place, trying to win out over other people, and the negative effect that such behaviour has on me. Nope, changing my behaviour is going to be pretty damn challenging. In any in any event, I don’t have any motivation to do so, because there is a much simpler method of reducing my cognitive dissonance to hand. Now, here I should point out that despite intensive research (aka “spending ten minutes Googling”) I haven’t been able to find anything on t’internet that supports this next hypothesis. So this is just my own idea, and I can’t cite any research to support it.