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How the Worst People Justify Their Bad Behavior

Understanding their self-deception can help you avoid their lies.

Key points

  • People with an aversive personality engage in a variety of aversive behaviors, even though they know they're in the wrong.
  • New research identifies the key traits that allow those with aversive personalities to find ways to defend their behavior.
  • Finding out how those with aversive personalities manage their self-deception can help you avoid becoming trapped by their lies.

When you think about the behavior of people who consistently cheat, lie, and otherwise swindle, do you ever wonder how they justify their unsavory actions? Although what they do may fall short of breaking the law, it clearly fails to live up to the type of moral or ethical standards that people are expected to adhere to in a civil society.

Perhaps you or your partner has an associate at work who’s developed a reputation for adding a few minutes every day to their time reports, managing to do so without the supervisor’s knowledge. They seem to take a certain pleasure in getting away with their ruse, caring less about the small amount they add to their take-home pay than about the fact that they continue to escape detection.

The small scam this individual is running may puzzle you, not only because of its pointlessness, but because you wonder how they manage to see themselves in any kind of favorable light at all. Consider people whose behavior goes even further away from the norms of common decency. There must be some internal reckoning they engage in that allows them to live with themselves despite violating ordinary social standards and expectations.

Aversive Personality and Self-Justification

According to University of Koblenz-Landau psychologist Benjamin Hilbig and colleagues (2022), such deviations from the norms of society reflect the constellation of traits known as the “aversive” personality. Driven by a core of “D,” or Dark Triad traits, people with an aversive personality not only engage in manipulative, psychopathic, and exploitative behaviors but also maintain a set of beliefs that allows them to see themselves simultaneously as moral even as they engage in immoral actions.

This summary, in the words of the authors, can help you understand the nature of the aversive personality and its relationship to D: “D is the general tendency from which all aversive traits essentially arise as specific, flavored manifestations, in turn predicting diverse behaviors that represent utility maximization at others’ expense.” Justifying beliefs, Hilbig et al. maintain, should be seen as an “inherent part” of this broad personality trait.

Turning to the justification piece of the aversive personality, the German researchers point to the long-held view in psychology that people strive to see themselves in a positive light. This means that the average person will engage in at least some mental manipulation in order to bring their favorable self-image in sync with what they do, namely the need for “moral identity.”

Think about a time when you were in the wrong while engaged in a heated argument with someone you care about. In the back of your mind, you know you are being unreasonable. If you're going to keep thinking that you weren't at fault, you might have to go through a bit of rewriting history so that you don’t change your view of yourself as a rational person. Now put yourself in the place of the thieving coworker and imagine what would be needed to reconcile that behavior with an identity as a moral individual.

The Aversive Personality Enters the Laboratory

Across a set of six studies involving more than 25,000 online participants, Hilbig and his colleagues sought to put together a picture of how people high in D construct the self-justifications that allow their aversive behavior to continue.

The first question was whether people high in D would indeed engage in aversive behavior when given a chance. Across all experiments, this question was addressed by setting up simulations that presented participants with the opportunity to lie or take advantage of a purported other participant (simulated). Lying was measured by having participants report the frequency of winning a coin-toss task in which they were rewarded with cash. Statistically, the research team could compare the odds of an honest with a dishonest win. In another simulation, participants completed a “public goods” game in which they could contribute to a joint project or keep the money they had. In both situations, as predicted, people high in D were more likely to behave in aversive ways.

Now the question becomes how people high in D justified their behavior. One way to test these justifications is through what’s called the “World Value Survey” ( The researchers administered this measure with a slight twist in the wording to allow them to assess self-justifications for immoral behavior, as follows:

Is it justifiable to:

  1. claim government benefits to which you are not entitled?
  2. Avoid a fare on public transport?
  3. Steal property?
  4. Cheat on taxes if you have a chance?
  5. Accept a bribe in the course of one’s duties?
  6. Be violent against other people?

How did you score on this measure? How about, as was asked in one of the studies, whether you would engage in this behavior if you had the chance?

Even more to the point, Hilbig et al. also asked participants who either lied about the coin toss or took advantage of their partner in the public good games to say why they did so. For these experiments, the authors used what they call “belief-based justifications” regarding the aversive behavior.

The authors predicted that people with aversive personalities don’t just use one all-purpose justification, but instead tailor their belief to the situation. They tested this by having participants complete scales tapping into 11 specific beliefs such as the “competitive social jungle” view that “You know that most people are out to ‘screw’ you, so you have to get them first when you get the chance.” Another specific belief was “sensitivity to befallen justice,” such as “I am taken advantage of by others.” Cynicism, a trait that can also represent a belief, was tapped with items such as “Most people would tell a lie if they could gain by it.”

The findings supported the Hilbig et al. predictive model in which scores on D combined with scores on the various subjective belief scales (depending on condition) provided stronger prediction of actual aversive behavior than did trait D scores alone. As such, the authors concluded that “thought—a sometimes neglected pillar of personality traits…essentially functions as an accelerator or inhibitor on dispositional behavioral tendencies.”

Getting Around the Self-Justifications of the Aversive Personality

We now know that the way people respond to a personality trait measure isn’t enough to predict whether they’ll cheat or take advantage of others. They also finagle a positive interpretation of their behavior, particularly if they take a dim view of the morality of others, which allows them to keep them going without having to see anything wrong with what they do.

For the aversive person in your life, then, you have a choice. You can try staying away so that you don’t become part of this pattern of self-justifying thoughts in which they see you as out to get them. Or, if you care about this individual, you can consider inserting yourself into the chain of events that allows them to perform their mental gymnastics. They think, as the study showed, that other people will cheat and lie so it’s okay (and advisable!) to do so themselves. Show that you aren’t out to get them and hope that, over time, they’ll eventually realize that you—and maybe others—can be trusted to be honest.

To sum up, the Hilbig et al. study provided an important theoretical contribution to the personality literature by highlighting the role of thoughts as directors of behavior. The study also emphasizes the need that people have to see themselves in a positive light, even if their behavior doesn’t deserve this favorable interpretation. Fulfillment in life depends on having a robust self-image, and the more consistent this image is with behavior, the greater the chances of maintaining that fulfillment over the long term.

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Hilbig, B. E., Moshagen, M., Thielmann, I., & Zettler, I. (2022, June 16). Making Rights From Wrongs: The Crucial Role of Beliefs and Justifications for the Expression of Aversive Personality. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication.

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