From the opening of the third chapter of Jonathan Haidt’s brand-new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, which hit the stands last week. As you’ll see, for those interested in the human propensity for self-justification (and the problems that causes), it’s an absolute must-read:

On February 3, 2007, shortly before lunch, I discovered that I was a chronic liar. I was at home, writing a review article on moral psychology, when my wife, Jayne, walked by my desk. In passing, she asked me not to leave dirty dishes on the counter where she prepared our baby’s food. Her request was polite but its tone added a postscript: “As I have asked you a hundred times before.”

My mouth started moving before hers had stopped. Words came out. Those words linked themselves up to say something about the baby having woken up at the same time that our elderly dog barked to ask for a walk and I’m sorry but I just put my breakfast dishes down wherever I could. In my family, caring for a hungry baby and an incontinent dog is a surefire case, so I was acquitted.

Jayne left the room and I continued working. I was writing about the three basic principles of moral psychology. The first principle is Intuitions come first, Strategic reasoning second. That’s a six-word summary of the social intuitionist model…

So there I was at my desk, writing about how people automatically fabricate justifications of their gut feelings, when suddenly I realized that I had just done the same thing with my wife. I disliked being criticized, and I had felt a flash of negativity by the time Jayne had gotten to her third word (“Can you not…”). Even before I knew why she was criticizing me, I knew I disagreed with her (because intuitions come first). The instant I knew the content of the criticism (“…leave dirty dishes on the…”), my inner lawyer went to work searching for an excuse (strategic reasoning second). It’s true that I had eaten breakfast, given Max his first bottle, and let Andy out for his first walk, but these events had all happened at separate times. Only when my wife criticized me did I merge them into a composite image of a harried father with too few hands, and I created this fabrication by the time she had completed her one-sentence criticism (“…counter where I make baby food?”). I then lied so quickly and convincingly that my wife and I both believed me.

I had long teased my wife for altering stories to make them more dramatic when she told them to friends, but it took twenty years of studying moral psychology to see that I altered my stories too. I finally understood–not just cerebrally but intuitively and with an open heart–the admonitions of sages from so many eras and cultures warning us against self-righteousness. I’ve already quoted Jesus [in the introduction, Matthew 7:3-5]:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”