How "Aintegration" Helps Your Brain Rationalize Good People Doing Bad Things

Is there someone from your past — a friend or maybe an ex — who wronged you in some way? Human beings typically find ways to justify or rationalize nice people who make bad choices, because our brains absolutely hate when situations contradict each other. But there is a process whereby we're able to live with the fact that the two can co-exist. The word "aintegration" refers to the ability to accept that good people can do bad things, two conflicting realities that we would otherwise try to manipulate to fit together peacefully.

It's a common human reaction that most of us can relate to: A special person in your life does something negative seemingly out of character, and you have two options: You can either consider that maybe your judgment of that person wasn't accurate, or you downplay how serious the situation is. Many of us go with the latter of the two, because human beings hate the cognitive dissonance that otherwise occurs. Cognitive dissonance refers to the feeling of discomfort you get from situations that leave you with conflicting attitudes; and we'll go to great lengths to avoid these feelings of doubt and uncertainty. I'm totally guilty of this, as my mind can't stand it when certain things don't line up.

But in a new paper published in the Journal of Adult Development, some of us definitely possess the ability to handle these inconsistencies and contradictions without feeling discomfort — a term they've coined "aintegration." The researchers were even able to zero in on people who are likely to be more skilled in aintegration. In surveying hundreds of people, they explored the question of whether or not a relationship could still be good even if there are contradictory feelings between the two people; and, assuming there are contradictory feelings, how uncomfortable would these participants feel?

In their studies, the researchers found that participants who were older than middle-aged, highly educated, divorcees, and nonreligious generally had high aintegration skills. They similarly found that aintegration skills are negatively correlated with a person's need for structure. Another cool finding is that the better your aintegration skills are, the likelier you are to see negative life events as not only negative — another way of saying that these people are better able to find the silver lining in a bad situation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these people also reported experiencing less trauma after negative life events.

The next time you sense a bout of cognitive dissonance approaching, remember that mastering the skill of aintegration isn't about finding ways for two conflicting scenarios to play well together. It's about accepting that they don't play well together, and not letting that fact affect you in a cognitive or an emotional way.

As an example, in the case of a friend doing something mean behind your back that you found out about, you accept that either this person — who is generally good — simply made a bad choice in a weak moment, or maybe there's more to this person than you initially knew — negative things you should be aware of. Instead of dwelling on these contradicting thoughts, you make peace with them and move on.

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