Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts
Tavris, Carol, and Elliot Aronson. 2008. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Reprint. Mariner Books.
In my opinion, one of the most fascinating domains of social scientific inquiry is social psychology – the intersection between social forces and individual behavior. Social psychologists study the affect of society on the individual, and, in the process, they have discovered some remarkable things about human behavior. This book documents some of those amazing findings.
My only major criticism of the book is that there is no clear organizational framework. It’s almost as if the authors said, “Hmm… These social psychological ideas are interesting. Let’s write a book and simply roll some dice as to the order of the chapters.” Other than the lack of organization, the book is actually quite well-written, with lucid examples and great stories. You’ll see as I describe some of the more fascinating ideas examined in the book that there doesn’t really seem to be a framework for the discussion of these ideas.
The basic idea that underlies the book is that humans suffer from cognitive dissonance, which is the result of self-justification. Our desire to justify our behavior is far more powerful than most of us realize. In fact, most of us find it next to impossible to admit that we are wrong or that we have made a mistake. In fact, when confronted with evidence that we have made a mistake, most of us don’t admit it but actually become even more dogmatic in our self-justifications (p. 2). Why do we do this? Self-justification is actually very healthy in one sense: it allows us to sleep at night and not fret about the decisions we’ve made (pp. 9-10). If we were honest with ourselves and the mistakes we’ve made, we’d spend all of our time torturing ourselves over our stupidity (pause to think about this for a second and you’d realize it’s true; just think about all the mistakes you made yesterday…).
So, self-justification is healthy in one sense. But it’s also very, very dangerous. Why? Because self-justification prevents us from seeing our errors, admitting our errors, and correcting our errors (pp. 9-10). Rather than admit that we are wrong or that we made a mistake, we tend to want to self-justify in order to maintain a positive self-concept. We prefer, “I’m a good person and I do good things” over “I’m an average person who is susceptible to major blunders and serious mistakes.” And, in fact, the first is generally healthier as it prevents immobilizing rumination; but the second leads to progress, growth, and improvement.
As noted above, self-justification is the underlying cause of cognitive dissonance. “Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it.” (p. 13). Understanding cognitive dissonance helps explain a lot of human behavior. For instance, it explains why we are so resistant to accepting new ideas – they suggest that our current ideas are wrong or outdated, which would suggest that we are wrong or outdated and accepting that means we aren’t the “good people” we want to believe we are. So, rather than accept ideas that are better supported by evidence, logic, or reason, we tend to dismiss them if they do not align with our current views (p. 18). These mental gymnastics are called “confirmation bias,” or the tendency to accept evidence that supports our views while dismissing evidence that disconfirms our views.
Having set up the social psychological phenomena of interest, the book now turns to practical implications of these phenomena. It’s at this point that the sense of organization kind of disappears. The information is profound, but there’s no rhyme or reason to how it is presented. Anyway, here are some of the really cool insights…
One way to save yourself money – don’t ever ask someone who just bought something you’re considering buying their opinion of it (p. 22). Why? Because they are in a process of self-justification, particularly if the purchase was costly and they can’t undo it. In practical terms, that means they are trying to convince themselves they’ve done the right thing, which means they’ll try to convince you they have as well. So, while it may seem like the person to ask about a purchase is someone who just made it, that person is generally not going to provide you with good feedback because they are justifying their purchase to themselves. (Note: I just did this with our new cell phones. Admittedly I am impressed, but I’m sure some of that is justification of the cost.) Who should you ask, then? Ask someone who is considering buying what you’re looking at – they are still open-minded and are considering the evidence more objectively (p. 23).
The authors describe another social psychological phenomenon that most readers will likely recognize from your everyday interactions, though not by name the social psychological name: “naïve realism.” Naïve realism is “the inescapable conviction that we perceive objects and events clearly” (p. 42). As a result, we believe any other “reasonable” person will perceive things the same way we do, and that if they don’t, it’s because they aren’t seeing things clearly. “Naïve realism creates a logical labyrinth because it presupposes two things: One, people who are open-minded and fair ought to agree with a reasonable opinion. And two, any opinion I hold must be reasonable; if it weren’t, I wouldn’t hold it. Therefore, if I can just get my opponents to sit down here and listen to me, so I can tell them how things really are, they will agree with me. And if they don’t, it must be because they are biased.” (p. 42). What are the authors saying here? They’re saying that it is possible that: (A) You’re the one who is holding the unreasonable position, or (B) two reasonable people can have competing understandings of the same events. Now that is hard to admit!
The authors make note of another implication of self-justification that I discuss regularly in my classes: privilege. “When affluent people speak of the underprivileged, they rarely bless their lucky stars that they are privileged, let alone consider that they might be overprivileged. Privilege is their blind spot. It is invisible; they don’t think twice about it; they justify their social position as something they are entitled to. In one way or another, all of us are blind to whatever privileges life has handed us, even if those privileges are temporary. Most people who normally fly in what is euphemistically called the “main cabin” regard the privileged people in business and first class as wasteful snobs, if enviable ones. Imagine paying all that extra money for a short, six-hour flight! But as soon as they are the ones paying for a business seat or are upgraded, that attitude vanishes, replaced by a self-justifying mixture of pity and disdain for their fellow passengers, forlornly trooping past them into steerage.” (p. 44). Self-justification prevents us from seeing the social structure of society that leads to both affluence and poverty; we like to believe that we are responsible for our successes, but not for our failures. However, we don’t allow others the same opportunity for self-justification. We fall prey to the fundamental attribution error (which, for some reason, the authors don’t mention by name): We blame other people’s mistakes on them being bad people, but never accept responsibility for our own mistakes; we attribute our mistakes to social forces outside our control. Thus, the thinking is, “Poor people ARE responsible for their position in life. They obviously aren’t: working hard enough, living righteously, etc.” The reality is that, just like you, their social position is largely outside of their control due to largely immutable social structures. But self-justification prevents us from seeing those social structures.
In a great illustration of the power of self-justification, the authors note that our very memories change based on our ability to justify our behaviors and beliefs. “Social psychologist Anthony Greenwald once described the self as being ruled by a “totalitarian ego” that ruthlessly destroys information it doesn’t want to hear and, like all fascist leaders, rewrites history from the standpoint of the victor. But whereas a totalitarian ruler rewrites history to put one over on future generations, the totalitarian ego rewrites history to put one over on itself.” (p. 70). To drive this point home, the authors summarize the findings of another study, “Just as our current feelings about our parents shape our memories of how they treated us, our current self-concepts affect memories of our own lives. In 1962, Daniel Offer, then a young resident in psychiatry, and his colleagues interviewed 73 fourteen-year-old boys about their home lives, sexuality, religion, parents, parental discipline, and other emotionally charged topics. Offer and his colleagues were able to reinterview almost all these fellows thirty-four years later, when they were forty-eight years old, to ask them what they remembered of their adolescence. “Remarkably,” the researchers concluded, “the men’s ability to guess what they had said about themselves in adolescence was no better than chance.” Most of those who remembered themselves as having been bold, outgoing teenagers, had, at age fourteen, described themselves as shy. Having lived through the sexual revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, the men recalled themselves as having been much more liberal and adventurous sexually as teenagers than they really had been. Nearly half remembered that as teenagers they believed that having sexual intercourse as high-school students was okay, but only 15 percent of them actually felt that way when they were fourteen. The men’s current self-concepts blurred their memories, bringing their past selves into harmony with their present ones.” (p. 78). Think about this in relation to your own life: A large part of what you “remember” is actually not true, but a recreation of your youth based upon how you think about yourself now. It’s unnerving to realize that is the case, but it’s true!
Some of the more disturbing implications of self-justification are addressed in detail. For instance, police officers and crime victims can be deceived by self-justification to the point that they will convict innocent people of crimes they did not commit simply because they arrived at the conclusion that an initial suspect was the guilty party. This ability is so powerful that, even when confronted with incontrovertible evidence – including admissions of guilt by the actual perpetrator – police officers and crime victims still believe it is the innocent person.
Another disturbing implication was the wave of “recovered memories” that blew through the U.S. in the 1990s. Most of these “recovered memories” included harrowing experiences of sexual abuse of children, yet almost all of these claimed “recovered memories” were found to be fabricated. “Why would people claim to remember that they had suffered harrowing experiences if they hadn’t, especially when that belief causes rifts with families or friends? By distorting their memories, these people can “get what they want by revising what they had,” and what they want is to turn their present lives, no matter how bleak or mundane, into a dazzling victory over adversity. Memories of abuse also help them resolve the dissonance between “I am a smart, capable person” and “My life sure is a mess right now” with an explanation that makes them feel good and removes responsibility: “It’s not my fault my life is a mess.” (p. 94). Self-justification can ruin lives! (Oh, and just an FYI, the authors note that people don’t repress traumatic events – the scientific evidence at this point suggests that simply doesn’t happen; p. 112).
To me, some of the most fascinating findings are actually practical bits of advice for couples. If you want your relationship to succeed, avoid or minimize self-justification. Most fights between couples are the result of self-justification, “Before the couple realizes it, they have taken up polarized positions, each feeling right and righteous. Self-justification will then cause their hearts to harden against the entreaties of empathy.” (p. 161). The keys to a happy relationship? The authors suggest two: First, couples need to be able and willing to see the other person’s perspective. Relationships mired in self-justification won’t survive because the other person is seen only as a bad person, not as someone who is also trying to self-justify (p. 180). Second, couples need to have at least a 5-to-1 positive to negative interaction ratio (p. 173). The authors note that for positives to outweigh negatives in a relationship, you have to have at least 5 times more positive interactions than negative ones, or the negative interactions begin to consume the relationship – that’s how powerful negative interactions are.
The authors also note that retaliation is never at the same level as the initial slight – it’s always more severe. This appears to be hard-wired into us. Whenever we experience a slight that causes us pain, we interpret that pain is far more intense than it actually is. As a result, if we decide to retaliate, we always do so at a much higher level (p. 192). The practical implication is that retaliation should be avoided; turning the other cheek is really the only sensible response unless you want an unending cycle of escalation.
Finally, the authors note that self-justification is bolstered by high self-esteem: people with the highest self-esteems are actually the most brutal perpetrators of violence (p. 200. Why? Because they CAN’T be wrong. They are so convinced they are right that any action they take must be justified. Most brutal dictators fall into this category – they have very high self-esteems and believe they were doing good when they murdered their political enemies (p. 205).
Given the clear problem with self-justification, what do the authors suggest as a possible solution? “Given that everyone has some blind spots, our greatest hope of self-correction lies in making sure we are not operating in a hall of mirrors, in which all we see are distorted reflections of our own desires and convictions. We need a few trusted naysayers in our lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of self-justifications and yank us back to reality if we veer too far off. This is especially important for people in positions of power.” (p. 66). In other words, that annoying friend or relative who periodically suggests that you may be wrong… Yeah, they may be on to something.
Overall, this is a profound book with fascinating insights into human behavior. While the organization of the book is problematic, the writing is lucid and compelling. But more importantly, the authors offer insights into everyday human behavior that are both awe-inspiring and disturbing. Understanding the basic arguments may not be that difficult, but putting that understanding into practice… Well… That’s the challenge.