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47 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great overview of cognitive dissonance, August 14, 2007
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This review is from: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (Hardcover)
Ready for a whirlwind tour through time and space, from the Crusades and the Holocaust to the war in Iraq, from recovered memories and the fallacies of clinical judgment to false confessions, wrongful convictions, and failed marriages? Then this is the book for you.

What ties these disparate topics together, according to tour guides Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, is the notion of "cognitive dissonance," which has been creeping into popular awareness in recent years. Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling created when you experience a conflict between your behavior and your beliefs, most specifically about who you are as a person. ("I'm a good person, I couldn't do this bad thing.") To reduce dissonance, people engage in a variety of cognitive maneuvers, including self-serving justifications and confirmation bias (paying attention to information that confirms our beliefs while discounting contrary data).

Tavris and Aronson, both top social psychologists and excellent writers to boot, make their point through the repeated use of a pyramid image. Two people can be standing at the top an imaginary pyramid and can undergo the same dissonance-inducing experience. Person A processes the experience accurately, which leads him down one side of the pyramid. Person B engages in a series of defensive maneuvers to reduce cognitive dissonance that eventually lands him at the opposite side of the pyramid. Once at these opposite poles, the two can no longer recognize their initial similarities, and see each other as unfathomable and even dangerous. A particularly compelling, real-life example is two men who experienced a terrifying episode of sleep paralysis in which they saw demons attacking them. One recognized it for what it was; the other became convinced that he had been abducted by aliens and had even fathered a set of twins with an alien partner.

The book could have been called, "Cognitive Dissonance: What It Is and How to Combat It," but then it wouldn't be selling like hotcakes. It provides a thorough overview of the social psychology research on this topic, much of it quite interesting and all of it engagingly presented.

The authors conclude by offering suggestions for reducing the impact of cognitive dissonance on individuals and cultures. One remedy is greater oversight, such as mandatory videotaping of all police interviews of suspects, independent commissions to investigate prosecutorial misconduct, and greater transparency in the academic review process. Another is attention to Americans' cultural fear of making mistakes. Intelligence is acquired, not innate, the authors argue, and mistakes are a necessary part of learning. I particularly enjoyed their examples of prominent individuals who forthrightly owned up to mistakes, including a therapist who had engaged in recovered memory treatment, a prosecutor who had obtained the conviction of an innocent man, and - last but not least - Oprah Winfrey.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 7, 2008 6:06:04 AM PDT
Karen,

And excellent review. Thanks

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 7, 2008 9:51:22 AM PDT
Dear Mr. Calhoun,

Thanks for the kind feedback.

- Karen
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