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Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts Paperback – October 20, 2015
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From the Back Cover
Why is it so hard to say I made a mistakeand really believe it?
When we make mistakes, cling to outdated attitudes, or mistreat other people, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so, unconsciously, we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and righta belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong. Backed by years of research, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) offers a fascinating explanation of self-justificationhow it works, the damage it can cause, and how we can overcome it. This updated edition features new examples and concludes with an extended discussion of how we can live with dissonance, learn from it, and perhaps, eventually, forgive ourselves.
A revelatory study of how lovers, lawyers, doctors, politiciansand all of uspull the wool over our own eyes . . . Reading it, we recognize the behavior of our leaders, our loved ones, andif were honestourselves, and some of the more perplexing mysteries of human nature begin to seem a little clearer. Francine Prose, O, The Oprah Magazine
CAROL TAVRIS is a social psychologist, lecturer, and writer. Her books include Anger and The Mismeasure of Woman. She has written op-eds, reviews, and articles for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, and many other publications. She lives in Los Angeles.
ELLIOT ARONSON, one of the worlds most eminent social psychologists, has received numerous awards for his scientific research, teaching, and writing. His books include The Social Animal, Nobody Left to Hate, and his memoir, Not by Chance Alone. He lives in Santa Cruz, California.
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This book is so important, and if your head is crankable, then reading the book will crank your head 180 degrees toward "clarity of self-understanding." I think it should be mandatory periodic reading (let's say, maybe we pass a law that, to get your driver's license renewed, you have to read this book, cover to cover, and be somehow monitored while reading, and tested afterward. Crazy, I know, but we put a man on the moon... ; )
Seriously, every page, every section, every chapter, will have most people saying, "Whoa - holy jeez. This is me. Oh... I'm so ashamed... I'm so glad I found this...." ....while shaking your head, breaking quickly here and there, adding to your jot list of people you MUST buy copies for....
When you cut someone off in traffic, it was because there was ICE... but when someone cuts you off, he was a sorry piece of good-for-nothing &^*%# who can't DRIVE!!! // So it begins, and goes DEEP FAST. Get this and learn about yourself, and about those your live with, and read aloud to them! (Or... maybe not - maybe have them read for themselves.)
Worse, this pattern of backward justifying occurs for societies as well.
Plumbing the news, case studies and anecdotal accounts, they build a compelling case for how we never, ever seem capable of admitting culpability, much less acknowledging that we made an actual mistake.
Caught cheating on your partner? Clearly, she was withholding affections and any rational person would be forced to seek satisfaction elsewhere. Sent an innocent person to prison? They were probably guilty of something else so what’s the big deal. Invaded a country to seize nonexistent WMDs? Obviously, they moved them, and anyway, the real reason we invaded was to bring Democracy to freedom-starved people.
It’s a truly fascinating lens through which to consider challenges of interpersonal and political interactions, the limits of the justice system, the blind spots of the health care system, barriers to advancing scientific knowledge and much more.
Not only did I find this a revolutionary way to think about the world and my role and responsibility in it, they enhanced it with a strong, simple visual representation of how we can transition from relatively decent human being to a failure standing knee deep in scandal and flailing about for any justification, no matter how farfetched. They envision a pyramid atop which we stand — at the pinnacle, we are morally upright creatures with no pesky dissonance. At the base, way down at the bottom, is a swamp of moral decay. The journey from the top to the bottom is rarely a headlong much less intentional rush, but rather a series of tiny, almost imperceptibly small steps into ever-greyer territory. We ratchet up the balancing act to deal with the increasing dissonance, using retroactive justification and the sometime wholesale rewriting of history, until we are mired in our own moral waste and bewildered as to how we got there.
Political scandals, medical malpractice and divorce proceedings are all perfect examples. No one — well, hardly any one — enters noble careers thinking they will be cheats or act immorally, hide evidence that could free an innocent person or fudge results to preserve theories, etc., but a thousand tiny decisions reinforced by cultural and organizational pressures, begin luring them down the pyramid and, eventually, the gravity of their initially innocent actions pulls them irreversibly into the muck.
Likewise, the hatred and vitriol and vile unearthed in many divorces stand in stark contrast to the relatively happy memories of many relationships, at least early on when love and romance brought two people together. Where does it come from? They posit that cognitive dissonance is to blame, associated with trying to maintain a sense of individual exceptionalism in difficult circumstances. “I’m a good person and good people aren’t to blame for the dissolution of marriages. Therefore, my partner must be a terrible person. Now let me set about prospecting for memories that can back-justify that belief.” Down the pyramid they go.
It’s a frightening and liberating paradigm that, once articulated, seems 'unputbackable.' It cautions us to always think about the cognitions we hold, and how they might be shaping our actions and responses, and blinding us to better courses of action. It warns us to pause and reflect before we act. It underscores the need for oversight of and transparency into our systems and organizations to ensure those in positions of power aren’t inadvertently, blinded by dissonance and therefore acting against the best inters of society.
The book is a bit dated, at 7 years old, but the concepts are sound and important. I would love to see this topic addressed again with a more current treatment of advances in neuroscience. But short of that, given how strongly it resonated with me, and the solid, engaging writing style, I highly recommend.
This line captures the essence of the book well: “The brain is designed with blind spots, optical and psychological, and one of its cleverest tricks is to confer on us the comforting delusion that we, personally, do not have any.”