Writer’s Wednesday: Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
This week I’ve been reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, an absolutely amazing book, which everyone should be acquired to read.
The book deals with the issue of self-justification, and the role it plays in all of our lives, from such “minor” issues as arguments within a relationship, to bullying, prejudicialness, torture, fraud etc.
Written by two psychologist, the book is backed by research as well as real life cases and examples. It’s easy to read, incredibly thought-provoking and it deals with such an important topic, which affects us all.
“We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”
– George Orwell (1946)
“For example, Elliot predicted that if people go through a great deal of pain, discomfort, effort, or embarrassment to get something, they will be happier with that “something” than if it came to them easily. For behaviorists this was a preposterous prediction. Why would people like anything associated with pain? But for Elliot, the answer was obvious: self-justification. The cognition that I am a sensible, competent person is dissonant with the cognition that I went through a painful procedure to achieve something – say, joining a group that turned out to be boring and worthless. Therefore, I would distort my perceptions of the group in a positive direction, trying to find good things about them and ignoring the downside.”
“Venting is especially likely to backfire if a person commits an aggressive act against another person directly, which is exactly what cognitive dissonance theory would predict. When you do anything that harms someone else – get them in trouble, verbally abuse them or punch them out – a powerful new factor comes into play: the need to justify what you did. Take a boy who goes along with a group of his fellow seventh graders who are taunting and bullying a weaker kid who did them no harm. The boy likes being part of the gang but his heart really isn’t in the bullying. Later, he feels some dissonance about what he did. “How can a decent kid like me,” he wonders, “have done such a cruel thing to a nice, innocent little kid like him?” To reduce dissonance, he will try to convince himself that the victim is neither nice nor innocent: “He is such a nerd and cry-baby. Besides, he would have done the same to me if he had the chance.” Once the boy starts down the path of blaming the victim, he becomes more likely to beat up on the victim with even greater ferocity the next chance he gets. Justifying his first hurtful act sets the stage for more aggression. That’s why the catharsis hypothesis is wrong.”
“Our convictions about who we are carry us through the day, and we are constantly interpreting the things that happen to us through the filter of those core beliefs. When they are violated, even by a good experience, it causes us discomfort. An appreciation of the power of self-justification helps us understand, therefore, why people who have low self-esteem, or who simply believe that they are incompetent in some domain, are not totally overjoyed when they do something well; why, on the contrary, they often feel like frauds. If the woman who believes she is unlovable meets a terrified guy who starts pursuing her seriously, she will feel momentarily pleased, but that pleasure is likely to be tarnished by a rush of dissonance: “What does he see in me?” Her resolution is unlikely to be “How nice; I must be more appealing than I thought I was.” More likely, it will be “As soon as he discovers the real me, he’ll dump me.” She will pay a high psychological price to have that consonance restored.”
“The Milgram experiment shows us how ordinary people can end up doing immoral and harmful things through a chain reaction of behavior and subsequent self-justification. When we, as observers, look at them in puzzlement or dismay, we fail to realize that we are often looking at the end of a long, slow process down that pyramid. At his sentencing, Magruder said to Judge John Sirica: “I know what I have done, and Your Honor knows what I have done. Somewhere between my ambition and my ideals, I lost my ethical compass.” How do you get an honest man to lose his ethical compass? You get him to take one step at a time, and self-justification will do the rest.”
“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. In a sense, dissonance theory is a theory of blind spots – of how and why people unintentionally blind themselves so that they fail to notice vital events and information that might make them question their behavior or their convictions. Along with the confirmation bias, the brain comes packaged with other self-serving habits that allow us to justify our own perceptions and beliefs as being accurate, realistic, and unbiased. Social psychologist Lee Ross calls this phenomenon “naïve realism,” the inescapable conviction that we perceive objects and events clearly, “as they really are.” We assume that other reasonable people see things the same way we do. If they disagree with us, they obviously aren’t seeing 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.”
“As fallible human beings, all of us share the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for any actions that turn out to be harmful, immoral, or stupid. … Most people when directly confronted with proof that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously.”
“Just as we can identify hypocrisy in everyone but ourselves, just as it’s obvious that others can be influenced by money but not ourselves, so we can see prejudices in everyone else but ourselves. Thanks to our ego-preserving blind spots, we cannot possibly have a prejudice, which is an irrational or mean-spirited feeling about all members of another group. Because are are not irrational or mean-spirited, any negative feelings we have about another group are justified; our dislikes are rational and well founded. It’s theirs we need to suppress. Like the Hasids pounding on the Unprejudiced door at the Museum of Tolerance, we are blind to our own prejudices.”
“When two people produce entirely different memories of the same event, observers usually assume that one of them is lying. Of course, some people do invent or embellish stories to manipulate or deceive their audiences, as James Frey notably did with his bestseller A Million Little Pieces. But most of us, most of the time, are neither telling the whole truth nor intentionally deceiving. We aren’t lying; we are self-justifying. All of us, as we tell our stories, add details and omit inconvenient facts; we give the tale a small, self-enhancing spin; that spin goes over so well that the next time we add a slightly more dramatic embellishment; we justify that little white lie as making the story better and clearer – until what we remember may not have happened that way, or even may not have happened at all.”
“False memories allow us to forgive ourselves and justify our mistakes, but sometimes at a high price: an inability to take responsibility for our lives. An appreciation of the distortions of memory, a realization that even deeply felt memories might be wrong, might encourage people to hold their memories more lightly, to drop the certainty that their memories are always accurate, and to let go of the appealing impulse to use the past to justify problems of the present. If we are to be careful about what we wish for because it might come true, we must also be careful which memories we select to justify our lives, because than we will have to live by them.”
“For any theory to be scientific, it must be stated in such a way that it can be shown to be false as well as true. If every outcome confirms your hypotheses that all men unconsciously suffer from castration anxiety; or that intelligent design, rather than evolution, accounts for the diversity of species; or that your favourite psychic would accurately have predicted 9/11 if only she hadn’t been taking a shower that morning; or that all dolphins are kind to humans, your beliefs are a matter of faith, not science.”
“Our implicit theories of why we and other people behave as we do come in one of two versions. We can say it’s because of something in the situation or environment: “The bank teller snapped at me because she is overworked today; there aren’t enough tellers to handle these lines.” Or we can say it’s because something is wrong with the person: “That teller snapped at me because she is plain rude.” When we explain our own behavior, self-justification allows us to flatter ourselves: We give ourselves credit for our good actions but let the situation excuse the bad ones. When we do something that hurts another, for example, we rarely say, “I behaved this way because I am a cruel and heartless human being.” We say, “I was provoked; anyone would do what I did”; or “I had no choice”; or “Yes, I said some awful things, but that wasn’t me – it’s because I was drunk.” Yet when we do something generous, helpful, or brave, we don’t say we did it because we were provoked or drunk or had no choice, or because the guy on the phone guilt-induced us into donating to charity. We did it because we are generous and open-hearted.”
“Did Charles Graner and Lynndie England know what they were doing, let alone believe they were “doing evil” while they were deliberately inflicting pain and humiliation on their Iraqi prisoners and then laughing at them? No, they didn’t, and that is why Amos Oz is wrong. Oz didn’t reckon with the power of self-justification: We are good people. Therefore, if we deliberately inflict pain on another, the other must have deserved it. Therefore, we are not doing evil, quite the contrary. We are doing good. The relatively small percentage of people who cannot or will not reduce dissonance this way pay a large psychological price in guilt, anguish, anxiety, nightmares, and sleepless nights. The pain of living with horrors they have committed, but cannot morally accept, would be searing, which is why most people will reach for any justification available to assuage the dissonance. In the previous chapter, we saw on a smaller scale why many divorcing couples justify the hurt they inflict on each other. In the horrifying calculus of self-deception, the greater the pain we inflict on others, the greater the need to justify it to maintain our feelings of decency and self-worth. Because our victims deserved what they got, we hate them even more than we did before we harmed them, which in turn makes us inflict even more pain on them.”
“But what are we supposed to do in our everyday lives? Call an external review board of cousins and in-laws to adjudicate every family quarrel? Videotape all parental interrogations of their teenagers? In our private relationships, we are on our own, and that calls for some self-awareness. Once we understand how and when we need to reduce dissonance, we can become more vigilant about the process and often nip it in the bud; like Oprah, we can catch ourselves before we slide too far down the pyramid. By looking at our actions critically and dispassionately, as if we were observing someone else, we stand a chance of bring out of the cycle of action followed by self-justification, followed by more committed action. We can learn to put a little space between what we feel and how we respond, insert a moment of reflection, and think about whether we really want to buy that canoe in January, really want to send good money after bad, really want to hold on to a belief that is unfettered by facts. We might even change our minds before our brains freeze our thoughts into consistent patterns.”
“Humbling yes, but ultimately that’s the point. Understanding how the mind yearns for consonance, and rejects information that questions our beliefs, decisions, or preferences, teaches us to be open to the possibility of error. It also helps us let go of the need to be right. Confidence is a fine and useful quality; none of us would want a physician who was forever wallowing in uncertainty and couldn’t decide how to treat our illness, but we do want one who is open-minded and willing to learn. Nor would most of us wish to live without passions or convictions, which give our lives meaning and color, energy and hope. When confidence and convictions are unleavened by humility, by an acceptance of fallibility, people can easily cross the line from healthy self-assurance to arrogance. In this book, we have met many who crossed that line: the psychiatrists who are certain that they can tell if a recovered memory is valid; the physicians and judges who are certain that they are above conflicts of interest; the police officers who are certain that they can tell if a suspect is lying; the prosecutors who are certain that they convicted the guilty party; the husbands and wives who are certain that their interpretation of events is the right one; the nations who are certain that their version of history is the only one.”
“Most Americans know they are supposed to say “we learn from our mistakes,” but deep down, they don’t believe it for a minute. They think that mistakes mean you are stupid. Combined with the culture’s famous amnesia for anything that happened more than a month ago, this attitude means that people treat mistakes like hot potatoes, eager to get rid of them as fast as possible, even if they have to toss them in someone else’s lap.”