“Mistakes Were Made”: But Don’t Expect Admissions

Armed with reams of scientific data and loads of real-world anecdotes, Tavris and Aronson explain how politicians, pundits, doctors, lawyers, psychotherapists–and oh yes, the rest of us–come to believe that we are right and reasonable…and why we maintain that dangerous self-deception in the face of glaring evidence to the contrary. Every page sparkles with sharp insight and keen observation. Mistakes were made–but not in this book! Psychologist Daniel Gilbert, reviewing Mistakes Were Made by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

In the always relevant 2007 Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson took on the topic of self-justification. The publisher blurbed, “When we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right—a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.”

Roger K. Miller, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, adds that in addition to cognitive dissonance, “pyramid of choice” is another central concept: “When we first deal with a mistake, we are at the top of the pyramid. As we create ever more elaborate fictions that absolve us and restore our sense of self-worth and thereby remove the dissonance, we descend step by step to the base.”

“The authors,” states Miller, “describe a whole toolbox of mental instruments with which we dig the hole deeper and deeper, among them:

  • Ethnocentricism: us against them, or us against those not us.
  • Confirmation bias: finding ways to distort or dismiss evidence that unconfirms our stance.
  • Internalizing beliefs: assuring ourselves that we have always felt a certain way, even when we make 180-degree turns.
  • Source confusion: not being able to distinguish what really happened from subsequent information that crept in from elsewhere…
  • Getting what you want by revising what you had: ‘mis-remembering, for instance, that your childhood was awful, thus distorting how far you have come, to feel better about yourself now’.”

Selected Quotes from Mistakes Were Made:

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 of us will never be in a position to make decisions affecting the lives and deaths of millions of people, but whether the consequences of our mistakes are trivial or tragic, on a small scale or a national canvas, most of us find it difficult, if not impossible, to say, ‘I was wrong; I made a terrible mistake.’ The higher the stakes — emotional, financial, moral — the greater the difficulty.

A president who justifies his actions to the public might be induced to change them. A president who justifies his actions to himself, believing that he has the truth, is impervious to self-correction.

When politicians’ backs are against the wall, they may reluctantly acknowledge error but not their responsibility for it. The phrase “mistakes were made” is such a glaring effort to absolve oneself of culpability that it has become a national joke—what the political journalist Bill Schneider called the “past exonerative” tense.

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.

Nothing predicts future behavior as much as past impunity.

Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification. 

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.

If mistakes were made, memory helps us remember that they were made by someone else.

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