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Monday, April 30, 2007

Mistakes Were Made

Tavris, Carol, and Elliot Aronson.
Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. I thought I knew all about self-justification, but no, my understanding didn't begin to account for the 90% of that iceberg, submerged and out of sight.

The introduction is titled Knaves, fools, Villains, and Hypocrites: How Do They Live with Themselves? The answer is-- the same way we do. They justify their actions.

When we make a mistake or do something foolish or hurtful, we experience cognitive dissonance. Since we think of ourselves as basically good people, when our behavior threatens our self-concept, we are almost compelled to justify our actions in order to reduce the dissonance. For most of us, our transgressions are relatively small, but what about those who have proceeded to much larger and more serious errors? How did they get there, if they really are decent people? Tavris and Aronson state it very simply: one step at a time. One lie can lead to another, and bigger, lie. One act of dishonesty can lead to another. If we justify the first, it is easier to justify the second. The individuals in the Milgram study began with small shocks and proceeded upwards. From ten volts to 450 volts. This study has always fascinated me, but Tavris and Aronson conclude that not only do we move toward bad/corrupt/cruel/foolish behavior one step at a time, but we also tend to blame our victims...they deserved it, they were stupid, they were stubborn. Because those individuals who were administering the "shocks" were decent people, they had to justify their willingness to "inflict" pain.

This is a fascinating book, and the authors take the reader through example after example, study after study. Why would a prosecuting attorney refuse to change his opinion after DNA proved that the accused was not guilty? Why can't psychologists, doctors, police, politicians, husbands, wives, teachers, students, bosses, employees... admit they made mistakes? What procedures and strategies are at work? The authors reveal the process, revealing how easy it is to compound and magnify our errors because we are so busy justifying our decisions.

From marital disagreements to war crimes, almost without exception individuals try to justify their behavior to ease cognitive dissonance. The latter part of the book concentrates on acknowledging mistakes rather than excusing them, being aware of the process and consequences of self-justification, keeping an open mind, and not "jumping to convictions."

There is way too much in this little book for me to cover, but I recommend it to anyone who enjoys psychological and sociological studies. Sometimes floored, sometimes angry, sometimes sad, sometimes amused, but always interested, I can only hope that I will be able to apply some of what I learned in my own life. This book was an Advanced Reader Copy, and my thanks, again, to Anna Suknov for sending it.

Nonfiction. Social psychology. 2007. 236 pages.


  1. This sounds like a fascinating book. I'm not sure I'd want to read it and be forced to abandon my self-justification techniques :)

  2. stefanie - I really enjoyed this one, and although a lot is common sense, the authors clarify the process.

    One thing (of many) that I didn't mention is why people stick to their original responses even when proven wrong.

    I will continue to self-justify, but hope to be more aware of it!

  3. Should this be required reading for every adult? Sounds like it. I'm ordering my copy tomorrow.

  4. It sounds like a book that I should read. The title is perfect!

  5. I definitely have to read this. Denial is fascinating to me. I have so many relatives who seem to prefer going through life never learning anything from their mistakes, always blaming anything but themselves.

  6. Sounds like one I have to read. Thanks for the review, Jenclair.

  7. I'm definitely familiar with the way denial can accelerate relationship breakdown. Thanks for the reading tip.

    BlueRectangle Books

  8. teabird - Not only for individuals, but as the book suggests, for executives, politicians, police, etc.!

    Cheya - Yes, the title does resonate, doesn't it? :)

    Dewey - The latter part of the book helps explain the benefits of taking responsibility for your mistakes...and the benefits are large!

    SFP - I love looking at the way our minds function!

    Sylvia - Yep, escalating self-defense!

  9. I agree with Teabird--this sounds like it should go on the "Required Reading for Grownups" list. And, like Dewey, denial is fascinating to me. I'm planning to read this one--thanks for the review!

  10. the book is on order at local libraries and my hold is already in! once more thanks for the head's up!

  11. I love the concept of cognative dissonance. It was one of my favorite topics in psychology class.

    BTW, I chose you as my "interesting participant" on Amy's scavenger hunt. I'll be visiting you often. :)

  12. Neata post..I love reading about new books

    thanks for signing up for the scavenger hunt...we are having a blast

  13. G. R. - I find myself thinking about it all the time as I make my excuses for avoiding things I need to do!

    kimy - Good on you! Hope you like it.

    M. M. - It is amazing the lengths to which we will go to reduce that dissonance! And Thanks!

    Amy - Lotsa book reviews here. :)

  14. Gosh! Desensitisation to the 'lies' you tell yourself. That's a new idea to me, and life suddenly seems a slippery slope!
    This review interests - especially as you say they do illustrate with studies, and not just anecdotal/case study evidence.

    I'm going to have to re-examine my sense of integrity now...

    You've almost persuaded me to pick up a book.

    Glad you're enjoying James Herriot - the books are delightful and I think I read them all many years ago, inspired by the charming BBC series. I often remind myself that life is full of those "big steps and little 'uns"

  15. This book sounds provoking, the kind that flushes the mind...I've added to my list.

    Also, wouldn't it be cool to have a t-shirt that read...Are you experiencing cognitive dissonance? or Is this a cognitive dissonant moment?

  16. That sounds like an interesting read, but I have a feeling it would horrify me. Still, it does sound fascinating. I'll go look it up. Thanks for the review!

  17. love Karoda's t-shirt idea! I came back over to add a comment - having read the reviews on Amazon now, I like your review much better.

    Is this self-justification by proxy?

  18. Karoda - I love the idea of the t-shirt!

    Bookfool - It does horrify you in places, but it is fascinating.

    ACey - Isn't the t-shirt idea great?