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Mistakes Were Made But Not by Me Why We Justify Foolish

Why do people dodge responsibility when things fall apart? Why the parade of public figures unable to own up when they screw up? Why the endless marital quarrels over who is right? Why can we see hypocrisy in others but not in ourselves? Are we all liars? Or do we really believe the stories we tell? Renowned social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson take a compelling look into how the brain is wired for self justification 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 Backed by years of research and delivered in lively energetic prose Mistakes Were Made But Not by Me offers a fascinating explanation of self deception how it works the harm it can cause and how we can overcome it


10 thoughts on “Mistakes Were Made But Not by Me Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts

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    I found this a remarkably challenging book to read There was a time when I thought psychology was an odd sort of discipline As someone who had studied physics for a while I couldn’t really bring myself to call it a science and as someone who studied philosophy I also felt it had failings on that score too My understanding of psychology was fairly limited but Freudian Jungian Behaviourist and god knows what other –isms all seemed to me to depend too much on a foundation that seemed much too arbitrary The books I’ve been reading lately on psychology however are much less ‘ideological’ and much scientificI’ve read this book in about three days – and that despite also having about four other books on the go at the same time This one pushed all the others I’ve started to the bottom of the list Like I said a lot of this book I found very challenging but all of it very compellingOne of the psychological insights that has been messing around with my mind lately is the idea that if you ask someone who is studying to become a doctor why one of their fellow students is also becoming a doctor they are likely to say that it is obvious that that person is virtually made to be a doctor In fact they are likely to think that virtually everyone else in their course is there because they are almost constitutionally designed to become a doctor But if you ask the person themselves why they are becoming a doctor they are likely to say that they are in the course or less by accident That there have been a network of lines that intersected and by a series of coincidences they have ended up here And this is not just true of people’s understanding of those around them when it comes to career choices – but virtually everything else they do too The tendency is for us to greatly over rate what others do as being a manifestation of their ‘essential nature’ and what we do as being an unpredictable consequence of arbitrary and random forcesBut this has consequences that go far beyond a mere curiosity related to people’s chosen career paths When we find that a friend has engaged in what we might consider to be an ‘act of betrayal’ against us this same tendency kicks in again and we are likely to see this betrayal not as a momentary lapse on our friends part caused by them being carried away by circumstance but as an indication of what is their essential nature Our acts of betrayal against our friends on the other hand we tend to see as either momentary lapses or justified retaliation given their infinitely worse behaviourThis book looks at the consequences that our tendencies to under rate our own culpability for mistakes and misdemeanours has and to over rate the intention and severity of the actions of others when committed against us The ‘us’ here is not just ourselves personally but also the ‘us’ as a group or as a society as a whole Some of the examples given in this book range from case studies of marriages falling apart something that had cringe making moments for me as I saw some of the very much less attractive parts of my own personality displayed before me in vivid Technicolor in relation to both my current relationship and my marriage breakdown all the way up to the long standing problems existing between Iran and the United States The book also looks at how people who were involved in what should really be referred to as the ‘recovered memory scandal’ have dealt with their role in this The most generous answer is ‘not very well’ But this isn’t a book about pointing the finger and complaining about how pathetic some people are you know the sorts of people who make mistakes Rather it is a book that tries to show that we humans are all too prone to self justification and this is a terrible danger particularly when we do things that are by any definition not things that we can be proud of The book points out that despite our often simple minded ideas that some people are just basically bad and that they do things just to be evil in fact most people who ‘do evil’ imagine they are doing good The road to Hell is paved with good intentions and kept shining after being buffed clean by our rationalisationsIf you look up a dictionary definition of ‘evil politician’ it wouldn’t be too surprising if there was a picture of Hitler But even if you had the chance to interview Hitler in the bunker just before he popped his pill it is very unlikely that he would have admitted that he had made many any mistakes It is also unlikely that he would think that anything he had done was either wrong or bad No he would have the to us remarkable perspective that not only he had done good and probably not just ‘on balance’ and had acted in the best interests of the future of all humanity but that one day people would even realise that he was as wonderful as he had always thought himself I think we or perhaps just I find this hard to accept because we like to believe that deep down the people we consider to be evil know they are bad If only the world was so simpleThe image that stays with me from the last few years is of Lynndie England and her thumbs up sign while she was standing beside a pyramid of naked Iraqi men It is hard not to think that here is an instance of someone with some sort of moral deficiency someone who clearly gains enjoyment out of the humiliation of others and therefore she must be someone devoid of some basic human quality – and that lacking is what separates her from us Unfortunately even that proves not to be the case The most disturbing bit of research quoted in this book and there are lots of disturbing bits of research discussed in this book is that those most likely to become utter monsters are those who have high self esteem and they are most likely to become monsters towards those who have virtually no power to retaliate Why? Because we do not want to think of ourselves as bad people particularly those of us with high self esteem But if we start to do horrible things to our enemies then we need to be able to justify those terrible acts – and we tend to do that by saying that they deserved it that they are less than human that they do worse to their enemies that we are acting in a way that is pure and good and dare we say it humane and in fact that they are the ones these powerless victims of ours who are to blameThe section of this book on police interrogation methods should be made compulsory reading Years ago I read a book that talked about a psychological experiment that has stayed with me since People were asked to come to a room in a university to do a memory test involving a series of nonsense syllables When they got to the room they were told that the experiment was running a little late so would they mind sitting in a chair for a few minutes Directly in front of the chair was a poster – one of those graphic posters that show police at a car accident and warning about drink driving or something of the kind The poster was both graphic and directly in front of the people – so not something they were likely to not notice When they were finally let into the room to do the test half of them were actually given the syllables to learn for half an hour the other half of them were asked if they had noticed the poster in the waiting room These people were then quizzed for half an hour on as many details as they could remember from the poster What colour was the car how many policemen were there was it the man’s right or left leg that had been cut off in the accident? You know the sort of thing Lots and lots of detailNow for the interesting bit At the end of the half hour both groups of people the ones who did the syllables and the ones who did the ‘remembering’ of the poster were shown another copy of the poster and asked if this was the poster they had seen in the waiting room Virtually everyone who did the memorising of the nonsense syllables said it was – however virtually no one who had spent half an hour ‘remembering’ the poster said it was Why? Because those who had spent half an hour ‘remembering’ the poster had decided for sure there were three police officers and the guy on the road was wearing a green shirt and there was a bicycle in the background and in the poster they were being shown none of those things were thereWhen I first heard about this experiment remember we are talking about events that have all taken place in a span of slightly than half an hour I was shocked at what this experiment implied about our justice system In short we are very suggestible creatures and the legal system particularly the police force needs to be very careful not to pollute witnesses to crimes in ways that can destroy any hope of justice for the accused – something that should be of foremost concern However this book makes my concerns over the justice system seem terribly naïve I’ve learnt that you also have to add to this mix humans who are convinced they are right people who refuse to consider any evidence other than that which supports their conclusion after they have reached it who take it as a professional slight if they are challenged to support or god forbid reconsider their favourite theory people who won’t even change their view of the guilt of the accused after irrefutable evidence is presented to them The need to rethink our justice system so as to take into consideration the latest findings psychology presents us with becomes all rather urgentThis is as I said a deeply troubling book Parts of this book felt like a mirror had been held up to me and I have to say that I really didn’t like what I saw But this is a very important book and one that demands to be read I recommend it without hesitation