Review by Michele Bolay
Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) Or, Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.
Basically, this is a book about cognitive dissonance, which is defined as: “an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously.” The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying. It is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology.
In other words, most people, when 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 overcome self-justification.
Chapters focus on prejudices and blind spots, psychology, politics, law, and personal relationships. By far, the most fascinating sections for me were those dealing with politics, law, and the relationship between cognitive dissonance and self-esteem.
If you’ve ever wondered how politicians justify taking large kickbacks and bribes, the authors explain it: corruption happens with one small, innocent step (having lunch with a constituent) and, through cognitive dissonance, snowballs into accepting an all-expenses paid golfing trip to St. Andrews from a lobbyist. As the authors state, “Politicians are the most visible of self-justifiers, which is why they provide such juicy examples. They have the refined art of speaking in the passive voice; when their backs are to the wall they will reluctantly acknowledge error, but not responsibility.”
The law section includes the complicated issues of eyewitness and expert testimony, the problems with current interrogation methods, and the controversy of repressed memory syndrome and its use as legal evidence.
Regarding dissonance and esteem, interestingly enough those with more humility (and/or lower self-esteem), because they tend to allow for divergent opinions and don’t stick to their guns as often as people with high self-esteem (or downright arrogance), have far fewer problems with cognitive dissonance. Special mention also needs to be made of the pithy (and humorous) anecdote on page 41 relating a visit to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
The science in the book is well-documented yet very accessible to a wide range of readers. Someone in my book group chose this as a selection, and it made for a lively and engaging discussion. I would definitely recommend it!
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About the reviewer: Michele Bolay just celebrated her 25th year working at Tredyffrin Public Library. You can find her in the children’s department and running the Framed! A Journey in Art program.