“Why do you hate so-and-so, so much?” And he had answered them, with his shameless impudence, “I’ll tell you. He has done me no harm. But I played him a dirty trick, and ever since I have hated him.”
–Dostoyevsky, “The Brothers Karamazov”
The human brain is excellent at keeping itself free of blame. We have a self-image that we’re a good person, and we also do things that harm others. The cognitive dissonance this causes can be uncomfortable… until we rewrite our memories or justify our actions.Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson cover our brain’s ability to do just this in their book “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me).” They cover many different examples of people’s identity, ego, or belief system overriding the facts that are staring them in the face.
When you find yourself in these pages, you’re either horrified — or unable to notice the direct correlation to your own life. Such is the power of cognitive dissonance.
Here are 10 things I learned from
“Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)“
- Our self-deception is often the result of an ego-enhancing bias. People come to believe their actions were really the best course they could have taken. Memories, in every situation, are imperfect and can be massaged to support our story. It’s not a lie when you truly believe you did your very best.
- Cognitive Dissonance has enormous motivational power and can set an identity. Hazing of students or soldiers, for example, help create a camaraderie that wouldn’t exist if the hazed student didn’t think the experience was worth the outcome. In fact, they support the group more after the hazing. Why else would they have undergone the ritual?
- Our brain will shut down when we’re presented with information that conflicts with our world view. It’s not a matter of a person being unwilling to see the new evidence. Brain scans actually show parts of the brain “virtually shut down” when presented with disconfirming evidence.
- When we act different from our normal selves, we need to tell ourselves a story to understand that behavior. There’s a famous example of Benjamin Franklin wanting to influence a political rival. Franklin’s approach was to ask to borrow a book, which he returned the next week. The two rivals discussed the text. Ever after, Frankin’s rival became his friend, because why would the rival have done something good (loan a book) for a person he disliked?
- Memory and Pride are often in conflict. The “Peak-End Rule” tells us that we generally remember emotional highs of an experience, and the end of an experience. Our memories aren’t great between those moments (or really even during those peak moments!) We often fill in details to satisfy our pride, to make ourselves look our best and minimize our responsibility when we replay those memories. Creating details which we come to believe is known as “imagination inflation.”
- Professionals from every field are convinced they know better than independent, reproducible research. Mistakes Were Made covers psychologists and police officers being absolutely certain of their methods and truths. “Innocent men are never convicted,” we’re told during a police story from the 1930s. Today, we know that is not true, yet prosecutors continue to push for someone to be punished, convinced they couldn’t possibly have the wrong suspect. The suspect is still a bad person, undoubtedly guilty of some crime, and therefor conviction for this crime is just. One’s professional competence couldn’t be wrong (morally or logically). Only, of course, it can be and often is.
- We often create an implicit theory, one that we believe without defining it or even recognizing it. Once we have this implicit theory, our brains will find confirming evidence to support that theory. This can be used as a motivating force for good, supporting a new believe that replaces an older limiting belief. More often than not, these implicit theories tell us stories why someone’s behavior is wrong and why we’re right. Confirmation bias pushes us away from the reality of a situation.
- Marriages, and other relationships, change over time. We create implicit theories about a partner’s behavior, while justifying our own behavior. By believing that our approach is the correct one to a situation, we don’t give our partner’s approach any validity. We fall back on the same scripts and arguments that we’ve used before, expecting that this time it’ll get through. In the mean time, we’re not really listening to our partner’s point of view at all. Rather than looking for confirming evidence of why our partner is wrong, we should seek to understand her or his position. What may have been different this time? What evidence can we find against our implicit theories?
- Lecturing someone on their behavior will backfire. When people’s judgement is being called into question, they’ll frequently justify their behavior while also trying to hide it to avoid further judgement. Asking non-judgemental questions to try to understand a situation is a better approach.
- We shouldn’t fear failure or teach our kids to fear failure. When we fear failure, we fear the risk that precedes failure. We refuse to even try new things, believing it won’t work out if we don’t have a 100% chance. Without risk, no one will progress. Instead of fearing failure and risk, we should praise effort.
“Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)” was an excellent book filled with examples and theory on self-justification. Many of the ideas I’ve written above are not unique to this book or new to me. However, the book put them in an excellent light with illuminating stories. Paging through the book to write this post, I found myself being drawn in again.
Have you read “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)” before? What were your thoughts? Please leave a comment on the blog, and thanks for reading!