Have you ever wondered how some people can sleep at night? You know, drug dealers, child molesters, dictators, your exes… Why aren’t they tortured by the thought of all the harm they’ve done to innocent people? Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts explains exactly why, in very straightforward and compelling terms, with plenty of science to back it up.
It’s really quite simple, and we all do it. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson call it “self-justification,” though it could also be called rationalization, reasons (if you’re giving them) or lame excuses (if you’re on the receiving end). The idea is that whenever we do something wrong or hurtful or just make a mistake, it threatens our belief that we are basically good, smart, responsible people. This sets up what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance,” and it causes so much discomfort that it must be resolved.
Unfortunately, the most common way to resolve cognitive dissonance is to jettison the truth in order to save the ego. Thus, the reasons, excuses, and justifications for why we did such-and-such to so-and-so. Usually this involves minimizing the wrongness of the such-and-such, and maximizing the wrongness of the so-and-so involved. I think we are all probably aware of how people make excuses for their bad behaviour, but denigrating the people we hurt is a more subtle phenomenon. It takes the form of “they deserved it” or “she was asking for it” or “he ticked me off” or “they would do the same thing to us.” The goal is to reduce guilt and maintain the illusion that we are still the good guys.
One of the most damning chapters in the book is about the wrongful conviction of innocent people, which begins with biased and manipulative police interrogation techniques, which have been proven to produce false confessions, and can end with the withholding of DNA evidence that might exonerate an innocent person. Despite thousands of overturned convictions, police and prosecutors can persist, to absurd lengths, in their belief that they got the right guy, and that if he wasn’t guilty of that crime he was probably guilty of something else. According to the authors, these cases are rarely re-opened because that would be an admission that a mistake had been made, and so the real perpetrators continue to walk free.
Ignoring evidence figures prominently in the chapter on false memories of child abuse. It’s a very sensitive subject, but the scientific evidence is clear: we do not “block out” traumatic memories. Real victims of trauma have the opposite problem, that of not being able to forget. Study after study has shown how easy it is to implant false memories and how unreliable other supposed indicators of abuse really are. However, therapists with a vested interest in repressed memory theories ignore the evidence and even attack academics carrying out scientific research on the subject. They are stuck in cognitive dissonance because if they admitted they they were wrong, it would mean they had caused trauma, torn apart families, and even put innocent people in jail, and that is not something a good, smart, responsible therapist would do, therefore it didn’t happen.
The chapter on relationships raised some interesting questions about how we interpret behaviours. Does forgetting a birthday mean my partner doesn’t care or is just forgetful because of a bad week at work? I found this a perplexing issue because behaviour is a reflection of character, but it’s also a fact that no one is perfect, and we all make mistakes. Where do we draw the line? The authors make the case that straying too far into the area of moral judgment is simply toxic to relationships, even if that judgment is correct. But if the judgment is correct, what is the point of preserving the relationship? This the authors don’t answer satisfactorily, and it’s probably outside the scope of the book.
They also raise interesting questions about how American culture views mistakes. One study of Japanese school children found that they were not in the least embarrassed about making mistakes in front of their class. In their culture, mistakes are just accepted as a natural part of the learning process. There is nothing shameful about them. They also don’t share the view some people are born with certain abilities and others simply lack them. They believe that all you need to achieve something is hard work. Contrast this to the American (and Canadian) model, where mistakes are seen as a measure of your intelligence (or lack thereof), and that some people will just never be able to do calculus no matter how hard they try so they shouldn’t bother. This is another tricky issue because I think it’s true that people are born with different natural abilities, but it’s also clear that there is a culture of shame around mistakes that we would do well to get rid of.
I’ve only barely touched on the fascinating content of this book, but if any of this piques your interest I definitely recommend picking up a copy. I’ll just warn you that it might prompt you to take an uncomfortable moral inventory of your life, but you will be the better for it. The book ends with a couple of pieces of wisdom from the East, which we would do well to consider in the West:
A man travels many miles to consult the wisest guru in the land. When he arrives, he asks the wise man: “Oh, wise guru, what is the secret of a happy life?”
“Good judgment,” says the guru.
“But oh, wise guru,” says the man, “how to I achieve good judgment?”
“Bad judgment,” says the guru.
A great nation is like a great man;
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
POSTSCRIPT: As with so many books, this one uses endnotes, but there is a statement at the beginning of that section that I find unaccountable, especially given the subject matter of the book:
Long before we became writers, we were readers. As readers, we often found notes an unwelcome intrusion in the flow of the story. It was usually a pain in the neck to be forever turning to the back of the book to learn what the author’s source was for some persuasive (or preposterous) idea or research finding, but every so often there was candy—a personal comment, an interesting digression, a good story. We enjoyed assembling these notes, using the opportunity to reference and sometimes expand the points we make in the chapters. And there’s some candy in here too.
Is that supposed to make it OK? Candy? Oh no no no, Tavris and Aronson, no amount of self-justification is going to get you out of this one. That’s it. No soup for you!!!