"Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)" by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

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.
β€”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 candyβ€”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!!!


19 comments on “"Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)" by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

  1. H.M. says:

    You see, this sort of thing is why I don't read very many “book blogs.” Because when I do, I end up with yet another (and another and another, etc.) book on my already too long list of “must reads.” πŸ™‚
    Seriously this book sounds fascinating and worthwhile, despite your minor quibbles with it. It sounds like they got quite a few things right in this one.
    Yeah, Tavris and Aronson definitely deserve it for that comment about endnotes. They “had it coming!” πŸ˜‰

  2. Sylvia says:

    Yes, I'm afraid that is a common hazard of reading book blogs. Not to minimize it or anything… πŸ˜‰
    It appears that you have successfully absorbed the lessons of this book. Have some soup, my friend! πŸ™‚

  3. Stefanie says:

    What a stupid note about endnotes. Just when you think these people get it they go and perpetuate the horrors that they didn't like either! I think they need to re-read their book.
    The book does sound fascinating. Interesting about the cultural view of mistakes. One of the best compliments I have ever had is from one of my coworkers who told me that I was very good at helping people fix their computer mistakes without making them feel ashamed. That made me feel good because my coworkers are terrified enough of computers, they don't need to feel shame for not knowing how to do something or making a mistake. This doesn't, however, preclude me from going home and making fun of them with my husband πŸ˜‰

  4. AndrewL says:

    I'm a reader of buddhism, with a small amount of meditation (I stick to the psychology aspects of the field); because of this 'study', I've become aware of certain aspects of my life, and cognitive dissonance is something I battle with constantly, from both ends. There's certainly a huge relief when one can let go of one's own behaviour on that level, but I have to say that when someone does it to me, I still have a large level of frustration/annoyance with them (especially when they are a superior at work) that I haven't been able to 'cure' as yet.

  5. wil says:

    Sounds interesting, but as I don't make mistakes, I wonder if I'd get much from the book. πŸ˜‰

  6. Sylvia says:

    Stefanie, are those the same people you want to stick with sharp objects? πŸ˜€
    Andrew, it certainly is frustrating when people ignore the blatantly obvious in an attempt to protect their self-image. The only thing the authors suggest is assuring the person that they are a good person who just made an understandable mistake that can be fixed. If they get the slightest hint that you think they're incompetent the defenses will go up and they'll just dig themselves in deeper.
    Wil, I found it very helpful in understanding all those other people who make mistakes… πŸ˜‰

  7. Chuck says:

    I found the observation about Japanese education enlightening but I think reality falls somewhere between hard work and natural ability. No, I don't believe that anyone can do anything if they try hard enough. On the other hand, I think people can do more than they think they can, or at least more than they want to admit they can. Lack of natural ability is a great fallback position for the unindustrious. (I got the T-shirt.)
    When you finish the book you realise you have no more excuses. It doesn't let you off the hook with the excuse that you're a puppet of your psychology. The book would have been unfinished if the authors had done that. Fascinating read.

  8. Sylvia says:

    I totally agree with you, and I would add that natural ability is an equally inexcusable fallback position for the unindustrious. (I have the whole outfit.) There's nothing worse than having potential because that means you're not using it!
    You bring up a good point about how the authors didn't just say that the psyche is just designed to protect itself and we can't do anything about it. I think we all know that that's just not good enough. I think they say somewhere that the mind wants to justify, but the soul wants to confess. I think we all have something higher than the mind that can help lead us out of the trap of self-justification.

  9. As authors of “Mistakes were made (but not by me),” we naturally enjoyed Sylvia's terrific review and the readers' comments. But we are stymied by the complaints about our endnotes! Please explain what mistake we made that you thought we were justifying, so we can correct it in a future edition. Having footnotes at all? Having them at the end? Not having a formal biblio? Publishers today don't want to devote space for bibliographies–any reader who wants one can ask us for it through the book's website: http://www.mistakesweremadebutnotbyme.com)–and especially not when all the references are already in the footnotes, as ours are. We gave ourselves the pleasure of adding stories and comments as we wrote up those references, thinking that would make them worth the reader's attention. That's why we called them “candy.” Please, Sylvia, may we have our soup now?

  10. Sylvia says:

    P.S. Since you did go to some trouble to make your notes interesting, you may have your soup after all. πŸ™‚

  11. J.D. says:

    I think the world as a whole makes too many excuses but that I, personally, don't make any. If that sounds self-deluded, blame my parents–my upbringing wasn't good. πŸ™‚
    Let's be realistic for a minute: Not all rationalization is necessarily bad or wrong. We can certainly talk ourselves into believing a mistake is no big deal or not our fault, but we can also help ourselves realize when a mistake really is no big deal or not our fault.
    It is entirely possible to become too self-critical by trying to “not make excuses.” The reality is that if we stripped away the layers and really looked at ourselves, the great majority of us would find that we fall short of perfection in nearly every aspect of our lives.
    If we follow the “no excuses” mentality absolutely, we're left with the frightening prospect that the majority of us have to label ourselves as utter failures. Life is hard. Being human is hard. Often when we say someone is “making an excuse,” we haven't experienced what they've experienced, so how are we qualified to say so?
    I actually do agree in theory that people let too much slide without calling themselves on it. I'm just playing the devil's advocate here.

  12. Sylvia says:

    Thank you so much for writing in, Carol and Elliot. I think I speak for the entire Bookworm Nation when I say, Death to Endnotes! It's footnotes we want. We don't care if they take up half the page. As you rightly observe, flipping to the back of the book is a pain in the neck, candy or no candy. I realize that it is more likely your publisher who decided how your notes would be organized, and I have addressed this issue here:
    I wish you success in your future endeavours, and hope to see footnotes in your next books!

  13. Carrie K says:

    Oh, I have to read this book. Years of bad judgement. πŸ˜‰
    Candy: Footnotes. Sources: Endnotes. Although really, footnotes for it all. I'm guessing endnotes became particularly popular so that the books could seem both longer and less scholarly, although why that would be a draw, I haven't a clue.

  14. Sylvia says:

    J.D., you bring up some interesting questions. In the book they cite a study that found that the higher a person's self-esteem, the more they denigrated a person they were made to shock in the experiment. The more you think of yourself, the greater the dissonance when you do wrong, and thus the greater the lies necessary to justify yourself. Of course the solution is not to have low self-esteem, but just to admit that we're all human, and we all do things that are wrong and must be redressed, but that doesn't make us inherently bad people.
    Carrie, your proposed compromise would work for me. I think publishers also like endnotes because they are just easier to format. I don't know much about it but I suspect some hand work is required to set up pages with footnotes.

  15. CarlaB says:

    Thanks so much for the review. I have only just found your blog but am so glad I did. Yet another book to add to my ever lengthening “Must Read” book list. I look forward to adding a couple more.

  16. Sylvia says:

    Thanks for visiting and commenting, Carla!

  17. Stefanie says:

    Ha Sylvia your memory is too good! Yes those are the very same people I want to poke with sharp objects πŸ˜‰

  18. Jodie says:

    I ran out (ok so I clicked on Amazon at work) and got this once I saw your review. I'm about four chapters in now and it is so interesting. Personally I think I fall into the category of using self-justification for people with low self esteem but still lots of the observations seem to apply to me. This is the kind of book that makes me want to change how I operate in life (and hopefully I will).

  19. Sylvia says:

    I'm glad you're finding it interesting, Jodie. I think it probably is a transformative book for many people. It certainly made me think more honestly about my mistakes. Good luck!

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