Book Review: Mistakes were Made (But Not By Me)

Why is it so hard for us to admit our mistakes?  This question forms the basis of Mistakes were Made (but not by me).

Tavris and Aronson explain that the reason we don’t admit our mistakes is due to two ideas: self-justification and cognitive dissonance. We justify our decisions or mistakes because we feel tension between our actions and our beliefs and this is the basis of dissonance.

Self-justification is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done. In fact, come to think of it, it was the right thing.

The first half of the book offers many examples of different people and professions that tend to be the guiltiest in terms of justifying their poor decisions. For example; politicians, authors, therapists, members of cults, alien abduction victims, police officers, lawyers and psychologists.

I was most disturbed by the examples of psychologists who brought false memories out of their patients (usually in the form of repressed sexual abuse) and when confronted with the evidence that the individual never went through such a trauma, were still were unable to admit their mistake.

The justice system is also terrifyingly susceptible to self-justification. Even when presented with DNA evidence that a suspect is innocent the police and the district attorney’s office sometimes still hesitate to let the person go free because they have invested so much energy into trying to prove their guilt that they have to justify the time they invested into the case and so they often convince themselves that the individual must be guilty of some crime—even if it isn’t the crime they were charged with. Tavris and Aronson call this the “justification-of-effort”--I did all this work, so I must continue, to admit now that I was wrong is unthinkable.

Most people, when directly confronted with proof that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course but justify it even more tenaciously.

The second half of the book delves deeper into the social psychology of behavior and how this relates to people on a day-to-day basis in terms of their relationships.

The book is a fascinating and sometimes scary look into our own personal behavior. It is easy to justify small decisions that when taken over time can make radical changes to our life and our own personal values. We will eventually “come to believe our own stories,” however incorrect they may be.

And we have all felt the sting of being on the receiving end of an act of injustice, nursing a wound that never seems to fully heal. The remarkable thing about self-justification is that it allows us to shift from one role to another and back again in the blink of an eye, without applying what we have learned from one role to the other. Feeling like a victim of injustice in one situation does not make us less likely to commit an injustice against someone else, nor does it make us more sympathetic to victims. It’s as if there is a brick wall between those two sets of experiences, blocking our ability to see the other side.

How terrifying to see that our own terrible experiences almost never help us shape our behavior when we are about to commit an offense towards someone else.  This is how violence/revenge can just continue to escalate over time.

Although I am not currently in a relationship, I always like to know more about having and sustaining healthy relationships.  The best advice in this book to sustain a relationship all about a ratio—five-to-one.

Psychologist John Gottman finds…Successful couples have a ratio of five times as many positive interactions (such as expressions of live, affection, and humor) to negative ones (such as expressions of annoyance and complaints). It doesn’t matter how much a couple argues or how volatile their relationship is as long as the ratio holds.

That is will be my go-to advice whenever my students come crying to me about their struggles with their boyfriends/girlfriends.

I will end with one two of my favorite quotes in the book:

Most Americans know they are supposed to say “we learn from our mistakes,” but deep down, they don’t believe it for a minute. They think that mistakes mean you are stupid. Combined with the culture’s famous amnesia for anything that happened more than a month ago, this attitude means that people treat mistakes like hot potatoes, eager to get rid of them as fast as possible, even if they have to toss them in someone else’s lap.

I strongly encourage everyone to read this book, if only to become more aware of your own thinking and to try and correct your behaviors.

Lao Tzu observed:

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 this most benevolent teachers.

Part of my journey with this blog is to come to see myself more clearly and that through self-reflection that I will be able to admit my mistakes and become a better woman. So this is an open invitation for people to point out my faults so that I may correct them.

Krista BoivieComment