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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Review: Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson


Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful ActsMistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an excellent resource for anyone who wants insight into human nature. Namely, it goes into why people refuse to take responsibility for their mistakes, and why they may not even realize they're to blame. The subject held a lot of interest for me, but I can see its appealing to all kinds of readers.

Cognitive dissonance is explained in the first chapter, and it forms the basis for the self-justification discussed throughout this book. Cognitive dissonance occurs when two conflicting thoughts are present in a person's mind, such as, "I'm a good person," and "I did a terrible thing." The mind seeks to reconcile dissonance to reduce stress, which often means softening or throwing out contrary evidence.

The book goes on to tie this into what we think of others in general, memory, scientific exploration, the justice system, troubled marriages,  politics, alien abductions, recovered memories, and family feuds. The same line of thinking that makes people blame the victim is the same that makes people cling to party lines even when they're indistinct, and dismiss an idea in a meeting from a co-worker we don't like.

One of the most interesting things I learned from the book is the psychology behind why people are more apt to blame a victim the more helpless that victim is. We're less likely to sympathize with the person we've bullied the more helpless our victim is. Cognitive dissonance asks us to come up with a reason why that smaller, helpless person deserved it, and cements it harder the more guilty we'd feel to learn we were wrong.

Another fascinating chapter discusses alien abduction and recovered memory, and how these events are explained through cognitive dissonance. It was sickening to hear how therapists, convinced they're right, have been planting traumatic memories into their patients and convincing them they're real. The alien abduction explanation was a bit more lighthearted.

The book does not take into account how mental illness affects these processes, though it does briefly touch on how a negative self-image  affects cognitive dissonance. A person with a negative view of him- or herself will find no contradiction with the bad things they did, only the good. The introduction describes a situation where a person might obsess on mistakes to the point of paralysis, which sounds like textbook anxiety or depression. Mental illness is an outlier, I suppose, and the authors wanted to discuss how this works in a healthy mind.

The book was published in 2007, which means that a lot of its political discussion centers around the Bush administration and the War on Terror. I'd be interested to read an addendum discussing the most recent election. More specifically, there have been some surveys of the public, putting the opposite party's views into the mouth of the candidate the person supports. When people think their candidate supports it, they support it, but, even if they agree with it, they don't support it if the other guy does. It proves a lot of the points in the book, but I'd like to see it pulled apart and expanded on.

All-in-all, this was a fascinating subject, written in an accessible way. I didn't find the jargon difficult to wrap my mind around, though I can't say whether that's because it was written in a simpler way, or because I studied psychology in college. In any case, I feel enlightened, and less apt to dig my heels in when I make a mistake, in the future.

I listened to an audio edition of this book, narrated by Marsha Mercant and Joe Barrett. Ms. Mercant did the majority of the reading, with Mr. Barrett reading sections involving transcripts of conversations and some quotes. Some of the pronunciations sounded strange to me, but I can't say it's because they were wrong. I'm more apt to believe the narrators were correct.


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