Book review: “Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me”

Goodreads should really add a separate Notes section when you add a book, so you can remember where you picked it up from. I’m fairly confident I picked up Tavris and Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me from the footnotes of another book. My current method of selecting my next book to read from my monstrous list is to scroll through my To-Reads list organized in the least biased way possible (reverse alphabetically by author at the moment, but they really should add in a random option, no? Otherwise I’ll read all the books by Yizmats and Zuckermeiers before anything else!) This one caught my eye as a scientific book for lay people, that also had a compelling and relevant premise.

Definitions and metaphors

Before I get too far in, I wanted to define some terms and concepts that are used throughout the book. These terms essentially summarize it all– the rest are just case studies to hit it home. The first concept is cognitive dissonance which they define as a state of tension that occurs when a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs per day.” The theory of cognitive dissonance was developed by the social psychologist Leon Festinger, and it made waves in the field because it challenged the leading ideas of the day. Humans examine the data available to them, and make rational decisions based on that data to increase their comfort. But that is not the case– if we are experiencing a state of cognitive dissonance, we find ways to reduce that dissonance. Enter self-justification

Self-justification is not the same thing as lying or making excuses. Obviously, people will lie or invent fanciful stories to duck the fury of a lover, parent, or employer; to keep from being sued or sent to prison; to avoid losing face; to avoid losing a job; to stay in power. But there is a big difference between a guilty man telling the public something he knows is untrue (“I did not have sex with that woman”, “I am not a crook”) and that man persuading himself that he did a good thing. In the former situation, he is lying and knows he is lying to save his own skin. In the latter, he is lying to himself. That is why self-justification is more powerful and more dangerous that 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 thin of it, it was the right thing.

These two concepts are enough in themselves to describe the whole book, but there is one more powerful metaphor that captures the distance we create from ourselves and the truth and those around us when we give into self-justification:

Imagine two young men who are identical in terms of attitudes, abilities, and psychological health. They are reasonably honest and have the same middling attitude toward, say, cheating– they think it is not a good thing to do, but there are worse crimes in the world. Now they are both in the midst of taking an exam that will determine whether they will get into graduate school. They each draw a blank on a crucial essay question. Failure looms… at which point each one gets an easy opportunity to cheat by reading another student’s answers. The two young men struggle with temptation. After a long moment of anguish, one yields, and the other resists. Their decisions are a hairsbreadth apart; it could easily have gone the other way for each of them. Each gains something important, but at a cost: One gives up integrity for a good grade; the other gives up a good grade to preserve his integrity.

Now the question is: How will they feel about cheating one week later? Each student had ample time to justify the course of action he took. The one who yielded to temptation will decide that cheating is not so great a crime. He will say to himself, “Hey, everyone cheats. It’s no big deal. And I really needed to do this for my future career.” But the one who resisted temptation will decide that cheating is far more immoral than he originally thought. In fact, people who cheat are disgraceful. In fact, people who cheat should be permanently expelled from school. We have to make an example of them.

By the time the students are through with their increasingly intense levels of self-justification, two things have happened. One, they are now very far apart from each other, and two, they have internalized their beliefs and are convinced that they have always felt that way. It is as if they started off at the top of a pyramid, a millimeter apart, but by the time they have finished justifying their individual actions, they have slid to the bottom and now start at opposite corners of its base. The one who didn’t cheat considers the other to be totally immoral, and the one who cheated thinks the other is hopelessly puritanical.

If such a process can happen with something relatively small, imagine what happens when organizations, religions, political parties, entire societies are built off of self-justification.

Similarities with other books

Tavris and Aronson’s self-justification sound very similar to Kierkegaard’s double-mindedness in Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, which I happen to be reading right now as well. He derives the phrase double-mindedness from the New-Testament, which Christ called out repeatedly (Oh ye hypocrites! and Ye cannot serve God and Mammon). Perhaps a bit broader than self-justification, but passages like these felt like they would fit right into Mistake Were Made, But Not By Me:

Oh, that one might be able, at this point, to speak rightly! Oh, that the talk might not seem to wish to judge or accuse others. For to wish to judge others instead of one’s self would also be double-mindedness. Oh, that the talk might not seem to press demands that are binding upon others but that exempt the speaker, as if he had only the task of talking. For this, too, is double-mindedness, just as it is hidden pride to wish to offer comfort to others but not to be willing to let oneself be comforted.

Perhaps even closer to home is Warner’s concept of self-betrayal in Bonds That Make Us Free:

Often we have a sense that something is right or wrong for us to do– a sense, for example, that we should or shouldn’t treat some person or other living thing in a certain way. We have only to pay attention in our everyday experiences to notice ourselves having such feelings about how we ought to act.

We might, for example, feel called upon to smile when someone smiles at us, choose words carefully so that someone can better understand what we’re trying to say, help a child who’s having trouble, keep from cutting across someone’s new lawn, share what we’re eating with someone else in the family…

Self-betrayal occurs when we go against the feelings I have just described– when we do to another what we sense we should not do, or don’t do what we sense we should.

Perhaps this seems like an obvious point. Others may just call it going against your conscience. I thought self-betrayal much overlapped with Tavris and Aronson’s concept of cognitive dissonance– but their frame is different, as they are approaching it from the perspective of scientists. In this sense, one of my Twitter mutuals hit this right on the nose: Mistakes Were Made is a secular call to repentance, to examine our inner thoughts and deeds and to do better.

Finally, I believe Tavris and Aronson would fall cleanly into Hannah Arendt’s thesis in The Banality of Evil that ordinary people like you and me can do horrible things without being monsters without a conscience (What can I possibly have in common with perpetrators of murder and torture? Quite a bit, actually).

Real life examples

These might make you squirm, because self-justification gets political. All of us are subject to the impulse of self-justification, so it isn’t a pathology of just the left or the right. This isn’t just a self-help book. Tavris and Aronson take aim at the Bush administration’s justification of the war in Iraq on shoddy evidence of weapons of mass destruction, as well as the U.S. government’s justification of torture (Our torture is never as severe and deadly as their torture). They take aim at psychologists and psychiatrists who “found” repressed memories in their therapy sessions. And they take aim at prosecutors and policemen who dig their heels in when confronted with evidence that they nabbed the wrong guy.

But what is the answer? Self-justification isn’t going away. I really like this closing summary in the final chapter:

Confidence is a fine and useful quality; none of us would want a physician who was wallowing in uncertainty and couldn’t decide how to treat our illness, but we do want one who is open-minded and willing to learn. Nor would most of us wish to live without passions or convictions, which give our lives meaning and color, energy and hope. But an unbending need to be right inevitably produces self-righteousness. When confidence and convictions are unleavened by humility, by an acceptance of fallibility, people can easily cross the line from healthy self-assurance to arrogance.

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