Book Review: Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)
Conflict is a natural part of the human condition, present in personal relationships, work settings, criminal justice, politics, and likely every human endeavor. Why is conflict so pervasive? What are the origins of conflict behavior in human beings, and more importantly, how can people change? One candidate human behavior that may contribute significantly to conflict is self-justification, the inherent ability for human beings to justify their choices. In Mistake Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, Tavris and Aronson (2007), describe self-justification as a behavior that preserves beliefs, contributes to self-esteem, and supports well-being, but is also a source of harm, as people use self-justification to protect their choices and self-image, rather than admit mistakes. The authors’ perspective is built on decades of research into Festinger’s (1957) groundbreaking theory of cognitive dissonance, the notion that human behavior is not simply the result of rewards and punishments, rather, as thinking beings, people have to resolve dissonant cognitions, and how they are resolved has implications on behavior. In fact, Aronson did his graduate work with Festinger at Stanford, and since, has authored numerous research studies on the subject (Tavris & Aronson, 2007). In writing the book, the authors’ share how the mechanism of self-justification works, hoping that people will ultimately be able to defeat their cognitive wiring. Not only is the book credible, it is also an engaging narrative, replete with real-world examples of how the tendency of people to self-justify their actions affects individuals, families, relationships, memory, therapy, the legal system, conflict, and war. While Mistake’s Were Made (but not by me), offers unique insights in into how self-justification affects behavior, relationships, and institutions, it is long on problems, and short on solutions; spending more time on social commentary than on cognitive dissonance theory.
According to (Tavris & Aronson, 2007), “Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent” (p. 13). An example is the tension created when a person must reconcile their self-concept with a harmful behavior; like when a person believes they are a good person, yet lies about something. The resulting dissonance between the two cognitions, “produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it” (Tavris & Aronson, 2007, p. 13). How then do people reduce the feelings of discomfort produced by dissonant cognitions?
According to Tavris and Aronson (2007), most often, people will engage in self-justification as the primary mechanism to reduce dissonance, likening dissonance and the resulting self-justifications to a thermostat that regulates self-esteem. Recalling our earlier example of a person who believes they are good, yet engages in harmful behavior like lying, the person might justify the lie to themselves or others as a way to achieve consonance; for instance, “I only lied because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings”. Ipso facto, they can retain their self-concept. Unfortunately, the implications of self-justification are far greater than simply the lies people tell themselves to feel better; rather, owing to the social nature of human beings, self-justification is a slippery slope that can have a significant affect on future behavior, relationships, and social institutions.
Through descriptions of both virtuous and violent spirals, the authors note how self-justification affects future behavior. Citing Kahn’s (1966) research on catharsis, the authors suggest that dissonance forces the perpetrator of a harmful act to justify their behavior by blaming the victim, thereby increasing their anger towards the victim and setting the stage for future violence (Tavris & Aronson, 2007). In the same vein, people who do good deeds for someone they do not like will justify their behavior by changing their opinion of the person for whom the deed was done (Tavris & Aronson, 2007). In each instance, self-justification sets the stage for future behavior, and over time, fundamentally changes beliefs, self-concept, and personal narratives.
The author’s provide a useful metaphor, that of a pyramid, to describe how self-justification is a slippery slope, affecting future decision-making, and evolving self-concept. At the top of the pyramid is a person looking down towards a difficult and perhaps morally ambiguous choice. Irrespective of whether the individual makes a good or bad decision, taking a step towards the bottom, self-justification kicks in, convincing the individual of the rightness of their choice. Over time, and the course of many decisions, a person can end up very far from where they started, in terms of their principles, beliefs, prejudices, or other cognitions; hence the slippery slope of self-justification. In addition, the further down the pyramid a person slides, the more intractable they are likely to become, given how their journey down the slope informs their own personal narrative and resulting beliefs.
Tavris and Aronson (2007) describe how self-justification operates on beliefs, and manifests in the form of “confirmation bias”, the notion that people will prefer information that confirms their own points of view rather than accept new information contrary to their beliefs (Nickerson, 1998). Confirmation bias is a particular form of dissonance-reducing, self-justification that allows a person to filter out contrary information, irrespective of the strength of evidence, rather focusing on information that supports their way of thinking. The implications are far-reaching, insofar as self-justification serves to support close-mindedness and resistance to change.
In fact, the authors share dozens of examples of how self-justification and confirmation bias affect the country’s social institutions, including the mental health system, the legal system, and even marriage. In particular, Tavris and Aronson (2007), are critical of practicing mental health professionals, who lack the essential skepticism inherent in scientific thought in their clinical practices. The result, the authors argue, is a closed loop of clinical judgment, where the clinicians own beliefs about their patients, lead them down the slippery slope of self-justifying behavior, doing enormous harm in the process. Replete with examples, ranging from the molestation hysteria in daycare to the tragedies of repressed-memory therapies, the authors highlight how self-justification led many clinicians towards erroneous judgments that caused significant individual and social harm.
The closed loop of judgment was also prevalent in law enforcement and legal system examples, where bad decisions result in wrongful convictions and innocent people in prison. In addition to the typical descriptions of confirmation bias during investigation and trial, the authors are exceptionally critical of law enforcement interrogation techniques, and in particular, are critical of the pseudo-scientific Reid technique, which presumes guilt and, among other transgressions, introduces fictitious evidence to induce confessions. Tavris and Aronson (2007) argue “the interrogator’s presumption of guilt creates a self-fulfilling prophecy” (p. 143), where the innocent are coerced into confession. The authors cite a notable study finding that an innocent person paired with an interrogator that presumed guilt was the combination that resulted in the most aggressive and coercive interrogation techniques (Kassin, 2005). The implications of pervasive self-justification in law enforcement and the legal system, is the conviction of innocents and the coincident freedom for the guilty.
The final social institution explored at some depth, is the institution of marriage, where self-justification can work to either support or fracture marital relationships, depending on whether interactions between husband and wife are positive or negative. According to the authors, “the vast majority of couples who drift apart, do so slowly, over time, in a snowballing pattern of blame and self-justification” (Tavris & Aronson, 2007). Specifically, in absence of empathetic communication, couples can develop implicit theories about one another to account for behaviors that cause dissonance (Tavris & Aronson, 2007). Implicit theories can have significant consequences when confirmation bias sets in and couples adopt victim or villain narratives, rather than behave with empathy for the other (Tavris & Aronson, 2007). Unfortunately, the authors offered little advice for couples caught in a spiral of self-justification.
In fact, only in the final chapter, do Tavris and Aronson (2007) offer recommendations for how people can override the wiring of cognitive dissonance, and those recommendations are surprisingly thin. The authors suggest that greater transparency in the institutions and professions where confirmation bias is prevalent can help remove self-serving bias (Tavris & Aronson, 2007). For instance, interrogations can be videotaped, or third party commissions can be appointed to review new evidence in trials. In addition, the authors favor greater training in science, suggesting the natural skepticism and peer review processes systematically remove confirmation bias (Tavris & Aronson, 2007). However, their advice for individuals seeking to override their wiring is less concrete, suggesting simply, that people should step out of the moment, let go of their self-justification, and own up to their mistakes (Tavris & Aronson, 2007). If it were that simple, more people would do it.
Analysis and Evaluation
The authors achieve the intent of the book, insofar as the narrative helps the reader understand the mechanism of cognitive dissonance, and the way in which self-justification helps reduce dissonance. In fact, the narrative is replete with examples of how self-justification leads people towards confirmation bias and tunnel vision, closed loop judgments, fractured relationships, and intractable positions, in effect, sliding down the slippery slope of the pyramid, one bad decision at a time. The sheer volume of relevant and timely examples, make the narrative highly credible.
In addition, the authors are excellent at supporting their perspective with scientific research and evidence in a way that is thoughtful, while keeping the overall voice of the work consumable for audiences without formal a social psychology education. However, those that are interested in the underlying research supporting the authors’ conclusions can make use of the nearly forty pages of endnotes that form the theoretical backbone of the book. In particular, Aronson’s decades of experience and leadership in cognitive dissonance research, come to life in a credible and succinct way.
Despite the inherent credibility of the work, the tone of the book is largely negative, perhaps owing to the author’s desire to help people understand the consequences of self-justification. While the authors avoid an outright indictment of the country’s social institutions, they do so only by a narrow margin. In some ways, the story was oriented primarily as social commentary, rather than a pure scientific or self-help narrative, perhaps too much so. This author found the overwhelmingly negative tone to paint a very bleak picture of society, perhaps the result of a too narrow focus on the problems and consequences of self-justification and too little focus on solutions. In fact, the author’s devote a mere chapter to a more hopeful, and solution-oriented stance, suggesting either their decades of research have produced little in the way of remedies to help people override their wiring, or that another book is in the offing.
The lack of solutions was surprising given that so many disciplines outside of social psychology grapple with the same problem, even if the problem is not expressed using cognitive dissonance as the theoretical lens. For example, leadership research often seeks to understand how some leaders are able to create a learning organization, while others create a culture that fears mistakes; and how some leaders can maintain their ethical compass, while others lose their way. In particular, authentic leadership research deals directly with the need for authentic leaders that avoid the slippery slope of self-justification through development of authentic leadership characteristics, including self-awareness, transparency, ethics/morals, and balanced processing (Rock, 2011). The field of authentic leadership research includes interventions like the ALQ and “Best-self” exercise to help leaders connect with their authentic selves, a process designed to shine a light on the self-justifications that chip away at a leader’s true self (Rock, 2011). Furthermore, the leadership discipline is not the only discipline that offers practical advice.
For example, decades of research in communications also offer practical advice to avoid the consequences of self-justification, particularly in conflict management, where conflict managers have had to deal with pervasive self-justification and intractable positions in the course of mediation, negotiation, and therapy. For instance, there is a significant body of work on the transcendent power of forgiveness in helping individuals see past their roles as victims and villains, moving people far beyond self-justification towards empathy and reconciliation (Abigail & Cahn, 2011). In addition, practical techniques, such as focusing on the problem rather the person, focusing on interests rather than positions, and even reframing, help move the dialogue away from the opportunity for self-justification to play a role. In short, this author would have preferred that Aronson and Tavris would have devoted more effort on practical advice and guidance, drawing from a wider variety of disciplines. It appears that the authors suffer from confirmation bias, failing to draw solutions from disciplines outside their own.
Despite some of the drawbacks of the book, Mistake Were Made (but not by me) is a powerful narrative that offers fascinating insight into human behavior and motivation. In addition, the work is timely and relevant, given the pervasive prevarication, avoidance of responsibility, and self-justification that affects humanity’s social institutions. While the authors’ insights into how self-justification affects behavior, relationships, and institutions is powerful, the book could use more discussion on solutions and a little less social commentary. Perhaps the authors should consider the sequel, Mistakes Were Made (by me): How We Take Responsibility to Lead Better Lives.
Abigail, R. A., & Cahn, D. D. (2011). Managing conflict through communication (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, Ill.,: Row.
Kahn, M. (1966). The physiology of catharsis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 278-298.
Kassin, S. (2005). On the psychology of confessions: Does innocence put innocents at risk? American Psychologist, 60, 215-228.
Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2, 175-200.
Rock, R. (2011). An Authentic Leadership Journey. Essay. Colorado State University. Denver. Retrieved from https://journey24pointoh.com/2011/11/03/an-authentic-leadership-journey/
Tavris, C., & Aronson, E. (2007). Mistakes were made (but not by me) : why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts (1st ed.). Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt.