Books : reviews

Carol Tavris, Elliot Aronson.
Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts.
Pinter & Martin. 2007

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 26 January 2015

Why do people dodge responsibility when things fall apart? Why the parade of public figures unable to own up when they make mistakes? Why the endless marital quarrels over who is right? Why can we see hypocrisy in others but not in ourselves? Are we all liars? Or do we really believe the stories we tell?

Backed by years of research and delivered in lively, energetic prose, Mistakes were made (but not by me) offers a fascinating explanation of self-deception – how it works, the harm it can cause, and how we can overcome it.

No-one is a monster in their own view, yet people do monstrous things. At a less extreme level, people do petty and mean things too. Why?

The thesis of this book is that we rewrite our memories to overcome cognitive dissonance. How can we have done a bad thing, if we are good people? So we re-remember what we did to cast it in a better light, often by blaming the victim of our bad deed. This makes the deed less bad, because the recipient was not an innocent victim, but fully deserving of their treatment. And this leads to a potential vicious cycle: the more we mistreat someone or some group, the worse they must be, and hence the more we are justified in mistreating them.

This rather simple, and rather horrifying, idea is backed up with many examples and case studies: initiation ceremonies (I put myself through that pain, so it must be worth it), venting anger (anger is bad, so I must be justified in venting it, so you must be bad), false memory syndrome therapists and miscarriages of justice (if I was wrong, I have destroyed these people’s lives, so I must be right), bitter divorces (this person must be deserving of the terrible way I am treating them), killing civilians in war (killing innocent civilians is terrible, so they can’t have been innocent), historical feuds (I’m hurting you, because you hurt me, because I hurt you earlier, because … back into the mists of time) and more.

There is a two step solution to the problem. The first is recognising it is happening, which is hard, because of the way our brains work to protect us from the pain of cognitive dissonance, but can be helped by studying all the many examples. The second it doing something to prevent the escalation, which is even harder, as it involves owning up to what we have done, facing up to the fact that we might not be the hero of the story, and figuring out a way to move forward. The book includes examples and case studies here, too, showing that it is indeed possible to overcome the potential damage.

Fascinating and uncomfortable reading: a must for anyone who wonders how good people can do bad things.