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Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)
Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts
Authors: Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
(website)
Publication Date: May 7, 2007 | ISBN-10: 0151010986 | ISBN-13: 978-0151010981

I lend out my copy of this book and was going to wait until it was returned before writing a review. (I'm currently reading a book broadly similar in nature and was going to do both at the same time.) It has not yet been returned and I mention that so you know that I don't have it in front of me as I write this; therefore I cannot give specific references. Also, I'm going ahead with the review because this book affected how I perceive certain things, and that change in perception I recently displayed in a somewhat facetious comment on one of the forum topics. Rather than try to explain why I found something deliciously ironic, I'll write the review and let you judge for yourself.

:coolshades:



Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

Johnny has always been such a good student; why did he cheat on such an important test?

I love my husband and think he loves me, so why do we fight over such trivial things?

Representative Bechenmeyer had an excellent ethical reputation; yet there she is on tape stuffing bribe money in her pocket. What happened?

Dwight is of modest means and has been the epitome of frugal living; he's managed his finances quite well. What was he thinking when he bought that big new Mercedes? And why won't he shut the heck up about it?!

She can't really believe that she was abducted by space aliens… can she?

DNA evidence absolves Joshua of the crime, so why won't the Attorney General help get him out of prison?

Did you ever have trouble understanding why somebody said, did, or believed something? Or why they didn't? If you want to better understand the above examples (and millions of others like them) then you might like this book.

The subject of Mistakes Were Made is the application of dissonance theory. Everyone regularly experiences cognitive dissonance… yes, everyone: You, me, anyone you've ever met… everybody. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort that occurs when how we think of (or feel about) something is inconsistent with… well… reality. This book explains that cognitive dissonance, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing; it's just a conflict we experience that needs to be resolved. And there's the rub; it's the resolution of the conflict that leads to all sorts of crazy and often harmful outcomes. I think it's safe to say that this is also a book about the hazards of self-justification. Let's take an example:





Let's say you know Dwight, and you know that he's typically level-headed about finances. He doesn't make a lot of money but he's managed to buy a house, raise a family, and one of his kids is approaching college age. True, she might have to attend community college because that's all he can afford, but he's providing. Then he shows up in the Mercedes. And he's become a bit of a jerk about it, talking up its features, its comfort, and especially its safety. He even suggests that you buy one too… several times. "How can you drive your family around in that rattletrap, don't you care about them?" What's going on here?

Here's the dissonance: The kind of frugal person Dwight is (presumably how he thinks of himself) versus dropping a load of money on a top-shelf car that he neither needs nor can afford. How does he resolve the conflict? Self-justification: Overplaying the quality of the car, how great he feels about it, his now-safe family, and oh by the way you should buy one too. His oldest might not go to college now but at least she'll be extra safe as he drives her around. See how that works?

The authors cite research which demonstrates that people placing bets at the horse track feel more certain about their likelihood of winning after they've placed their bets. The odds didn't change, none of the other horses were scratched, yet the act of putting their money down, of investing in something, changed their perception. And that's what we're seeing in Dwight; he has invested in the Mercedes… invested himself in the car… and therefore needs to resolve the (real or subliminal) discomfort he feels from his less-than-frugal action.


The authors used the "buying the Mercedes" scenario as one of the first examples in the book. The following is one that I actually observed and, until reading the book, truly didn't understand.

Many years ago I worked in an office with a fellow named Big Johnny; he was a diehard Yankees fan. Since I had no interest in professional sports I didn't partake in the spirited discussions that were a regular occurrence in the office, yet I still vividly remember this one because it seemed so out of character for someone that I respected on a professional level. The previous night the Yankees had lost a game… badly. The opposing team had been hitting them out of the park while the Yankees had trouble getting on base. Some of the other fellows in the office saw an opportunity to pull Big Johnny's chain and did so. I couldn't believe what happened next.

Big Johnny asserted that when the Yankees were batting the wind was blowing into the stadium, and when the opponents were at bat the wind was blowing out of the stadium. (I STG I'm not making this up.) The others laughed at him; and even though I wasn't taking part, I too was dumbfounded by what he was saying. But he was insistent and wouldn't budge; "Didn't you see the flags?!" he kept saying.

Here's the dissonance: Cognitive- "The Yankees are the best baseball team" versus Fact: "The Yankees were trounced last night". What's the resolution? Mother Nature specifically favored the opposing team. And according to dissonance theory, he may have actually believed that. He was emotionally invested in the Yankees… (and may have even bet on them)… and no doubt was feeling a great deal of discomfort. This was his out, his resolution of the dissonance he was feeling.


Here's another example that wasn't in the book:

A few weeks ago there were reports that Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was a bully when he was in High School. There was also an allegation of a particularly egregious incident: The forcible cutting of a fellow student's hair. Romney essentially admitted that he was a bit of a jerk in High School but claimed that he did not remember the barbaric barber episode. Judging from commentary on the internet, many people felt he was lying: "How could he not remember that; something so awful?" Dissonance theory has the answer.

It's been many decades and now Romney is a successful businessman, organizer, and a former Governor; he no doubt thinks of himself as a capable leader and someone to look up to. Many folks have some sophomoric pranks in their history (that was then and this is now) but terrorizing and "marking" a peer just doesn't align with who he thinks he is today. Due to the way the human mind works, he may really truly not remember that incident. Why? Because that's how he resolved the cognitive dissonance.

Interesting side note: Recent research suggests that the brain actively forgets. We've believed that memories were carved in stone and that the struggle to remember things was a sign of cognitive impairment, of creeping dementia. Not so, the mind regularly takes out the trash; if you genuinely avoid thinking about something then you'll eventually forget it, along with the flotsam of a lifetime of inconsequential experiences. What did you have for dinner on August 17, 1992? Can't remember? That's perfectly okay, it would be remarkable if you did remember.



Mistakes Were Made goes through innumerable examples of how dissonance theory applies to life; the chapters include politics, relationships, justice, etc. It's one of those books that takes a psychological concept and applies it to the kinds of things that everyone experiences… or at least observes. It does so in a way that may make you say: "Ah, so that's why they do that"; but not so much in a way that makes you say: "Ah, so that's why >>>I<<< do that."

This is not a self-help book. The authors barely mention how to improve ourselves. How could they? We all suffer cognitive dissonance and we all engage in self-justification… and overwhelmingly we don't realize that we're doing it!. Yet that is the hidden value of the book. If you can use it to springboard from "them" to "me" then this book is invaluable.

I'm not saying that I've done that… but at least I'm thinking about it. I'm thinking about how I think (metacognition); and, at the very least, I now think more about how others may be thinking. If nothing else, Mistakes Were Made is thought-provoking. Whether or not it's enlightening depends on the individual.


Oh, and the post I was talking about is this one. A political commentator talking about the cognitive dissonance of the other side was just too yummy ironic for me to pass up; I literally laughed out loud at the headline.


:thumbsup:


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5 Comments On This Entry

You left out MADGestic supports the leftists tax and spend agenda of the Massachusetts government, but then runs north to NH to escape the sales tax.
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Joe the Pagan, on 13 July 2012 - 11:41 PM, said:

You left out MADGestic supports the leftists tax and spend agenda of the Massachusetts government, but then runs north to NH to escape the sales tax.



Ummm... I'm not sure that I ever said I supported the tax schemes of my home state (much less this nation) aside from the fact that I actually pay what's due and enjoy things like police protection and paved roads. And yes I regularly do run up to NH to buy cheaper cigarettes (but should probably stop admitting that on the internet). How is that cognitive dissonance? I would like to pay less taxes, and in the specific matter of cigarettes, I often do.

No, really... like I said above, seeing this in others is easier than seeing it in ouserlves. If you think I'm engaging in self-justification, I'm asking you to tell me.
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MADGestic, on 14 July 2012 - 01:25 AM, said:

Joe the Pagan, on 13 July 2012 - 11:41 PM, said:

You left out MADGestic supports the leftists tax and spend agenda of the Massachusetts government, but then runs north to NH to escape the sales tax.
Ummm... I'm not sure that I ever said I supported the tax schemes of my home state (much less this nation) aside from the fact that I actually pay what's due and enjoy things like police protection and paved roads. And yes I regularly do run up to NH to buy cheaper cigarettes (but should probably stop admitting that on the internet). How is that cognitive dissonance? I would like to pay less taxes, and in the specific matter of cigarettes, I often do. No, really... like I said above, seeing this in others is easier than seeing it in ouserlves. If you think I'm engaging in self-justification, I'm asking you to tell me.



You are engaging in self justification. You claim to be a moderate yet use liberal talking points. Most of the taxes from cigarettes in Massachusetts goes into the general fund, which pays for things like police protection and paved roads. I remember one of your early blogs you talked about going up to a store in NH. Did you fill out line 33 of your form 1 for the that lighter?
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Joe the Pagan, on 14 July 2012 - 07:07 PM, said:

You are engaging in self justification. You claim to be a moderate yet use liberal talking points. Most of the taxes from cigarettes in Massachusetts goes into the general fund, which pays for things like police protection and paved roads. I remember one of your early blogs you talked about going up to a store in NH. Did you fill out line 33 of your form 1 for the that lighter?

I often drive above the speed limit (sometimes egregiously) but when called on it I admit it and take responsibility for my actions without weaseling: “But everybody does it”. I took a risk and I lost so I pay for it. Similarly, when called upon to make up for the cigarette sales taxes that MA could have garnered from me, I will set things to right. I admit my wrongdoing in this regard; I know I’m doing it and when the government confronts me I will take responsibility for it. This is not self-justification (much less cognitive dissonance); it is acknowledging exactly what it is that I am doing plus a willingness to set things right.

Now tell me; when will you be going down to the traffic court and offering to pay all those speeding fines that you owe (even though you were never caught)? Tell me when and where and I’ll meet you there. :coolshades:

I claim to be a political moderate because I am not an ideological absolutist and none of my political perspectives are extreme. Let’s take the most obvious example: Civil partnership equity under the law for qualified same-gender couples. The country is pretty evenly split on “gay marriage” but when alternatives are included (civil unions, domestic partnerships, what have you) an overwhelming majority is not opposed. Being in favor of this is a moderate position.

Perhaps on the classic conservative side of the spectrum I might be considered extreme. During the financial meltdown of 2008 I was strongly opposed to the bailout of “too big to fail” firms. (If your business fails then you’re out of business, that’s how it works.) I also supported the compensation schemes that everyone was screaming about: if your contract says you deserve a $30M bonus then that is your entitlement; it doesn’t get put up for a public popular vote, you deserve it, no questions asked. It might be stupid money but don’t blame me for signing a sweet deal; take it up with the board of directors. Right?

And I absolutely believe in strong national defense… repeat: Defense.

So now I must ask what you mean by my alleged use of: “liberal talking points”. By that do you mean any arguments that do not veer strongly to the right? I’m not a right-wing extremist so my moderate positions appear to be “liberal”? Something like that?

While I am still open to exploring my own cognitive dissonance I feel that I haven’t learned much from your kind reflections… this time.
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I’ve had one of those cognitive dissonant moments… (well, one that I noticed):

I don’t like surreptitious recordings; when you’re engaging with others in real time, on a face-to-face basis, I think there’s a reasonable expectation that you’re not being secretly recorded by your acquaintances. That’s creepy, disrespectful, and in my opinion, a betrayal of a very basic and human trust. Ideally I think that anyone with a camera would first ask your permission before the exposures; but at the very least don’t do it surreptitiously… at least give me a chance to brush back my hair and smile. (“Say CHEESE!”)

On a completely unrelated note, while browsing on the internet I discovered a mountable, motion-activated camera on sale for silly money (like $30). Of course I didn’t need it but I was curious about the technology so I bought it. I haven’t even opened it yet but I thought I could put it in various places outside the house and learn what kinds of critters come visiting when I’m not paying attention. (Like who comes a’plucking my tomatos.)

Also seemingly unrelated, at the office there are these curious light fixtures in the elevator lobby on our floor. They are long, thin, small diameter fluorescent tubes; 2 to each fixture with a small mount in the middle, something like this:

========*========

… except that they are mounted vertically on the wall, with the center-mount some inches above hip height. There is an outward-facing chrome façade on each tube such that the light only shines against the wall; a highlight kind of thing. It’s an interesting effect although I think these fixtures were meant to be mounted horizontally near the ceiling, as ambient lighting, perhaps drawing attention to some architectural details up there. Primary point being that they are much too fragile to be mounted at traffic-level; even a boisterous dog or quasi-anesthetized child could wreck one of these things. Indeed, for the last several years they’ve been getting beat up, typically by being skewed from their intended vertical orientation (one of them even shorted out), and it’s quite obvious when they’re out of line. (If these are an OCD test then I’m borderline positive.)

Then I noticed a pattern… (okay, maybe I’m a touch more than borderline)… the fixture next to the freight elevator was always canted to the left, and the one near the backdoor was always leaning toward the right. This seemed to be more than coincidental. If it was just folks bouncing off the walls then all of the fixtures would be randomly askew; but when I left late one night they were all lined up and when I arrived early the next day, those two were pointing toward clues. Either folks were selectively brushing against them, or… hmmm… maybe some kind of carts were being pushed against them on a regular basis. Something after office hours…

Ah… the cleaners. No other floors have these fixtures; they push theirs carts out the doors like they always do, every night on every other floor. In fact it’s kind of tough to hold a door open and push an unwieldy cart through; who can blame them? So clearly something must be done to protect the fixtures from cleaners’ carts… so long as I can prove that that is what is actually happening. I know! I’ll just mount my motion-activated camera so that it focuses on a particular light fixture and then we see what happens… right? After all, I’m not trying to record a person that I can fault; I just want to capture a phenomenon.


See how that works?

I’m strongly opposed to surreptitious recording of people… until I want to prove something. Then it’s not a person, just a phenomenon.

THAT is how we resolve cognitive dissonance. THAT is the self-justification right there. THAT is the kind of thing we must be mindful of; to have a heightened self-awareness. If it’s wrong once then it’s wrong all the time… either that or admit that your self-righteousness is malleable; not the stony moral monolith that you like to comfortably assume it is. Yes, it’s a harsh lesson; it’s hard work being consistent… but the reward is being genuinely true to yourself and your ideals.


So no, I did not and will not mount a camera to see who or what is banging up the light fixtures; even though it will continue to bother me (ridiculously so), it’s just not worth compromising my ideals.
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