Tucker's Reviews > Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris
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's review
Dec 24, 11

bookshelves: finished, relativist, brain
Read in December, 2011, read count: 2

The authors describe a "dissonance theory" of self-justification. We don't like thinking of ourselves as ignorant or ill-intentioned, so to avoid this dissonance, we try to convince ourselves and others that we are doing the right thing. We may justify to protect our high self-esteem or even our low self-esteem, if that is our default state that we are reluctant to leave.

Justification of incorrect beliefs or forbidden actions is easy when it is done incrementally, what we often call a "slippery slope". (The famous Milgram experiment in which college students were willing to electrocute other research subjects was an example of such incremental self-justification, because if the student can justify 50 volts than he can eventually justify 450 volts.) Depending on which way we first lean from the top of the pyramid, we can land at different sides of the pyramid, because once we start on a course of action we tend to continue justifying our actions in the same direction. As we self-justify and confabulate, we may develop false memories of things like having been abducted by aliens, molested as a child, imprisoned in a concentration camp or kept in an orphanage. We may unfairly persecute or wrongfully convict others.

Children under five have trouble differentiating between things they have heard and things they have actually experienced; in adulthood, we tend to forget details as years go by, so we wind up with a related problem of being unable to distinguish reality from our fantasized or chosen narratives. This is most apparent when comparing relationship narratives between happy couples and divorcing couples.

Under other circumstances, in a compressed time frame of interrogation, but according to a similar mental process, some people confess to crimes they did not commit.

Introspection, rather than fixing the problem, unfortunately often triggers even more self-justification. We all have blind spots, prejudices, and a tendency to prefer "us" over "them," but it's difficult for us to see our own limitations. Assuming we are reasonable by nature, we sometimes forgo the scientific method or engage in a biased version of it and assume that our thoughts must be reasonable because we, not someone else, thought them. We say "that's the way I am" to excuse our own behavior and we say "that's the way they are" to condemn others' behavior.
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