Alyssa'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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Mar 05, 12

Read from February 01 to March 05, 2012

Ultimately, I think that Tavris's conclusions about self-justification are probably correct, but her argument was flawed. There were a number of things that put me off from this book. Here's my list of gripes:

1) The book relied much too heavily on anecdotal evidence to prove its points. Tavris did back up her claims about self-justification with some psychological research (that sounded like it was peer-reviewed, I guess), but it was pretty sparse (like 1 study per chapter if that---as opposed to anecdote after anecdote after anecdote). Plus, she never really discussed the full context of the studies she cited, nor did she ever give any qualifications for the research or her own conclusions.

2) The overly sanctimonious, self-righteous tone of the book was a total turn-off. For the most part, I felt that it really condemned the people in the examples of self-justification that Tavris wrote about. Even though she had a good point, I feel that most of the situations are more complex than she made them out to be.

3) She used a lot of logical fallacies. Her pet metaphor of the "pyramid" is just another version of the slippery slope fallacy. And she heavily relied on either-or logic to support her claims.

4) Throughout the whole book she speaks about self-justification as though it were a fundamental flaw in human psychology. I think that is far from the truth. My contention is that evolution created the human brain the way it is for a reason. If it didn't serve a purpose, self-justification would have been discarded long, long ago because it would have caused humans to make disastrously bad decisions. But the truth is, self-justification and other illusions we create about ourselves and our world are extremely important to our ability to function in the world. I don't have time to go through all of the useful purposes that these cognitive processes serve, but here's a few: seeing ourselves as good people allows us to achieve more than people who are depressed and who have a more realistic perception of themselves---and applying patterns from old situations to new ones helps us to adapt to novelty and change more effectively. In short, a more nuanced acknowledgement of the complexity of the human brain would have been better---and more informative.

I'd read Invisible Gorilla instead. It says the same basic thing at this book, but in a much more compelling and informative way.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Geoff Ball If the authors had to go in-depth about every single study, this would be a textbook. I don't believe that was their intent. The nice thing is, they've cited everything, so there is an opportunity to investigate those studies on your own.

As for the pyramid metaphor, I think they were just trying to suggest that the further you get from your original choice, the more difficult it becomes to go to the other side. I found the example very fitting.

I agree with you that self-justification has a purpose. However, I don't think the authors were suggesting it doesn't. As they said at the very start of the book, it allows us to sleep at night. The problem, as they go on to say, is that we are convincing ourselves of a lie to rectify the cognitive dissonance between what we believe and what we do. The fact that people see themselves as good people—even when they aren't—is exactly the problem the authors are claiming (Idi Amin, Hitler, etc.).

Thank you for suggesting Invisible Gorilla; I'll have to read it.


Camie Geoff I agree with everything you say here!! when people read books like this, they are not wanting to read textbooks. I thought this book was exactly what it was presented as.....


Dave Burns Your fourth point can easily be read as making excuses for ass covering, responsibility ducking, and a cavalier attitude toward serious flaws in the US justice system. I agree that self-justification must serve a purpose, and perhaps it will cost us dearly to correct for it in out lives. But I hope you are not seriously suggesting that we ignore the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and prevent injustices.
What do you think of the authors' claim that persons who learned to take responsibility for their errors often gained from this ability? I understand the impulse to deny responsibility, but I don't see it as really healthy.


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