Arwen'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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May 30, 2012

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Interesting work, good book: a survey of self-justification, cognitive dissonance, and the fallibility of memory. As this has been a weighty theme for me, perhaps the dominant one in my life, I was interested. I think this is a good primer, but there are complexities unaddressed. What is it to live with flawed perceptions?

I would love someone to explore a gestalt where this research intersects with the research done in cognition cited in Gladwell's Blink. Instinct that doesn't have commitment of time and research behind it is less likely to carry the sort of costs that entrench cognitive bias, less likely to generate dissonance when new information comes up; yet some of the dissonance she discusses are based on instincts which have become entrenched. (Although in some of her examples, dissonance may be overplayed.)

Whichever, "cognitive bias" is inherent to learning. Anytime we settle on a set of rules to hang our world on we've created operating assumptions. Of course we are rewrite-resistant and therefore indulge in dissonance; life is spectacularly bad at following any given rule we might set upon it, but we need operating assumptions to live.

From my experience I believe that when we become less resistant to rules-rewrite, less biased, and less dissonant, we also get less done in a day. Walking back at every step to assure yourself that your first premises still hold true (for now) means everything takes longer. It's not bad work to do, but it does get less done; there are some things you have to hold to be true to move forward. From what I can tell both in my own political leanings and watching people with opposing views, it is the less nuanced and more assured that set the tone of the time, that generate the page-views. Freedom from dissonance is something people crave.

In conversations over the past few years, I wonder if the missed key in their discussion of of living with our perceptual flaws is about embracing both faith and doubt in equal measure. You have to have both - certainty means you've put something into read-only-memory, and although that's probably fine for basic laws of physics, our other science, relationships, experiences, memory, ecology, taste, and opinions are all open to question. Doubt helps by creating room to grow, and that's good: the more important an issue to us, the more doubt is useful. Only to get anything done, you also need faith. They are needful, counterbalancing muscles, to keep the whole edifice upright.
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06/09/2012 page 165
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message 1: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Hartman Nice review! The "foolish belief" of the title refers to certainty, then, as opposed to the faith you reference at the end?

(Look, I'm talking books with you! On teh Goodreads!)

Arwen Well, yes, I believe the authors would say so on one level, although on another they do not interrogate their own beliefs and biases in the course of the book (other than a particularly weak-sauce one between the author and her grown up child).

They're talking about clear dissonances - prosecutors who cannot accept that they've put the wrong guy away even in light of DNA evidence exonerating him, lack of WMD in Iraq and some people's insistence they were right even as their reasons fall out from under them.

However, they're not terribly great at nuanced areas where it's less clear cut. They prove with abandon that if you think another person is a shit-head you'll probably see their positive actions as suspicious and conversely if you see another person as a saint you'll dismiss or excuse their negative actions. They show that such framing can make or break our relationships. But they hide from the tipping point, the murky waters where true vision collides with self-justification and cognitive bias. There's hand waving about where foolish beliefs start, and I think it's because the authors have cultural and personal preferences they're not actively copping to.

For example, I have cognitive bias against people who are violent to their partners that says something like "RUN AWAY FROM SUPER BAD THING." And most would agree with me. Further, I have seen that faith in the idea that "My violent partner will change" is the way to trap yourself in pain. But a counterexample probably does exist somewhere; I'd imagine military families may have examples of violence from a veteran that could be situational, and that faith in his/her ability to heal is instrumental in the service-person turning their abuse around.

Biases and biases, right? Where's the foolish belief, where's the faith to keep going on? All I can say is when you have your faith, snug doubt in beside it. I didn't see them snugging doubt in.

But of course, that would be problematic for them, since assured speech sells books.

Arwen ( Also I have a further basic value in my example of spousal violence. That "individual protection from mental and physical harm" > "duty" or "role" when it comes to relationships. Clearly, I am a liberal. That I believe my value is morally and ethically correct is also bias. I don't use doubt in my own life, but doubt does stay my mouth and make me listen really really actively when presented with someone who thinks duty is the greater value. )

message 4: by Phantom (new)

Phantom [I just love it that you two are screeding on Teh Goodreads.]

message 5: by Rachel (last edited Jun 12, 2012 04:13PM) (new)

Rachel Hartman Phantom wrote: "[I just love it that you two are screeding on Teh Goodreads.]"

[I know, right? I find this way more amusing than I should!][Of course, I'd like it even better if I had time to give her a good screeding in return, but the run-up to Book Day has me busy.]

Arwen [I want to whisper in square brackets, too.]

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