Steven Peterson'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
Sep 22, 2009

really liked it
Read in November, 2007

This is a well written, snappy book that addresses an important issue, best described by the book's title and subtitle: "Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts."

The two authors, both well reputed psychologists, use the theory of cognitive dissonance as their starting point. Leon Festinger was one of the major theorists of this approach. The authors of this book simply define the perspective thus (page 13): "Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as 'Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me' and 'I smoke two packs a day.'" How does one deal with this? By adopting one of the positions and then downgrading or rejecting the other. The end result is self-justification, self-deception, seeking out evidence to support the choice that we have made while rejecting evidence that does not fit with our choice.

The brain itself shows evidence of the operation of cognitive dissonance. The example on page 19 of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and processing information about presidential candidates is telling. The end result is "blind spots," in which people (page 42) "fail to notice vital events and information that might make them question their behavior or their convictions." As such, the authors note that cognitive dissonance makes mincemeat of such theoretical views as rational actor theory and psychoanalytic theory. One result of cognitive dissonance is what is called "confirmation bias," the attending to evidence that supports our views and the rejection/suppression of evidence that does not support our views.

Many examples are advanced to illustrate the case that the authors make. Issues include: moral lapses (e.g., Watergate participants), "made up" memories (raising serious questions about the whole idea of repressed memories), criminal justice system decisions on guilt or innocence, and so on. Much is at stake with cognitive dissonance as it operates.

In the closing chapter, the authors try to indicate how understanding cognitive dissonance might help us to limit the damage that may occur as a result of its operation. Convincing? I'm not so sure, but this discussion does get one thinking about how we might address the harmful side effects of cognitive dissonance.

A readable book that raises important issues. I think that more use of neuroscientific research could have strengthened this book that much more. Also, the work by cognitive psychologists like Kahneman and Tversky could have spoken to key points as well. This book might also profitably be read in tandem with another recent book on a similar subject, Cordelia Fine, "A Mind of Its Own." In addition, Linden's "accidental Mind" provides a perspective on related issues from a neuroscience viewpoint.
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