Adam'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, 2008

it was amazing

This was by far the best book I have read in quite a few years. Highly recommended. It was so informative and engaging that I think I wore out my welcome reading it out loud to anyone who was nearby.

Written by two social psychologists and based on years of research, it provides a fascinating overview of cognitive dissonance, and how it applies to prejudice, memory, law, marriage, and war. The most chilling aspect of the book is that it points out how we all are subject to dealing with dissonance (usually in self-justifying ways), what we think we know or remember is probably not the case, regardless of which side we're on, and most of our leaders and public figures shirk responsibility for mistakes.

Some highlights:
- Reasoning areas of the brain "virtually shut down" when we are confronted with dissonant information, and emotion circuits light up when consonance is restored. Basically, this shows that there is a neurological basis for the fact that once we make up our minds, it is pretty hard to change them.
- "Naïve realism" - the "inescapable conviction" that we all have, that we see things as they really are. If someone has a different opinion they obviously aren't seeing things clearly.
- Being "absolutely, positively sure" a memory is correct doesn't mean it is. We can even have vivid false memories full of emotion and detail. For example, people can recover memories of abuse, which is shown to be dubious (notably the authors mention how Martha Nibley Beck, Hugh Nibley's daughter, created memories of abuse by her father that she was convinced of). Some people even experience alien abduction without it actually happening. Basically, we can have experiences that we think are real, especially in the past, yet they never happened. Without some outside confirming source, we cannot trust our memories too much.
- "Parent blaming" - a convenient form of self-justification; it allows people to live with regrets or mistakes because all the mistakes were made "by them."
- Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have been guilty of self-justification and failure to admit their mistakes. In fact, the last president to clearly admit to a major mistake was John F. Kennedy. Really, are we convinced that no president since then has messed up? What was really interesting is that the two presidents to use the phrase "mistakes were made" the most, were none other than Richard Nixon (of course) and, wait for it, the beloved Ronald Reagan. What is so insidious about the phrase (which Clinton even joked about using it so much) is that it is a complete avoidance of responsibility.
- Finally, resolving dissonance is not completely bad, and does serve to preserve our beliefs, confidence, and self-esteem. However, it also gets us into trouble. Hence, the authors suggest that it is possible to remain committed to a religion, political party, or partner, yet understand that "it is not disloyal to disagree with actions or policies" that one believes are inappropriate, misguided, or immoral.
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Reading Progress

December 24, 2008 – Shelved
December 29, 2008 –
page 82
Started Reading
January 4, 2009 – Finished Reading

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