Trevor'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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Jun 05, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: behavioural-economics, psychology
Recommended to Trevor by: David Giltinan

I found this a remarkably challenging book to read. There was a time when I thought psychology was an odd sort of discipline. As someone who had studied physics for a while I couldn’t really bring myself to call it a science and as someone who studied philosophy I also felt it had failings on that score too. My understanding of psychology was fairly limited, but Freudian, Jungian, Behaviourist and god knows what other –isms all seemed to me to depend too much on a foundation that seemed much too arbitrary. The books I’ve been reading lately on psychology, however, are much less ‘ideological’ and much more scientific.

I’ve read this book in about three days – and that despite also having about four other books on the go at the same time. This one pushed all the others I’ve started to the bottom of the list. Like I said, a lot of this book I found very challenging, but all of it very compelling.

One of the psychological insights that has been messing around with my mind lately is the idea that if you ask someone who is studying to become a doctor why one of their fellow students is also becoming a doctor they are likely to say that it is obvious that that person is virtually made to be a doctor. In fact, they are likely to think that virtually everyone else in their course is there because they are almost constitutionally designed to become a doctor. But if you ask the person themselves why they are becoming a doctor they are likely to say that they are in the course more or less by accident. That there have been a network of lines that intersected and by a series of coincidences they have ended up here. And this is not just true of people’s understanding of those around them when it comes to career choices – but virtually everything else they do too. The tendency is for us to greatly over-rate what others do as being a manifestation of their ‘essential nature’ and what we do as being an unpredictable consequence of arbitrary and random forces.

But this has consequences that go far beyond a mere curiosity related to people’s chosen career paths. When we find that a friend has engaged in what we might consider to be an ‘act of betrayal’ against us this same tendency kicks in again and we are likely to see this betrayal not as a momentary lapse on our friends part caused by them being carried away by circumstance, but as an indication of what is their essential nature. Our acts of betrayal against our friends, on the other hand, we tend to see as either momentary lapses or justified retaliation given their infinitely worse behaviour.

This book looks at the consequences that our tendencies to under-rate our own culpability for mistakes and misdemeanours has and to over-rate the intention and severity of the actions of others when committed against us. The ‘us’ here is not just ourselves personally, but also the ‘us’ as a group or as a society as a whole. Some of the examples given in this book range from case studies of marriages falling apart (something that had cringe-making moments for me as I saw some of the very much less attractive parts of my own personality displayed before me in vivid Technicolor in relation to both my current relationship and my marriage breakdown) all the way up to the long standing problems existing between Iran and the United States.

The book also looks at how people who were involved in what should really be referred to as the ‘recovered memory scandal’ have dealt with their role in this. The most generous answer is ‘not very well’. But this isn’t a book about pointing the finger and complaining about how pathetic some people are, you know, the sorts of people who make mistakes. Rather, it is a book that tries to show that we humans are all too prone to self-justification and this is a terrible danger particularly when we do things that are by any definition not things that we can be proud of. The book points out that despite our often simple-minded ideas that some people are just basically bad and that they do things just to be evil, in fact, most people who ‘do evil’ imagine they are doing good. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions and kept shining after being buffed clean by our rationalisations.

If you look up a dictionary definition of ‘evil politician’ it wouldn’t be too surprising if there was a picture of Hitler. But even if you had the chance to interview Hitler in the bunker just before he popped his pill, it is very unlikely that he would have admitted that he had made many (any) mistakes. It is also unlikely that he would think that anything he had done was either wrong or bad. No, he would have the (to us) remarkable perspective that not only he had done good (and probably not just ‘on balance’) and had acted in the best interests of the future of all humanity, but that one day people would even realise that he was as wonderful as he had always thought himself. I think we (or perhaps just I) find this hard to accept, because we like to believe that deep down the people we consider to be evil know they are bad. If only the world was so simple.

The image that stays with me from the last few years is of Lynndie England and her thumbs-up sign while she was standing beside a pyramid of naked Iraqi men. It is hard not to think that here is an instance of someone with some sort of moral deficiency, someone who clearly gains enjoyment out of the humiliation of others and therefore she must be someone devoid of some basic human quality – and that lacking is what separates her from us. Unfortunately, even that proves not to be the case. The most disturbing bit of research quoted in this book (and there are lots of disturbing bits of research discussed in this book) is that those most likely to become utter monsters are those who have high self-esteem and they are most likely to become monsters towards those who have virtually no power to retaliate. Why? Because we do not want to think of ourselves as bad people, particularly those of us with high self-esteem. But if we start to do horrible things to our enemies then we need to be able to justify those terrible acts – and we tend to do that by saying that they deserved it, that they are less than human, that they do worse to their enemies, that we are acting in a way that is pure and good and (dare we say it) humane, and in fact, that they are the ones (these powerless victims of ours) who are to blame.

The section of this book on police interrogation methods should be made compulsory reading. Years ago I read a book that talked about a psychological experiment that has stayed with me since. People were asked to come to a room in a university to do a memory test involving a series of nonsense syllables. When they got to the room they were told that the experiment was running a little late, so would they mind sitting in a chair for a few minutes. Directly in front of the chair was a poster – one of those graphic posters that show police at a car accident and warning about drink driving or something of the kind. The poster was both graphic and directly in front of the people – so not something they were likely to not notice. When they were finally let into the room to do the test half of them were actually given the syllables to learn for half an hour, the other half of them were asked if they had noticed the poster in the waiting room. These people were then quizzed for half an hour on as many details as they could remember from the poster. What colour was the car, how many policemen were there, was it the man’s right or left leg that had been cut off in the accident? You know the sort of thing. Lots and lots of detail.

Now for the interesting bit. At the end of the half hour both groups of people (the ones who did the syllables and the ones who did the ‘remembering’ of the poster) were shown another copy of the poster and asked if this was the poster they had seen in the waiting room. Virtually everyone who did the memorising of the nonsense syllables said it was – however, virtually no one who had spent half an hour ‘remembering’ the poster said it was. Why? Because those who had spent half an hour ‘remembering’ the poster had decided for sure there were three police officers, and the guy on the road was wearing a green shirt and there was a bicycle in the background and in the poster they were being shown none of those things were there.

When I first heard about this experiment (remember, we are talking about events that have all taken place in a span of slightly more than half an hour) I was shocked at what this experiment implied about our justice system. In short, we are very suggestible creatures and the legal system (particularly the police force) needs to be very careful not to pollute witnesses to crimes in ways that can destroy any hope of justice for the accused – something that should be of foremost concern. However, this book makes my concerns over the justice system seem terribly naïve. I’ve learnt that you also have to add to this mix humans who are convinced they are right, people who refuse to consider any evidence other than that which supports their conclusion after they have reached it, who take it as a professional slight if they are challenged to support or (god forbid) reconsider their favourite theory, people who won’t even change their view of the guilt of the accused after irrefutable evidence is presented to them. The need to rethink our justice system so as to take into consideration the latest findings psychology presents us with becomes all rather urgent.

This is, as I said, a deeply troubling book. Parts of this book felt like a mirror had been held up to me and I have to say that I really didn’t like what I saw. But this is a very important book and one that demands to be read. I recommend it without hesitation.
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02/13/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by Lena (new) - added it

Lena Wonderful review, Trevor. Thanks for giving so detail about the research on this fascinating and discomfiting subject.

David Great review, Trevor. It is a very disturbing book, but - as you point out - one that deserves a widespread reading.

Trevor Thank you both for the recommendation. I went to the library to find the book Lena had read, but it was out but this was there. I'll read the other once it is returned.

Geoff Ball This book should be required reading; so should this review.

message 5: by Emily (new) - added it

Emily Low Thank you for the review. I have a lot of books on my list, but this looks like one I should get to sooner rather than later.

Trevor Oh no, a pleasure. This is one of a very long list of books I read on this topic, and one of the better ones. Let me know what you think of it if you do read it. Another that you might like, but might be harder to get hold of is The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, which is sort of all of the main ideas behind all of these kinds of books without the stories about plane accidents.

Gary great review! just started getting into it an like a lot of social psych research or discussion of logical fallacies, there is plenty of time to do some inverted head scratching.

message 8: by Shahzad (new)

Shahzad Great review, thanks!

message 9: by Amber (new)

Amber Thank you for the review. It is very nicely detailed and I like your own additions.

Trevor Thanks Gary, Shahzad and Amber - all the best

message 11: by Alexander (new) - added it

Alexander Livingston Thanks, Trevor, for your thoughtful, well-expressed, and detailed review. Which book was it that Lena recommended?

Trevor All so long ago, but I assume it was this one

message 13: by Nanania (new) - added it

Nanania Wangare I'm getting this book because of your review! Thank you :)

Trevor Oh no, thank you - let me know what you think of the book. All the best

message 15: by Harald (new) - added it

Harald Felgner It's just amazing when you look at the timeline of this thread. #SocialMedia is NOT about short-term only. Trever, your comment from an hour ago to your own review from 7 years ago triggered me to read the book maybe next year or the year after. As I said: Amazing :)

Trevor 2009 - god, a lot longer ago than I would have liked to remember. This one is a good one though.

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