This is a meaty book but it was definitely worth the read. I would say this book at the greatest impact of all the books I’ve read so far this year (I’m now going on to the twelfth).
Mistakes were Made explains how we come to rationalize bad and often harmful decisions and maintain foolish beliefs that we would have no difficulty recognizing as such in others. Like when you get caught speeding, you’re likely gonna have some excuse for it. Like you were late, or there was no one else on the road so it’s all good. But when you witness someone else speeding it’s the last think in your mind that they are justified in doing so. You might even say they’re a reckless sun-of-a-* . Why we do this is because of what is called cognitive dissonance. The authors write:
Dissonance produces mental discomfort that ranges from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (after all, obesity is a health risk too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways.
The authors also go on to show how a person with a strong moral compass can find herself taking actions that are far removed from what they would consider “the right thing to do”. As illustrated in the story told by a doctor who got caught in the pockets of Big Pharma:
How these decisions happen and how we find ourselves in these situations is just one part of the story. There is also the element of false memories that we create without knowing. Think on this:
Though a lot of the book covers the effects of self-justification on one’s self it also touches on more serious things like the criminal justice system. It shows how with a lack of training against self-justification there are cops and prosecutors that have made mistakes at great cost to regular civilians. The authors show that even in the face of overwhelming evidence law enforcement will stick to what is objectively the wrong verdict as a means to combat cognitive dissonance. That’s how powerful this part of our psyche is. Have a look at the cases of the central park five or the Thomas Lee Goldstean investigation (also in the book). Anyone from the outside could see how wrong the investigators were. But once they started down the road of prosecuting these innocent individuals they couldn’t bring themselves to see the error. Admitting they made a mistake would mean admitting they could have in the past. And that would be at odds with the view that they are ‘good’ people. So the solution was one of self justification — It’s the evidence that is wrong.
There is hope
The authors do give some pointers on how to guard against self-justification. The main one is being aware of dissonance and how it works. So reading this book is a great start. I highly recommend this book to everyone. Not just for those interested in a bit of psychology. You can check out some of my notes and highlights here.
Thanks for following along.