Mistakes were made (But not by me)

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:

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.”

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:

It’s kind of like you’re a woman at a party, and your boss says to you, “Look, do me a favor: be nice to this guy over there.” And you see the guy is not bad-looking, and you’re unattached, so you say, “Why not? I can be nice.” Soon you find yourself on the way to a Bangkok brothel in the cargo hold of an unmarked plane. And you say, “Whoa, this is not what I agreed to.” But then you have to ask yourself: “When did the prostitution actually start? Wasn’t it at that party?”

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:

We do not remember everything that happens to us; we select only highlights. (If we didn’t forget, our minds could not work efficiently, because they would be cluttered with mental junk—the temperature last Wednesday, a boring conversation on the bus, every phone number we ever dialed.) Moreover, recovering a memory is not at all like retrieving a file or playing a tape; it is like watching a few unconnected frames of a film and then figuring out what the rest of the scene must have been like. We may reproduce poetry, jokes, and other kinds of information by rote, but when we remember complex information, we shape it to fit it into a story line. Because memory is reconstructive, it is subject to confabulation—confusing an event that happened to someone else with one that happened to you, or coming to believe that you remember something that never happened. In reconstructing a memory, people draw on many sources.

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.


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