Book Review: Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

January 7, 2013
What happens when we are faced with evidence that conflicts with our deeply held opinions?


Books on my shelfBooks on My Shelf
From time to time I will give you excerpts and recommendations for books I have enjoyed very much. Some are serious, others light reading. Some are still in print, others not so but still worth getting from the library. Or, they can be ideas to add to your holiday shopping list.
If you buy these books using the links in the post, you can help support the upkeep of the Support4Change website and blog. Even if you aren’t planning on buying them, I still think you will enjoy reading the excerpts and my thoughts on these excellent books.

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Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify
Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Are you amazed at how easily your boss denies he told you to do something he told you to do, or why politicians insist upon their position despite ample evidence to the contrary, or why people dodge responsibility when things fall apart, or why we engage in endless marital quarrels because we can’t admit we’re wrong, or why we can see hypocrisy in others but not in ourselves?

For an explanation of why we keep our heads in the sand, I suggest you pick up a copy of one of my all-time favorite books. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by renowned social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.

Backed by years of research, the authors show us scientific evidence of what happens when we are faced with evidence that conflicts with our deeply held opinions. Quite simply, our brains are wired to create fictions that absolve us of responsibility. Thus we are able to restore our belief that we are smart, moral, and right—a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.

Whether presidents or common laborers, mothers or fathers, you or me, we all justify our beliefs, make bad decisions, and commit hurtful acts. We accept inconsistent ideas and don’t see a contradiction between them. Of course, some of us seem more incapable of understanding the degree to which we fool ourselves than others, but no one escapes.

Any therapist can tell you this is true. We observe it in our clients all the time. Our identities are formed by our beliefs. Depending on how strongly we hold our opinions, our egos can make it difficult to change in the face of glaring evidence to the contrary. Therefore, to change an opinion can feel as though we are experiencing a death of the “self,” which is true, of course. It is a death of our old identity.

One illustration the authors used struck me personally. You see, years ago I was taught that people could easily suppress memories of being molested as children. I had several clients for whom I accepted this as fact based on what I was told in graduate school. Even before reading this book, which talks about false memories, I realized I was wrong. I believe this was one of the greatest mistakes I made as a therapist. I will always feel guilty in accepting a theory based more on supposition than evidence, which negatively impacted two families.

As I was reading the book, I kept thinking that it should be given to the president, members of his cabinet, and every politician serving in congress. However, based on what we can observe from those on Capitol Hill, it probably won’t do any good. The more strongly politicians believe their constituents who demand loyalty to one point of view, the harder it is for them to see—and act upon—another perspective.

Maybe the better step to take is to become aware of our own tendency to have tunnel vision and avoid voting for those who stubbornly persist in courses of action that move right into the path of quicksand.

Backed by years of research, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) offers a fascinating explanation of self-deception—how it works, the harm it can cause, and how we can overcome it. Once you’ve read it, you will never again be able to shun blame quite so casually.

Did you enjoy this post?
Here are a some related posts from this blog, and articles from the Support4Change website:

Book Review: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)

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