Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) - Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson

mistakes-were-made-but-not-by-me-carol-tavris-elliot-aronson-book-cover.jpg

Rated: 8/10

Available at: Amazon

ISBN: 0544574788

Related: Extreme Ownership - Jocko Willink & Leif Babin

Summary

This book is an introduction to self-justification and cognitive dissonance, and by extension, cognitive biases.  It’s a great overview of everyday situations and historical examples where these play a role in everything from learning to our relationships.

The takeaway: we must learn to spot our own self-justification, and stop it when required, to prevent further action based upon false self-justification.

Overall a great book that has led me to examining in more detail the cognitive biases we all are subject to, and even further to mental models which help thinking.  Would definitely recommend reading.

Chapter Summaries

  • We all self-justify as a way to protect against cognitive dissonance, whether positively or negatively.
  • The pyramid of choice is what we move along when making decisions to self-justify or not - it is critical to be aware of self-justification to make good decisions early.  A series of bad decisions will have us in a bad place, and happen gradually.
  • Naive realism: the believe that everyone else sees the world as we do
  • Our own preference for our culture, nation, religion, etc. has benefits, but we must be careful they are not prejudice, which is impervious to reason, experience and counterexample, as opposed to a stereotype.
  • Prejudices diminish under less economic competition, when truces are signed, when professions are integrated; basically when we are in a position to realize they aren’t that different from us.
  • Memories are easily modified, changed, or rearranged to fit a narrative to reduce cognitive dissonance; they serve to justify and explain our own lives.
  • We must be careful to not allow memory distortion to let us off the hook for being responsible for the things we’ve done or made decisions about in life.
  • For any theory to be scientific, it must be stated in such a way that it can be proven false.
  • Clinicians, particularly in psychology, should be concerned about confirmation bias, both in their self-confidence in their expert assessments, and also in their evaluations and interviewing of children on subjects like abuse.
  • Confessions can be elicited from defendants legally by using deceit, trickery, etc., and suspects will often confess to reduce their own cognitive dissonance between what a detective is telling them (evidence), and what they believe.
  • Interrogators must also be cognizant of their own bias in believing this particular subject to be guilty and evaluating evidence that may suggest otherwise. 
  • Working in couples is all about arguing, and self-justification.
  • Successful couples will give the benefit of the doubt to their partners, just as they would to themselves: they did something bad because of the situation, etc., but if they do something good, it’s because of who they are.
  • Unsuccessful couples do the opposite.
  • Successful couples have five times as many positive interactions to negative ones.
  • To resolve a conflict, both sides must drop their self-justifications: the perpetrator must honestly apologize and try to atone, the victim must let go and forgive.
  • Together, they must agree on steps they can take to move forward.
  • We must strive to take self-justification into account in our lives and relationships to prevent sliding down the pyramid and continuously justifying our actions, and then taking further action on those justifications.
  • Our mistake-phobic culture, or equating stupidity with mistakes, causes people not to learn from their mistakes.
  • To help others do this, we must encourage mistakes, confusion, and hard work as part of the learning process, and reward those who push through learning challenges, particularly in children.

Detailed Notes

Introduction

  • It goes further than that: Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously
  • That is why self-justification is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done. In fact, come to think of it, it was the right thing

Chapter 1

  • Cognitive Dissonance: The Engine of Self-justification
    • 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, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don't rest easy until they find a way to reduce it.
    • What they do show is that if a person voluntarily goes through a difficult or a painful experience in order to attain some goal or object, that goal or object becomes more attractive
  • Believing is Seeing:
    • On the contrary: If the new information is consonant with our beliefs, we think it is well founded and useful: Just what I always said! But if the new information is dissonant, then we consider it biased or foolish: What a dumb argument! So powerful is the need for consonance that when people are forced to look at disconfirming evidence, they will find a way to criticize, distort, or dismiss it so that they can maintain or even strengthen their existing belief. This mental contortion is called the confirmation bias.
  • Ingrid’s Choice, Nick’s Mercedes, and Elliot’s Canoe
    • People become more certain they are right about something they just did if they can't undo it.
    • You can see one immediate benefit of understanding how dissonance works: Don't listen to Nick. The more costly a decision, in terms of time, money, effort, or inconvenience, and the more irrevocable its consequences, the greater the dissonance and the greater the need to reduce it by overemphasizing the good things about the choice made. Therefore, when you are about to make a big purchase or an important decision—which car or computer to buy, whether to undergo plastic surgery, or whether to sign up for a costly self-help program—don't ask someone who has just done it
    • If you want advice on what product to buy, ask someone who is still gathering information and is still open-minded. And if you want to know whether a program will help you, don't rely on testimonials: Get the data from controlled experiments
    • No one is immune to the need to reduce dissonance, even those who know the theory inside out
  • Spirals of Violence—and Virtue
    • Actually, decades of experimental research have found exactly the opposite: that when people vent their feelings aggressively they often feel worse, pump up their blood pressure, and make themselves even angrier
    • Venting is especially likely to backfire if a person commits an aggressive act against another person directly, which is exactly what cognitive dissonance theory would predict. When you do anything that harms someone else—get them in trouble, verbally abuse them, or punch them out—a powerful new factor comes into play: the need to justify what you did
    • Fortunately, dissonance theory also shows us how a person's generous actions can create a spiral of benevolence and compassion, a virtuous circle. When people do a good deed, particularly when they do it on a whim or by chance, they will come to see the beneficiary of their generosity in a warmer light
    • Because most people have a reasonably positive self-concept, believing themselves to be competent, moral, and smart, their efforts at reducing dissonance will be designed to preserve their positive self-images
    • Dissonance reduction operates like a thermostat, keeping our self-esteem bubbling along on high. That is why we are usually oblivious to the self-justifications, the little lies to ourselves that prevent us from even acknowledging that we made mistakes or foolish decisions
    • But dissonance theory applies to people with low self-esteem, too, to people who consider themselves to be schnooks, crooks, or incompetents. They are not surprised when their behavior confirms their negative self-image
    • Self-justification, therefore, is not only about protecting high self-esteem; it's also about protecting low self-esteem if that is how a person sees himself.
  • The Pyramid of Choice
    • It's the people who almost decide to live in glass houses who throw the first stones.
    • The metaphor of the pyramid applies to most important decisions involving moral choices or life options
    • But by the time the person is at the bottom of the pyramid, ambivalence will have morphed into certainty, and he or she will be miles away from anyone who took a different route
    • A richer understanding of how and why our minds work as they do is the first step toward breaking the self-justification habit. And that, in turn, requires us to be more mindful of our behavior and the reasons for our choices. It takes time, self-reflection, and willingness
  • Chapter Summary:
    • We all self-justify as a way to protect against cognitive dissonance, whether positively or negatively.
    • The pyramid of choice is what we move along when making decisions to self-justify or not - it is critical to be aware of self-justification to make good decisions early.  A series of bad decisions will have us in a bad place, and happen gradually.

Chapter 2

  • Pride and Prejudice ... and Other Blind Spots
    • Along with the confirmation bias, the brain comes packaged with other self-serving habits that allow us to justify our own perceptions and beliefs as being accurate, realistic, and unbiased. Social psychologist Lee Ross calls this phenomenon naïve realism, the inescapable conviction that we perceive objects and events clearly, as they really are. We assume that other reasonable people see things the same way we do. If they disagree with us, they obviously aren't seeing clearly
    • We cannot avoid our psychological blind spots, but if we are unaware of them we may become unwittingly reckless, crossing ethical lines and making foolish decisions
  • The Gift That Keeps on Giving
    • The reason Big Pharma spends so much on small gifts is well known to marketers, lobbyists, and social psychologists: Being given a gift evokes an implicit desire to reciprocate
  • A Slip of the Brain
    • Obviously, certain categories of us are more crucial to our identities than the kind of car we drive or the number of dots we can guess on a slide—gender, sexuality, religion, politics, ethnicity, and nationality, for starters. Without feeling attached to groups that give our lives meaning, identity, and purpose, we would suffer the intolerable sensation that we were loose marbles floating in a random universe. 
    • Therefore, we will do what it takes to preserve these attachments. Evolutionary psychologists argue that ethnocentrism—the belief that our own culture, nation, or religion is superior to all others—aids survival by strengthening our bonds to our primary social groups and thus increasing our willingness to work, fight, and occasionally die for them. 
    • When things are going well, people feel pretty tolerant of other cultures and religions—they even feel pretty tolerant of the other sex!—but when they are angry, anxious, or threatened, the default position is to activate their blind spots. We have the human qualities of intelligence and deep emotions, but theyare dumb, they are crybabies, they don't know the meaning of love, shame, grief, or remorse
    • A stereotype might bend or even shatter under the weight of disconfirming information, but the hallmark of prejudice is that it is impervious to reason, experience, and counterexample
    • Social psychologists Chris Crandall and Amy Eshelman, reviewing the huge research literature on prejudice, found that whenever people are emotionally depleted—when they are sleepy, frustrated, angry, anxious, drunk, or stressed—they become more willing to express their real prejudices toward another group
    • Nice try, but the evidence shows clearly that while inebriation makes it easier for people to reveal their prejudices, it doesn't put those attitudes in their minds in the first place
    • But most people are unhappy about believing it, and that creates dissonance: I dislike those people collides with an equally strong conviction that it is morally or socially wrong to say so
    • By understanding prejudice as our self-justifying servant, we can better see why some prejudices are so hard to eradicate: They allow people to justify and defend their most important social identities—their race, their religion, their sexuality—while reducing the dissonance between I am a good person and I really don't like those people. Fortunately, we can also better understand the conditions under which prejudices diminish: when the economic competition subsides, when the truce is signed, when the profession is integrated, when they become more familiar and comfortable, when we are in a position to realize that they aren't so different from us
  • Chapter Summary:
    • Naive realism: the believe that everyone else sees the world as we do
    • Our own preference for our culture, nation, religion, etc. has benefits, but we must be careful they are not prejudice, which is impervious to reason, experience and counterexample, as opposed to a stereotype.
    • Prejudices diminish under less economic competition, when truces are signed, when professions are integrated; basically when we are in a position to realize they aren’t that different from us.

Chapter 3

  • Memory, the Self-justifying Historian
    • At the simplest level, memory smoothes out the wrinkles of dissonance by enabling the confirmation bias to hum along, selectively causing us to forget discrepant, disconfirming information about beliefs we hold dear
    • For example, if we were perfectly rational beings, we would try to remember smart, sensible ideas and not bother taxing our minds by remembering foolish ones. But dissonance theory predicts that we will conveniently forget good arguments made by an opponent just as we forget foolish arguments made by our own side
    • That is why memory researchers love to quote Nietzsche: 'I have done that,' says my memory. 'I cannot have done that,' says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually—memory yields.
  • The Biases of Memory
    • 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 at all
    • Every parent has been an unwilling player in the you-can't-win game. Require your daughter to take piano lessons, and later she will complain that you wrecked her love of the piano
    • Parent blaming is a popular and convenient form of self-justification because it allows people to live less uncomfortably with their regrets and imperfections. Mistakes were made, by them. Never mind that I raised hell about those lessons or stubbornly refused to take advantage of them
    • By far, the most important distortions and confabulations of memory are those that serve to justify and explain our own lives
    • Memories create our stories, but our stories also create our memories. Once we have a narrative, we shape our memories to fit into it
    • Memories are distorted in a self-enhancing direction in all sorts of ways. Men and women alike remember having had fewer sexual partners than they really did, they remember having far more sex with those partners than they actually had, and they remember using condoms more often than they actually did
    • Conway and Ross called this self-serving memory distortion getting what you want by revising what you had. On the larger stage of the life cycle, many of us do just that: We misremember our history as being worse than it was, thus distorting our perception of how much we have improved, to feel better about ourselves now
    • Of course, all of us do grow and mature, but generally not as much as we think we have. This bias in memory explains why each of us feels that we have changed profoundly, but our friends, enemies, and loved ones are the same old friends, enemies, and loved ones they ever were
  • True Stories of False Memories
    • False memories allow us to forgive ourselves and justify our mistakes, but sometimes at a high price: an inability to take responsibility for our lives
    • If we are to be careful about what we wish for because it might come true, we must also be careful which memories we select to justify our lives, because then we will have to live by them.
    • Certainly one of the most powerful stories that many people wish to live by is the victim narrative
  • Chapter Summary
    • Memories are easily modified, changed, or rearranged to fit a narrative to reduce cognitive dissonance; they serve to justify and explain our own lives.
    • We must be careful to not allow memory distortion to let us off the hook for being responsible for the things we’ve done or made decisions about in life.

Chapter 4

  • Good Intentions, Bad Science: The Closed Loop of Clinical Judgment
    • The scientific method consists of the use of procedures designed to show not that our predictions and hypotheses are right, but that they might be wrong. Scientific reasoning is useful to anyone in any job because it makes us face the possibility, even the dire reality, that we were mistaken. It forces us to confront our self-justifications and put them on public display for others to puncture. At its core, therefore, science is a form of arrogance control.
  • The Problem of the Benevolent Dolphin
    • For any theory to be scientific, it must be stated in such a way that it can be shown to be false as well as true
    • Observation and intuition, without independent verification, are unreliable guides
    • Truly traumatic events—terrifying, life-threatening experiences—are never forgotten, let alone if they are repeated, says McNally. The basic principle is: if the abuse was traumatic at the time it occurred, it is unlikely to be forgotten. If it was forgotten, then it was unlikely to have been traumatic. And even if it was forgotten, there is no evidence that it was blocked, repressed, sealed behind a mental barrier, inaccessible.
    • This is obviously disconfirming information for clinicians committed to the belief that people who have been brutalized for years will repress the memory
    • Other studies of the unreliability of clinical predictions, and there are hundreds of them, are dissonance-creating news to the mental-health professionals whose self-confidence rests on the belief that their expert assessments are extremely accurate. When we said that science is a form of arrogance control, that's what we mean
    • Research like this has enabled psychologists to improve their methods of interviewing children, so that they can help children who have been abused disclose what happened to them, but without increasing the suggestibility of children who have not been abused. The scientists have shown that very young children, under age five, often cannot tell the difference between something they were told and something that actually happened to them
    • Today, informed by years of experimental research with children, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and some individual states, notably Michigan, have drafted new model protocols for social workers, police investigators, and others who conduct child interviews. These protocols emphasize the hazards of the confirmation bias, instructing interviewers to test the hypothesis of possible abuse, and not assume they know what happened. The guidelines recognize that most children will readily disclose actual abuse, and some need prodding; the guidelines also caution against the use of techniques known to produce false reports
  • Chapter Summary
    • For any theory to be scientific, it must be stated in such a way that it can be proven false.
    • Clinicians, particularly in psychology, should be concerned about confirmation bias, both in their self-confidence in their expert assessments, and also in their evaluations and interviewing of children on subjects like abuse.

Chapter 5

  • Law and Disorder
  • The Investigators
    • Once a detective decides that he or she has found the killer, the confirmation bias sees to it that the prime suspect becomes the only suspect. And once that happens, an innocent defendant is on the ropes
    • The most common justification for lying and planting evidence is that the end justifies the means
  • The Interrogators
    • The most powerful piece of evidence a detective can produce in an investigation is a confession, because it is the one thing most likely to convince a prosecutor, jury, and judge of a person's guilt. Accordingly, police interrogators are trained to get it, even if that means lying to the suspect and using, as one detective proudly admitted to a reporter, trickery and deceit. Most people are surprised to learn that this is entirely legal. Detectives are proud of their ability to trick a suspect into confessing; it's a mark of how well they have learned their trade. The greater their confidence, the greater the dissonance they will feel if confronted with evidence that they were wrong, and the greater the need to reject that evidence
    • The bible of interrogation methods is Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, written by Fred E. Inbau, John E. Reid, Joseph P. Buckley, and Brian C. Jayne. John E. Reid and Associates offers training programs, seminars, and videotapes on the 9-Step Reid Technique, and on their Web site they claim that they have trained more than 300,000 law-enforcement workers in the most effective ways of eliciting confessions
  • Jumping to Convictions
    • Yet training that promotes the certainties of pseudoscience, rather than a humbling appreciation of our cognitive biases and blind spots, increases the chances of wrongful convictions in two ways. First, it encourages law-enforcement officials to jump to conclusions too quickly. A police officer decides that a suspect is the guilty party, and then closes the door to other possibilities. A district attorney decides impulsively to prosecute a case, especially a sensational one, without having all the evidence; she announces her decision to the media; and then finds it difficult to back down when subsequent evidence proves shaky. Second, once a case is prosecuted and a conviction won, officials will be motivated to reject any subsequent evidence of the defendant's innocence
    • The antidote to these all-too-human mistakes is to ensure that in police academies and law schools, students learn about their own vulnerability to self-justification
  • Chapter Summary
    • Confessions can be elicited from defendants legally by using deceit, trickery, etc., and suspects will often confess to reduce their own cognitive dissonance between what a detective is telling them (evidence), and what they believe.
    • Interrogators must also be cognizant of their own bias in believing this particular subject to be guilty and evaluating evidence that may suggest otherwise. 

Chapter 6

  • Love's Assassin: Self-justification in Marriage
    • Benjamin Franklin, who advised, Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, and half shut afterward, understood the power of dissonance in relationships
    • Of course, some couples separate because of a cataclysmic revelation, an act of betrayal, or violence that one partner can no longer tolerate or ignore. But the vast majority of couples who drift apart do so slowly, over time, in a snowballing pattern of blame and self-justification. Each partner focuses on what the other one is doing wrong, while justifying his or her own preferences, attitudes, and ways of doing things
    • Each side's intransigence, in turn, makes the other side even more determined not to budge. Before the couple realizes it, they have taken up polarized positions, each feeling right and righteous. Self-justification will then cause their hearts to harden against the entreaties of empathy
    • The kind that can erode a marriage, however, reflects a more serious effort to protect not what we did but who we are, and it comes in two versions: I'm right and you're wrong and Even if I'm wrong, too bad; that's the way I am. Frank and Debra are in trouble because they have begun to justify their fundamental self-concepts, the qualities about themselves that they value and do not wish to alter or that they believe are inherent in their nature
    • Every marriage is a story, and like all stories, it is subject to its participants' distorted perceptions and memories that preserve the narrative as each side sees it. Frank and Debra are at a crucial decision point on the pyramid of their marriage, and the steps they take to resolve the dissonance between I love this person and This person is doing some things that are driving me crazy will enhance their love story or destroy it. They are going to have to decide how to answer some key questions about those crazy things their partner does: Are they due to an unchangeable personality flaw? Can I live with them? Are they grounds for divorce? Can we find a compromise? Could I—horror of horrors—learn something from my partner, maybe improve my own way of doing things? And they are going to have to decide how to think about their own way of doing things. Seeing as how they have lived with themselves their whole lives, their own way feels natural, inevitable. Self-justification is blocking each partner from asking: Could I be wrong? Could I be making a mistake? Could I change?
    • Our implicit theories of why we and other people behave as we do come in one of two versions. We can say it's because of something in the situation or environment: The bank teller snapped at me because she is overworked today; there aren't enough tellers to handle these lines. Or we can say it's because something is wrong with the person: That teller snapped at me because she is plain rude. When we explain our own behavior, self-justification allows us to flatter ourselves: We give ourselves credit for our good actions but let the situation excuse the bad ones. When we do something that hurts another, for example, we rarely say, I behaved this way because I am a cruel and heartless human being. We say, I was provoked; anyone would do what I did; or I had no choice; or Yes, I said some awful things, but that wasn't me—it's because I was drunk. Yet when we do something generous, helpful, or brave, we don't say we did it because we were provoked or drunk or had no choice, or because the guy on the phone guilt-induced us into donating to charity. We did[…]
    • Successful partners extend to each other the same self-forgiving ways of thinking we extend to ourselves: They forgive each other's missteps as being due to the situation, but give each other credit for the thoughtful and loving things they do
    • While happy partners are giving each other the benefit of the doubt, unhappy partners are doing just the opposite
    • If the partner does something nice, it's because of a temporary fluke or situational demands: Yeah, he brought me flowers, but only because all the other guys in his office were buying flowers for their wives. If the partner does something thoughtless or annoying, though, it's because of the partner's personality flaws: She snapped at me because she's a bitch.
    • Implicit theories have powerful consequences because they affect, among other things, how couples argue, and even the very purpose of an argument. If a couple is arguing from the premise that each is a good person who did something wrong but fixable, or who did something blunderheaded because of momentary situational pressures, there is hope of correction and compromise. But, once again, unhappy couples invert this premise
    • By the time a couple's style of argument has escalated into shaming and blaming each other, the very purpose of their quarrels has shifted. It is no longer an effort to solve a problem or even to get the other person to modify his or her behavior; it's just to wound, to insult, to score. That is why shaming leads to fierce, renewed efforts at self-justification, a refusal to compromise, and the most destructive emotion a relationship can evoke: contempt. In his groundbreaking study of more than 700 couples, whom he followed over a period of years, psychologist John Gottman found that contempt—criticism laced with sarcasm, name calling, and mockery—is one of the strongest signs that a relationship is in free fall.
    • But because most new partners do not start out in a mood of complaining and blaming, psychologists have been able to follow couples over time to see what sets some of them, but not others, on a downward spiral. They have learned that negative ways of thinking and blaming usually come first and are unrelated to the couple's frequency of anger, either party's feelings of depression, or other negative emotional states. Happy and unhappy partners simply think differently about each other's behavior, even when they are responding to identical situations and actions
    • That is why we think that self-justification is the prime suspect in the murder of a marriage. Each partner resolves the dissonance caused by conflicts and irritations by explaining the spouse's behavior in a particular way. That explanation, in turn, sets them on a path down the pyramid
    • Those who travel the route of shame and blame will eventually begin rewriting the story of their marriage. As they do, they seek further evidence to justify their growing pessimistic or contemptuous views of each other. They shift from minimizing negative aspects of the marriage to overemphasizing them, seeking every bit of supporting evidence to fit their new story. As the new story takes shape, with husband and wife rehearsing it privately or with sympathetic friends, the partners become blind to each other's good qualities, the very ones that initially caused them to fall in love
    • The tipping point at which a couple starts rewriting their love story, Gottman finds, is when the magic ratio dips below five-to-one: Successful couples have a ratio of five times as many positive interactions (such as expressions of love, affection, and humor) to negative ones (such as expressions of annoyance and complaints).
    • In contrast, the couples who grow together over the years have figured out a way to live with a minimum of self-justification, which is another way of saying that they are able to put empathy for the partner ahead of defending their own territory. Successful, stable couples are able to listen to the partner's criticisms, concerns, and suggestions undefensively
  • Chapter Summary
    • Working in couples is all about arguing, and self-justification.
    • Successful couples will give the benefit of the doubt to their partners, just as they would to themselves: they did something bad because of the situation, etc., but if they do something good, it’s because of who they are.
    • Unsuccessful couples do the opposite.
    • Successful couples have five times as many positive interactions to negative ones.

Chapter 7

  • Wounds, Rifts, and Wars
    • We want to start, though, with a more common problem: the many situations in which it isn't clear who is to blame, who started this, or even when this started
    • In their narratives, perpetrators drew on different ways to reduce the dissonance caused by realizing they did something wrong. The first, naturally, was to say they did nothing wrong at all: I lied to him, but it was only to protect his feelings.
    • The second strategy was to admit wrongdoing but excuse or minimize it. I know I shouldn't have had that one-night stand, but in the great cosmos of things, what harm did it do?
    • The third strategy, when the perpetrators' backs were to the wall and they could not deny or minimize responsibility, was to admit they had done something wrong and hurtful, and then try to get rid of the episode as fast as possible. Whether they accepted the blame or not, most perpetrators, eager to exorcise their dissonant feelings of guilt, bracketed the event off in time. They were far more likely than victims to describe the episode as an isolated incident that was now over and done with, that was not typical of them, that had no lasting negative consequences, and that certainly had no implications for the present. Many even told stories with happy endings that provided a reassuring sense of closure, along the lines of everything is fine now, there was no damage to the relationship;
    • For their part, the victims had a rather different take on the perpetrators' justifications, which might be summarized as Oh, yeah? No damage? Good friends? Tell it to the marines. Perpetrators may be motivated to get over the episode quickly and give it closure, but victims have long memories; an event that is trivial and forgettable to the former may be a source of lifelong rage to the latter
    • Moreover, whereas the perpetrators thought their behavior made sense at the time, many victims said they were unable to make sense of the perpetrators' intentions, even long after the event
    • One reason he doesn't understand and she can't admit it is that perpetrators are preoccupied with justifying what they did, but another reason is that they really do not know how the victim feels. Many victims initially stifle their anger, nursing their wounds and brooding about what to do. They ruminate about their pain or grievances for months, sometimes for years, and sometimes for decades
    • Some victims justify their continued feelings of anger and their unwillingness to let it go because rage itself is retribution, a way to punish the offender, even when the offender wants to make peace, is long gone from the scene, or has died
  • Perpetrators of Evil
    • An experiment by David Glass confirmed this prediction: The higher the perpetrators' self-esteem, the greater their denigration of their victims
    • The implications of these studies are ominous: Combine perpetrators who have high self-esteem and victims who are helpless, and you have a recipe for the escalation of brutality
    • Few deny that the ticking-time-bomb justification for torture would be reasonable under those circumstances. The trouble is that those circumstances are very rare, so the saving lives excuse starts being used even when there is no ticking and there is no bomb
    • If the good-of-the-country justification isn't enough, there is always that eternally popular dissonance reducer: They started it.
    • Once people commit themselves to an opinion about Who started this?, whatever the this may be—a family quarrel or an international conflict—they become less able to accept information that is dissonant with their position
    • Once they have decided who the perpetrator is and who the victim is, their ability to empathize with the other side is weakened, even destroyed
    • We can all understand why victims would want to retaliate. But retaliation often makes the original perpetrator minimize the severity and harm of its side's actions and also claim the mantle of victim, thereby setting in motion a cycle of oppression and revenge
  • Truth and Reconciliation
    • Mediators and negotiators therefore have two challenging tasks: to require perpetrators to acknowledge and atone for the harm they caused; and to require victims to relinquish the impulse for revenge while helping them feel validated in the harm they have suffered
    • For example, in their work with married couples in which one partner had deeply hurt or betrayed the other, clinical psychologists Andrew Christensen and Neil Jacobson described three possible ways out of the emotional impasse. In the first, the perpetrator unilaterally puts aside his or her own feelings and, realizing that the victim's anger masks enormous suffering, responds to that suffering with genuine remorse and apology
    • In the second, the victim unilaterally lets go of his or her repeated, angry accusations—after all, the point has been made—and expresses pain rather than anger, a response that may make the perpetrator more empathic and caring rather than defensive. Either one of these actions, if taken unilaterally, is difficult and for many people impossible, Christensen and Jacobson say. The third way, they suggest, is the hardest but most hopeful for a long-term resolution of the conflict: Both sides drop their self-justifications and agree on steps they can take together to move forward. If it is only the perpetrator who apologizes and tries to atone, it may not be done honestly or in a way that assuages and gives closure to the victim's suffering. But if it is only the victim who lets go and forgives, the perpetrator may have no incentive to change, and therefore may continue behaving unfairly or callously
    • Christensen and Jacobson were speaking of two individuals in conflict. But their analysis, in our view, applies to group conflicts as well, where the third way is not merely the best way; it is the only way
    • Virtually the first act of the new democracy was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (Three other commissions, on human rights violations, amnesty, and reparation and rehabilitation, were also created.) The goal of the TRC was to give victims of brutality a forum where their accounts would be heard and vindicated, where their dignity and sense of justice would be restored, and where they could express their grievances in front of the perpetrators themselves. In exchange for amnesty, the perpetrators had to drop their denials, evasions, and self-justifications and admit the harm they had done, including torture and murder. The commission emphasized the need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu [humanity toward others] but not for victimization.
    • The goals of the TRC were inspiring, if not entirely honored in practice. The commission produced grumbling, mockery, protests, and anger
    • Understanding without vengeance, reparation without retaliation, are possible only if we are willing to stop justifying our own position
  • Chapter Summary
    • To resolve a conflict, both sides must drop their self-justifications: the perpetrator must honestly apologize and try to atone, the victim must let go and forgive.
    • Together, they must agree on steps they can take to move forward.

Chapter 8

  • Letting Go and Owning Up
    • If letting go of self-justification and admitting mistakes is so beneficial to the mind and relationships, why aren't more of us doing it? If we are so grateful to others when they do it, why don't we do it more often? First, we don't do it because, as we have seen, most of the time we aren't even aware that we need to. Self-justification purrs along automatically, just beneath consciousness, protecting us from the dissonant realization that we did anything wrong
    • Second, America is a mistake-phobic culture, one that links mistakes with incompetence and stupidity. So even when people are aware of having made a mistake, they are often reluctant to admit it, even to themselves, because they take it as evidence that they are a blithering idiot. If we really want more people to take responsibility for their mistakes and then strive to correct them, we need to overcome these two impediments
    • As we have tracked the trail of self-justification through the territories of family, memory, therapy, law, prejudice, conflict, and war, two lessons from dissonance theory emerge: First, the ability to reduce dissonance helps us in countless ways, preserving our beliefs, confidence, decisions, self-esteem, and well-being. Second, this ability can get us into big trouble. People will pursue self-destructive courses of action to protect the wisdom of their initial decisions. They will treat people they have hurt even more harshly, because they convince themselves that their victims deserve it. They will cling to outdated and sometimes harmful procedures in their work
  • Living with Dissonance
    • Perhaps the greatest lesson of dissonance theory is that we can't wait around for people to have moral conversions, personality transplants, sudden changes of heart, or new insights that will cause them to sit up straight, admit error, and do the right thing
    • The ultimate correction for the tunnel vision that afflicts all of us mortals is more light. Because most of us are not self-correcting and because our blind spots keep us from knowing that we need to be, external procedures must be in place to correct the errors that human beings will inevitably make and to reduce the chances of future ones
    • Few organizations, however, welcome outside supervision and correction. If those in power prefer to maintain their blind spots at all costs, then impartial review boards must improve their vision, against their will, if it comes to that
    • But what are we supposed to do in our everyday lives?
    • In our private relationships, we are on our own, and that calls for some self-awareness. Once we understand how and when we need to reduce dissonance, we can become more vigilant about the process and often nip it in the bud; like Oprah, we can catch ourselves before we slide too far down the pyramid. By looking at our actions critically and dispassionately, as if we were observing someone else, we stand a chance of breaking out of the cycle of action followed by self-justification, followed by more committed action
    • We can learn to put a little space between what we feel and how we respond, insert a moment of reflection, and think about whether we really want to buy that canoe in January, really want to send good money after bad, really want to hold on to a belief that is unfettered by facts. We might even change our minds before our brains freeze our thoughts into consistent patterns
    • Becoming aware that we are in a state of dissonance can help us make sharper, smarter, conscious choices instead of letting automatic, self-protective mechanisms resolve our discomfort in our favor
    • The goal is to become aware of the two dissonant cognitions that are causing distress and find a way to resolve them constructively, or, when we can't, learn to live with them
    • Confidence is a fine and useful quality; none of us would want a physician who was forever wallowing in uncertainty and couldn't decide how to treat our illness, but we do want one who is open-minded and willing to learn. Nor would most of us wish to live without passions or convictions, which give our lives meaning and color, energy and hope. But the unbending need to be right inevitably produces self-righteousness. When confidence and convictions are unleavened by humility, by an acceptance of fallibility, people can easily cross the line from healthy self-assurance to arrogance
    • All of us have hard decisions to make at times in our lives; not all of them will be right, and not all of them will be wise. Some are complicated, with consequences we could never have foreseen. If we can resist the temptation to justify our actions in a rigid, overconfident way, we can leave the door open to empathy and an appreciation of life's complexity, including the possibility that what was right for us might not have been right for others
  • Mistakes Were Made—by Me
    • Most Americans know they are supposed to say we learn from our mistakes, but deep down, they don't believe it for a minute. They think that mistakes mean you are stupid
    • One lamentable consequence of the belief that mistakes equal stupidity is that when people do make a mistake, they don't learn from it
    • Therefore, says Pratkanis, before a victim of a scam will inch back from the precipice, he or she needs to feel respected and supported. Helpful relatives can encourage the person to talk about his or her values and how those values influenced what happened, while they listen uncritically
    • Instead of irritably asking "How could you possibly have believed that creep?" you say Tell me what appealed to you about the guy that made you believe him. Con artists take advantage of people's best qualities—their kindness, politeness, and their desire to honor their commitments, reciprocate a gift, or help a friend. Praising the victim for having these worthy values, says Pratkanis, even if they got the person into hot water in this particular situation, will offset feelings of insecurity and incompetence. It's another form of Peres's third way: Articulate the cognitions and keep them separate. When I, a decent, smart person, make a mistake, I remain a decent, smart person and the mistake remains a mistake. Now, how do I remedy what I did?
    • Our culture exacts a great cost psychologically for making a mistake, Stigler recalled, whereas in Japan, it doesn't seem to be that way. In Japan, mistakes, error, confusion [are] all just a natural part of the learning process.
    • The researchers also found that American parents, teachers, and children were far more likely than their Japanese and Chinese counterparts to believe that mathematical ability is innate; if you have it, you don't have to work hard, and if you don't have it, there's no point in trying. In contrast, most Asians regard math success, like achievement in any other domain, as a matter of persistence and plain hard work. Of course you will make mistakes as you go along; that's how you learn and improve. It doesn't mean you are stupid
    • The focus on constant testing, which grew out of the reasonable desire to measure and standardize children's accomplishments, has intensified their fear of failure. It is certainly important for children to learn to succeed; but it is just as important for them to learn not to fear failure. When children or adults fear failure, they fear risk. They can't afford to be wrong.
    • There is another powerful reason that American children fear being wrong: They worry that making mistakes reflects on their inherent abilities
    • Children who, like their Asian counterparts, are praised for their efforts, even when they don't get it at first, eventually perform better and like what they are learning more than children praised for their natural abilities. They are also more likely to regard mistakes and criticism as useful information that will help them improve. In contrast, children praised for their natural ability learn to care more about how competent they look to others than about what they are actually learning. They become defensive about not doing well or about making mistakes, and this sets them up for a self-defeating cycle: If they don't do well, then to resolve the ensuing dissonance (I'm smart and yet I screwed up), they simply lose interest in what they are learning or studying (I could do it if I wanted to, but I don't want to). When these kids grow up, they will be the kind of adults who are afraid of making mistakes or taking responsibility for them, because that would be evidence that they are not naturally smart after all
  • Chapter Summary
    • We must strive to take self-justification into account in our lives and relationships to prevent sliding down the pyramid and continuously justifying our actions, and then taking further action on those justifications.
    • Our mistake-phobic culture, or equating stupidity with mistakes, causes people not to learn from their mistakes.
    • To help others do this, we must encourage mistakes, confusion, and hard work as part of the learning process, and reward those who push through learning challenges, particularly in children.