Perhaps the saddest, most sobering aspect of the human condition is that we are all fallible and capable of mistakes, but the default position is to stand athwart that immutable fact, miserably carrying the burden of our inability to admit to that fallibility because of ego and our fear of being seen as stupid.
The human brain is a miracle in any sense of the word, and its foremost objective is to protect the body it is housed within, both physically and mentally. In so doing, sometimes, the brain sabotages our own ability to navigate as the social beings we are within the world, down to the most intimate way possible (our own view of our selves), to inter-personal relationships with others, and even group dynamics up to and including state-to-state.
Self-justification to root out the cognitive dissonance we experience between wanting to be good people and not wanting to admit to our mistakes is the culprit at play here, the little seed in our brain that’s harder to shake than a popcorn kernel between our gums, and it is this self-justification that creates wedges in all of these aforementioned relationships, often to a plethora of deleterious consequences, big and small. Such is the compelling theory at work in the 2007 book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. I listened to the 2010 audiobook performed by Marsha Mercant and Joe Barrett. I was initially skeptical that I would find this audiobook as interesting or captivating as the title suggested, but it more than delivered on its promise.
I believe the authors took the title of the book, using that “past exonerative,” as one political analyst has called it, from the way Henry Kissinger, then the secretary of state during the Vietnam War, referred to conduct in the war, or how the Catholic Church has referred to the sexual molestation of scores of children by priests and the resulting cover-up, or how many a politician has used it, or corporations, like McDonald’s when it said mistakes were made regarding the labeling of its fries to Hindus, or how we use it, even without expressly saying it that way.
Tavris and Aronson argued that we all justify where we draw the moral line. Because again, the circular logic is at play here: We think we are good people, thus, if we did something considered wrong, it must not actually be wrong because we are good people. So, whatever we need to do to self-rationalize that cognitive dissonance, we do it because our brains can’t function (more metaphorically speaking, of course) with such dissonance. An example of this at play earlier this century: “If we do it, it isn’t torture.” That’s the American justification for torture, or the euphemistic use of “enhanced interrogation methods” of “terrorists” in the wake of 9/11. Since we are the “good guys” in our national narrative, we wouldn’t do something expressly forbidden by the Geneva Convention. Or, if we do torture, we own up to it and in fact, self-justify that “they” (whomever “they” are) must have deserved it, or that implausible hypotheticals like the “ticking bomb” morally compel us to do it.
The concept of cognitive dissonance isn’t new to me, as it is something that’s been floating in popular culture for a while now, but Tavris and Aronson, since it’s the primary lens through which they examine their thesis, dug deep into the concept and illuminated it in new ways for me. For example, they explain how the emergence of cognitive dissonance as a concept cut against the prevailing view of the behaviorists in psychology, which posited that humans make decisions based on rewards and punishments. Cognitive dissonance, however, shows that humans can make seemingly incongruous decisions, thanks to self-justification to smother the resulting dissonance.
One minor area I was confused by was the talk of catharsis. Tavris and Aronson brought up the Dammit Doll as an example, which made me laugh because I’m familiar with this, having given one to my prone-to-anger ex-girlfriend as a form of catharsis. In our culture, it’s sometimes thought that if we can just exercise our anger (often at this cognitive dissonance issue), then we can achieve some form of catharsis, or relief. Whether that’s through the stated aim of the “go-to-stress doll,” Dammit Doll, or punching a punching bag, or whatever the case. Tavris and Aronson rightly pushed back against this mindset (and I was wrong to think a Dammit Doll would be a solution), arguing that catharsis is not actually achieved this way because it increases our blood pressure and revs us up. However, the reason I’m confused is because there are other forms of catharsis, right? Not just anger-based ones. My go-to example has been this blog: It became catharsis for my depression hell, forcing me to write and keep going. So, I think if you can channel your stress to productive and mellowing ends rather than ones that only rev you up more, then it can be worthwhile. But I digress from the main topic here.
A paradox quickly becomes apparent in the book, which Tavris and Aronson pointed out: Becoming aware of psychological blindspots, like our need to self-justify ourselves, only serves to deepen them because someone reading/listening to this book will think, “Yeah, but that’s not me.” Admittedly, my brain wanted to go there, too! Because I like to think I am an open person, willing to admit fault, and willing to be seen as stupid, if the situation calls for it. After all, I was a journalist for much of my working life, and repeatedly asked stupid questions to better understand something.
And we know what this looks like anyhow, wherein someone presented with facts that indisputably disproves someone’s long-held beliefs wrong only serves to deepen those beliefs. Tribalism and self-justification are a heck of a one-two punch. It’s like the sunk cost fallacy in economics: You can’t turn back now, you’ve invested so much [insert whatever you’ve invested, whether actual money, time, etc.], you can’t back out now.
Tavris and Aronson presented their case using myriad examples of what this looks like in practice, from marriage squabbles to inter-state squabbles between the United States and Iran, or Israel and Palestine, to how the police, prosecutors and judges convict innocent people and send them to prison, to how Big Pharma corrupted scientific journals, and to how psychologists, of all people, perpetuated the awful Satanic and daycare panics in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The common thread linking all of these is the conviction that one is right, not that they are necessarily cartoonishly evil people. They are convinced they are right because they want to believe they are good people doing the right thing, ergo. In fact, so strong is this belief that we don’t even have mechanisms in place for fallibility in our system, like the criminal justice system. When someone is exonerated, for example, in many states, they don’t get restitution, or even a formal apology. And that’s often because the prosecutors and police still think they were right, or like the torture example, they believe that the exoneree probably did something else wrong to deserve that punishment anyway.
And see, here comes my own bias, with respect to the Big Pharma piece: I thought it was peculiar that making profit off of medications is seen as a step too far, but taking money from the government to make medications, or do research on medication, at least, was seen as the right, moral process. But again, I digress.
Another common thread: The fallibility of memory. As I mentioned in a post yesterday, our memories aren’t filings cabinets or computers. They are messy and disordered, often helping us to construct these stories where we are the heroic protagonist to ensure we defeat the nemesis known as cognitive dissonance via our superpower: self-justification.
Which comes back to ego, where instead of admitting, “I did that,” self-justification leads us to think, “I couldn’t have done that.”
The way in which memory came to be (ugh, to use a word I don’t like, for lack of a better one) weaponized in the 1980s and 1990s by psychologists, social workers, police, the media and the public to create the unscientific belief in repressed memories, which then led to the Satanic panics and daycare sex abuse panics, and even the phenomenon of false memories (applied to more than the aforementioned, too, like alien abduction, and one author who actually believed he was a victim of the Holocaust, believe it or not — Fragments: Memories of Wartime Childhood, a 1995 book, debunked three years later, thankfully).
Psychologists were brutal. Denial became evidence of repression. Or, what Tavris and Aronson called the “closed loop.” There is no way to get out of the unscientific (science demands a theory be falsifiable) logic of it: If the child, or the adult, denies repeatedly that their teacher, or father, molested them, that means they’ve only repressed the memory and we must push them further. One of the grossest examples of this was the Elmo interview Susan Kelly did with one of the kids during the daycare panic. Just read up more on the McCartin Preschool case, if you can stomach the amount of lives ruined over it.
But we know, or at least should know now, that a.) interrogating people like that, especially susceptible children, will lead to “confessions” that aren’t based in reality; and b.) that, as Tavris and Aronson repeatedly argue, memory doesn’t work like that; repressed memories aren’t a thing.
Instead of operating as actual scientists would, the psychologists then, and even the ones who still maintain the validity of repressed memories, were going off of their belief in something unproven. Tavris and Aronson said science is a form of arrogance control, which is why psychologists, cops, judges, and so on, just ignore science! Because otherwise, it would control their unearned arrogance.
Of course, I was quite familiar with the police portion of the book, although I have to imagine for readers in 2007, or listeners in 2010, this was a mighty revelation because it would be a revelation to people not in the know in 2022. Still, despite not covering new ground for me, I found it enraging all the same. It’s maddening how the system operates. The main takeaway is that just because someone confessed to a crime, that does not mean they are guilty, despite protestations to the contrary (“I would never confess to a crime I didn’t commit!”). If you, an innocent person, are stuck in an interrogation room and are grilled by cops (supposed trusted authority figures) for six hour straight who are (legally) lying to you about having evidence connecting you to a crime, they can eventually get you to confess. Confusion is key. Cops, like other fallible humans, also get tunnel vision. They form a theory of the case, and pursue that theory at the detriment of other evidence instead of following the evidence wherever it may lead.
Cops literally think they are infallible. One person when asked about coerced confessions, or if they had gotten a confession from an innocent person, said something like, “I don’t interrogate innocent people.” See the issue here? It’s false confidence. In fact, Tavris and Aronson demonstrated that seasoned detectives in Florida and Canada did no better than mere chance at discerning guilt from innocence after watching interrogation tapes, according to one study.
As enthralled as I was in a grotesque sort of way by all of the aforementioned, I actually think the section on marriage and interpersonal relationships was the most intriguing. In one scenario examined, a woman (I forget her name) and her husband, Frank, go out to dinner with a couple they’ve recently met. The wife is smitten with this couple: They seem so loving with each other and attuned to each other, and also wealthy; she’s envious. So, she brings this up to Frank. Instead of seeing this as a discussion of the “we” of that relationship, Frank instantly shuts down (and shuts her down), thinking she’s criticizing “him.” That’s ego recasting that becomes problematic in marriages and interpersonal relationships. That’s also what breeds the most destructive element in a marriage or any relationship: Contempt. Contempt, Tavris and Aronson argued, leads to psychological separation long before any formal, literal separation.
Contempt comes from a reframing of these arguments. Instead of talking about the issues, suddenly you’re talking about the person and their constitutional makeup. In other words, once you belittle who that person is, you’ve created cognitive dissonance in them between who they think they are versus how you described them; thus, resulting in self-justification and further distance in communication.
This feeling of contempt, which can sit for 27 years until the wife is finally ready to divorce her husband, or for 20 years until the Iranians are ready to take American hostages in response to the U.S. government’s overthrow of the democratically-elected Shaw in 1953, can express itself in disproportionality. The obvious example that comes to mind is that the Japanese attacked our military targets in WWII, and our response was to drop two nuclear bombs on men, women and children, and to firebomb Japanese cities wholesale. But it goes for inter-personal relationships, too, like how it can lead to having an argument about an issue to inflicting figurative flesh wounds upon someone’s conception of their self.
Much of the issue for why we embrace self-justification, especially in inter-personal relationships, is due to low self-esteem, Tavris and Aronson argued. Frank is insecure in himself, his ability to “be enough” for his wife, for example, and that expresses itself in belittling his wife’s feelings as “whining” or her being a “crazy person” (see, “person” goes back to that reframing that becomes harmful). In this way then, Tavris and Aronson said, “even our unhappiness feels half-achieved.” I thought that was a great, insightful line.
Whether it’s our lover, or our friends, or co-workers, or complete strangers, something that would help in our interpersonal relationships and push back against our own insidious need to self-justify is to give others the benefit of the doubt. Maybe if the wife had given Frank the benefit of the doubt that he really was tired and didn’t want to have that discussion right then. Or if Frank had given her the benefit of the doubt that she was earnestly expressing her feelings and wanted those validated rather than it was her trying to criticize him.
Another way we can fight back against our self-preservation-minded mind is to admit our mistakes freely and without qualification, i.e., self-justification. I dropped the ball. Not, I dropped the ball because the sun was in my eyes. Going back to my opening salvo in this review, all of us seem to carry some burden and guilt at mistakes we’ve made that we haven’t unburdened ourselves with. In one memorable scene described in the book, Tavris and Aronson talked about a group of leaders who got together in a circle and admitted to mistakes without those pesky qualifications. When everyone started doing it, after a while, there was uproarious laughter because of a sense of relief that had spread across the room.
But as Tavris and Aronson argued, American culture, at least, isn’t quite open to admitting mistakes because we fear being seen as stupid, blithering idiots. We fear being fallible. But I think on an individual level and on a societal level, we would be far better off if we admitted to being wrong when we’re wrong, and if others gave those who humbly do that, the benefit of the doubt and the mercy and grace, that they mean it.
As I mentioned, I’ve been a journalist for a third of my working life, maybe even half, and I’ve done a “correction” on a story of mine more than once, sometimes for little errors and sometimes for egregious ones. You know what happens? And which Tavris and Aronson discussed, too? People appreciate it! People appreciate when someone honestly owns up to a mistake! That was the case in the journalism business for me.
The mistake in making mistakes is trying to squelch the mistake through a series of self-justifying thoughts and actions rather than merely owning up to the mistake and moving on. We are not perfect and we will not always succeed. Making mistakes is its own teacher, and Tavris and Aronson argued in compelling fashion that we ought to listen to that teacher more!
I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface on the ground Tavris and Aronson covered in their book about the many ways self-justification rears its ugly head at every level of society — I can only take so many notes while listening, especially when commuting — so, I would highly recommend this audiobook, or book, whichever you prefer, to you, especially if some of the ground I did cover is news to you.
More humility, transparency, grace, and applying benefit of the doubt, and less arrogance and faulty assumptions, would go a long way in much of what we do as humans.