"A revelatory study of how lovers, lawyers, doctors, politicians--and all of us--pull the wool over our own eyes. The politician who can''t apologize, the torturer who feels no guilt, the co-worker who''ll say anything to win an argument--in case you''ve ever wondered how such people can sleep at night, a new book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson supplies some intriguing and useful insights. Thanks, in part, to the scientific evidence it provides and the charm of its down-to-earth, commonsensical tone, Mistakes Were Made is convincing. Reading it, we recognize the behavior of our leaders, our loved ones, and--if we''re honest--ourselves, and some of the more perplexing mysteries of human nature begin to seem a little clearer. By the book''s end, we''re far more attuned to the ways in which we avoid admitting our missteps, and intensely aware of how much our own (and everyone''s) lives would improve if we--and those who govern and lead us--understood the power and value of simply saying, ''I made a mistake. I''m sorry.''"
Arkansas Democrat Gazette
"Social psychologists Tavris and Aronson, each of whom has published other works, here tackle "the inner workings of self-justification," the mental gymnastics that allow us to bemoan the mote in our brother's eye while remaining blissfully unaware of the beam in our own. Their prose is lively, their research is admirable and their examples of our arrogant follies are entertaining and instructive."
"A fascinating book... I recommend it to anyone who enjoys psychological and sociological studies. Sometimes floored, sometimes angry, sometimes sad, sometimes amused, but always interested, I can only hope that I will be able to apply some of what I learned in my own life."
Wall Street Journal
"Anecdote-rich...a ramble through the evasive tactics we employ when we've done something wrong and don't want to face up to it. "Mistakes Were Made" is by turns entertaining, illuminating andwhen you recognize yourself in the stories it tellsmortifying. It is certainly true that we can be artful to the point of self-delusion when we feel guilt for something we have done."
Business Week Online
"This book should make it to the top of most summer reading lists. It speaks to the forces that keep us repeating harmful mistakes, whether it's an everyday personal issue or an organization-wide problem. I'm interested in reading this book for a deeper window into my own behavior, but also for insight into the reasons that corruption persists around the world and vexes so many organizational and individual efforts to fight it."
curled up with a good book.com
"In this pre-election time, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson's book bears a very prescient message: Just how does one learn from one's mistakes if one refuses to admit culpability? With straightforward language and a readable style, Tavris and Aronson's book will open your eyes and improve your life - that is, it will if you let it."
"Combining far-ranging scholarship with lucid, witty prose, Tavris and Aronson illuminate many of the mysteries of human behaviorwhy hypocrites never see their own hypocrisy, why couples so often misremember their shared history, why many people persist in courses of action that lead straight into quicksand. A delight to read, with surprising revelations in every chapter."
"A pathbreaking book that could change forever how leaders think about the decisions they make . Crackles with new insights and understanding. A must read!"
The General Psychologist
"Written with the perfect combination of science and snap, this is a book that will change the way you think about self-deceptionhow it works, the harm it can cause, and how we can overcome it."
From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR MISTAKES WERE MADE (BUT NOT BY ME)
"Thanks, in part, to the scientific evidence it provides and the charm of its down-to-earth, commonsensical tone, Mistakes Were Made is convincing. Reading it, we recognize the behavior of our leaders, our loved ones, andif we're honestourselves, and some of the more perplexing mysteries of human nature begin to seem a little clearer."Francine Prose, O, The Oprah Magazine
"By turns entertaining, illuminating andwhen you recognize yourself in the stories it tellsmortifying."The Wall Street Journal
"This book is charming and delightful. But mainly, it's just damn smart. Armed with reams of scientific data and loads of real-world anecdotes, Tavris and Aronson explain how politicians, pundits, doctors, lawyers, psychotherapistsand oh yes, the rest of uscome to believe that we are right and reasonable... and why we maintain that dangerous self-deception in the face of glaring evidence to the contrary. Every page sparkles with sharp insight and keen observation. Mistakes were madebut not in this book!"
"To err is human, to rationalize even more so. Now, thanks to this brilliant book, we can finally see how and why even the best meaning people may justify terrible behavior. Mistakes Were Made will not turn us into angels, but it is hard to think of a betteror more readableguide to the mind's most devilish tricks."
"Tavris and Aronson-a dream team of two of psychology’s greatest communicators—investigate our self-serving explanations and malleable memories, explaining how well-meaning people stay the course when pursuing ill-fated ventures, then shuck responsibility when failure arrives. This is a fascinating exploration of our astonishing powers of self-justification."
Judith Rich Harris
"This eye-opener of a book is essential reading, not because we've all made mistakes - certainly not! - but because we've all been victims of mistakes made by others. Why do these people behave so badly? Tavris and Aronson's explanation is illuminating, entertaining, based on solid science, and highly relevant to our public and private lives."
"Please, somebody, get a copy of this book to the President and his cabinet right away. Read it aloud into the Congressional Record. If this book doesn't change the way we think about our mistakes, then we're all doomed."
O Magazine - Francine Prose
"A revelatory study of how lovers, lawyers, doctors, politiciansand all of uspull the wool over our own eyes. The politician who can't apologize, the torturer who feels no guilt, the co-worker who'll say anything to win an argumentin case you've ever wondered how such people can sleep at night, a new book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson supplies some intriguing and useful insights. Thanks, in part, to the scientific evidence it provides and the charm of its down-to-earth, commonsensical tone, Mistakes Were Made is convincing. Reading it, we recognize the behavior of our leaders, our loved ones, andif we're honestourselves, and some of the more perplexing mysteries of human nature begin to seem a little clearer. By the book's end, we're far more attuned to the ways in which we avoid admitting our missteps, and intensely aware of how much our own (and everyone's) lives would improve if weand those who govern and lead usunderstood the power and value of simply saying, 'I made a mistake. I'm sorry.'"
Robert B. Cialdiani
"Tavris and Aronson have combined their formidable skills to produce a gleaming model of social insight and scientific engagement. Make no mistake, you need to read this book."
"This book casts a bright and penetrating light on how and why nation-states, organizations, and individuals get into malignant messes. But it also shows how they (NOT us) cluelessly keep repeating these offensive, sometimes criminal acts. Tavris and Aronson don't let any of us off the hook but they do teach us how to avoid hanging ourselves on that hook again and again. One of the most needed and important books for our time."
Read an Excerpt
The Engine of Self-justification
Press release date: November 1, 1993
we didn’t make a mistake when we wrote in our previous releases that New York would be destroyed on September 4 and October 14, 1993. We didn’t make a mistake, not even a teeny eeny one!
Press release date: April 4, 1994
All the dates we have given in our past releases are correct dates given by God as contained in Holy Scriptures. Not one of these dates was wrong . . . Ezekiel gives a total of 430 days for the siege of the city . . . [which] brings us exactly to May 2, 1994. By now, all the people have been forewarned. We have done our job. . . .
We are the only ones in the entire world guiding the people to their safety, security, and salvation!
We have a 100 percent track record!1
It’s fascinating, and sometimes funny, to read doomsday predictions, but it’s even more fascinating to watch what happens to the reasoning of true believers when the prediction flops and the world keeps muddling along. Notice that hardly anyone ever says, “I blew it! I can’t believe how stupid I was to believe that nonsense”? On the contrary, most of the time they become even more deeply convinced of their powers of prediction. The people who believe that the Bible’s book of Revelation or the writings of the sixteenth-century self-proclaimed prophet Nostradamus have predicted every disaster from the bubonic plague to 9/11 cling to their convictions, unfazed by the small problem that their vague and murky predictions were intelligible only after the event occurred.
Half a century ago, a young social psychologist named Leon Festinger and two associates infiltrated a group of people who believed the world would end on December 21.2 They wanted to know what would happen to the group when (they hoped!) the prophecy failed. The group’s leader, whom the researchers called Marian Keech, promised that the faithful would be picked up by a flying saucer and elevated to safety at midnight on December 20. Many of her followers quit their jobs, gave away their homes, and dispersed their savings, waiting for the end. Who needs money in outer space? Others waited in fear or resignation in their homes. (Mrs. Keech’s own husband, a nonbeliever, went to bed early and slept soundly through the night as his wife and her followers prayed in the living room.) Festinger made his own prediction: The believers who had not made a strong commitment to the prophecywho awaited the end of the world by themselves at home, hoping they weren’t going to die at midnightwould quietly lose their faith in Mrs. Keech. But those who had given away their possessions and were waiting with the others for the spaceship would increase their belief in her mystical abilities. In fact, they would now do everything they could to get others to join them.
At midnight, with no sign of a spaceship in the yard, the group felt a little nervous. By 2 a.m., they were getting seriously worried. At 4:45 a.m., Mrs. Keech had a new vision: The world had been spared, she said, because of the impressive faith of her little band. “And mighty is the word of God,” she told her followers, “and by his word have ye been savedfor from the mouth of death have ye been delivered and at no time has there been such a force loosed upon the Earth. Not since the beginning of time upon this Earth has there been such a force of Good and light as now floods this room.”
The group’s mood shifted from despair to exhilaration. Many of the group’s members, who had not felt the need to proselytize before December 21, began calling the press to report the miracle, and soon they were out on the streets, buttonholing passersby, trying to convert them. Mrs. Keech’s prediction had failed, but not Leon Festinger’s.
The engine that drives self-justification, the energy that produces the need to justify our actions and decisionsespecially the wrong onesis an unpleasant feeling that Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” 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. 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, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and 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.
Dissonance is disquieting because to hold two ideas that contradict each other is to flirt with absurdity and, as Albert Camus observed, we humans are creatures who spend our lives trying to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd. At the heart of it, Festinger’s theory is about how people strive to make sense out of contradictory ideas and lead lives that are, at least in their own minds, consistent and meaningful. The theory inspired more than 3,000 experiments that, taken together, have transformed psychologists’ understanding of how the human mind works. Cognitive dissonance has even escaped academia and entered popular culture. The term is everywhere. The two of us have heard it in TV newscasts, political columns, magazine articles, bumper stickers, even on a soap opera. Alex Trebek used it on Jeopardy, Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, and President Bartlet on The West Wing. Although the expression has been thrown around a lot, few people fully understand its meaning or appreciate its enormous motivational power.
In 1956, one of us (Elliot) arrived at Stanford University as a graduate student in psychology. Festinger had arrived that same year as a young professor, and they immediately began working together, designing experiments to test and expand dissonance theory.3 Their thinking challenged many notions that were gospel in psychology and among the general public, such as the behaviorist’s view that people do things primarily for the rewards they bring, the economist’s view that human beings generally make rational decisions, and the psychoanalyst’s view that acting aggressively gets rid of aggressive impulses.
Consider how dissonance theory challenged behaviorism. At the time, most scientific psychologists were convinced that people’s actions are governed by reward and punishment. It is certainly true that if you feed a rat at the end of a maze, he will learn the maze faster than if you don’t feed him; if you give your dog a biscuit when she gives you her paw, she will learn that trick faster than if you sit around hoping she will do it on her own. Conversely, if you punish your pup when you catch her peeing on the carpet, she will soon stop doing it. Behaviorists further argued that anything that was merely associated with reward would become more attractiveyour puppy will like you because you give her biscuitsand anything associated with pain would become noxious and undesirable.
Behavioral laws do apply to human beings, too, of course; no one would stay in a boring job without pay, and if you give your toddler a cookie to stop him from having a tantrum, you have taught him to have another tantrum when he wants a cookie. But, for better or worse, the human mind is more complex than the brain of a rat or a puppy. A dog may appear contrite for having been caught peeing on the carpet, but she will not try to think up justifications for her misbehavior. Humans think; and because we think, dissonance theory demonstrated that our behavior transcends the effects of rewards and punishments and often contradicts them.
For example, Elliot predicted that if people go through a great deal of pain, discomfort, effort, or embarrassment to get something, they will be happier with that “something” than if it came to them easily. For behaviorists, this was a preposterous prediction. Why would people like anything associated with pain? But for Elliot, the answer was obvious: self-justification. The cognition that I am a sensible, competent person is dissonant with the cognition that I went through a painful procedure to achieve somethingsay, joining a group that turned out to be boring and worthless. Therefore, I would distort my perceptions of the group in a positive direction, trying to find good things about them and ignoring the downside.
Copyright © 2007 by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.