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

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Overview

Why do people dodge responsibility when things fall apart? Why the parade of public figures unable to own up when they screw up? Why the endless marital quarrels over who is right? Why can we see hypocrisy in others but not in ourselves? Are we all liars? Or do we really believe the stories we tell?

Renowned social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson take a compelling look into how the brain is wired for self-justification. When we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right -- a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.

Backed by years of research and delivered in lively, energetic prose, 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.

About the Authors
CAROL TAVRIS is a social psychologist and author of Anger and The Mismeasure of Woman. She has written for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Scientific American, and many other publications. She lives in Los Angeles.

ELLIOT ARONSON is a social psychologist and author of The Social Animal. The recipient of many awards for teaching, scientific research, writing, and contributions to society, he is a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
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Editorial Reviews

Elizabeth Loftus

"Combining far-ranging scholarship with lucid, witty prose, Tavris and Aronson illuminate many of the mysteries of human behavior -- why 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."
Burt Nanus

"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-deception--how it works, the harm it can cause, and how we can overcome it."
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."

Bookgarden

"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 and--when you recognize yourself in the stories it tells--mortifying. 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."

Daniel Gilbert

"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, psychotherapists--and oh yes, the rest of us--come 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 made--but not in this book!"
David Callahan

"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 better -- or more readable -- guide to the mind's most devilish tricks."
David Myers

"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."
Michael Shermer

"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, 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.'"

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."
Warren Bennis

"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."
O Magazine

"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.''"

— Francine Prose

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, and—if we're honest—ourselves, 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 and—when you recognize yourself in the stories it tells—mortifying."—The Wall Street Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780151010981
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/7/2007
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Carol Tavris is a social psychologist, lecturer, and writer whose books include Anger and The Mismeasure of Woman. She has written on psychological topics for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Scientific American, and many other publications. She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science, and a member of the editorial board of Psychological Science in the Public Interest. She lives in Los Angeles.

Elliot Aronson is one of the most distinguished social psychologists in the world. His books include The Social Animal and The Jigsaw Classroom. Chosen by his peers as one of the 100 most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is the only psychologist to have won all three of the American Psychological Association’s top awards — for writing, teaching, and research. He lives in Santa Cruz, California.

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Read an Excerpt

Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)

Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts
By Tavris, Carol

Harcourt

Copyright © 2007 Tavris, Carol
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780151010981

CHAPTER 1
 
Cognitive Dissonance:
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 doomsdaypredictions, 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 prophecy—who awaited the end of the world by themselves at home, hoping they weren’t going to die at midnight—would 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 saved—for 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 decisions—especially the wrong ones—is 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 attractive—your puppy will like you because you give her biscuits—and 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 something—say, 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 www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Continues...

Excerpted from Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Tavris, Carol Copyright © 2007 by Tavris, Carol. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Knaves, Fools, Villains, and Hypocrites: How Do They Live with Themselves?     1
Cognitive Dissonance: The Engine of Self-justification     11
Pride and Prejudice ... and Other Blind Spots     40
Memory, the Self-justifying Historian     68
Good Intentions, Bad Science: The Closed Loop of Clinical Judgment     97
Law and Disorder     127
Love's Assassin: Self-justification in Marriage     158
Wounds, Rifts, and Wars     185
Letting Go and Owning Up     213
Afterword     237
Endnotes     239
Index     277

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2007

    A reviewer

    The authors intended to explain our behavior when we justify, rationalize and insist we were right when faced with the embarrassment of publicity of unintentional harm [often backed up by intentional harm.] The phenomenon of ¿acting out of a need to protect their egos¿ is ubiquitous, and even a poorly written book on the topic will be beneficial by reminding us how corruptible we are. Nevertheless, the authors have selected an explanation called ¿dissonance theory¿ and insist that it can explain just about any corrupt behavior. The problems with this overzealous application of this theory are 1--the book lacks evidence in the form of references to research on dissonance theory--the few experiments described were not originally about dissonance theory, but the authors nevertheless cavalierly rework conclusions to make it seem as proof of their theory. Thus scientific evidence becomes merely anecdotal evidence. One example of this is explaining the behavior of subjects in Milgram¿s experiment that they justified to themselves each progressive shock they administered. The actual research shows no such thing in fact the subjects themselves self-reported that they actually believed they lacked the necessary authority to determine whether or not to administer shocks, and therefore they believed that the burden was on the mock researcher, not them, to justify these decisions 2--the book ignores conventional explanations for corrupt behavior, providing no evidence against them nor for their own explanation. An example of this is saying that people continue to cheat on tests in order to justify the initial decision to cheat on a previous test, rather than that people continue to cheat because they have discovered that the consequences weren¿t as bad as they had feared 3--a neglect of differentiating factors among the various behaviors and their self-justifications: whether they followed up with narratives of the behavior or more cases of similar behavior, whether the initial behavior or its consequences were intentional or unintentional, whether the error or wrongdoing was ever publicized, whether the justification was of oneself or of other members of one¿s group, etc. In comparing experimental psychologists [presumably the authors themselves] with therapists behaving unethically, they write that science, because it depends on research, is ¿a form of arrogance control¿, which is ironic, because this is an arrogant self-excuse to convince the reader that the authors would not overapply an explanation of symptoms--the very thing the authors accuse repressed-memory theorists of doing. Nevertheless, dissonance theory likely can be used to understand certain behaviors, and the class of events as a whole comprised of malicious behavior motivated by ego preservation is very important to study.

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2012

    Horrible!

    I would give this book 0 stars if I could.

    1 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 3, 2010

    But Mistakes Were Made

    I was wonderfully impressed by the clarity and relevance of the material to actual life situations. As a student of errors this book has a lot to recommend it, as it give insights that become relevant in many aspects of life and profession. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who wishes to understand human nature and how it so easy for us, as human beings, to make mistakes and then twist facts to protect our own self images. It was great.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 14, 2013

    Brilliant insights into a tendency we all have of deflecting bla

    Brilliant insights into a tendency we all have of deflecting blame, with great examples. The chapter on criminal justice iso particularly enlightening.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2013

    Must read

    For anybody interested in learning more about the mystery that is us!

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