Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) | Carol Tavris

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

Introduction

Ever found yourself justifying actions you know were wrong? In ‘Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts’, Carol Tavris dives into the complex world of cognitive dissonance and self-justification. Discover how our justifications can lead us to cling to our beliefs even more vehemently, and how confirmation bias and the ‘pyramid of choice’ can alter our views on morality. Furthermore, the book explores the role of memory, science, criminal justice, relationships, and government in the process of admitting and learning from mistakes.

Justifying the Injustifiable

Justifying actions that conflict with our beliefs can lead to cognitive dissonance and reinforce our false sense of righteousness, more than modifying our behavior. This cognitive dissonance can be seen in everyday life, and even in political decisions at the highest level, like the invasion of Iraq.

Have you ever justified your indulgence in gourmet ice-cream, despite being on a diet? Or felt okay to continue smoking despite knowing its health hazards? You’re not alone. It is a natural human tendency to seek self-justification when we do something that conflicts with our beliefs. This desire arises to reduce cognitive dissonance, an unpleasant feeling of holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously. By creating self-justification, we alleviate this distress, but in doing so, we reinforce our false sense of righteousness.

Self-justifications cement our beliefs, making it harder to change our behavior. For example, after making a mistake, we tend to justify it rather than confront it head-on and understand its root cause. Similarly, George W. Bush was convinced that his decision to invade Iraq was right, even though evidence of weapons of mass destruction was not found, and the invasion led to an increase in Islamic radicalism. It is a classic case of cognitive dissonance and self-justification that enabled the continuance of the war.

Recognizing self-justification can help us modify our behavior. By acknowledging our contradictions, we create harmony between our beliefs and actions. Instead of clinging to our false sense of righteousness, we become more open-minded, adaptable, and amenable to evolving our beliefs. Ultimately, we’re all prone to cognitive dissonance, and it’s essential to recognize and address it head-on. Don’t let self-justification and cognitive dissonance rob us of our willingness to change our behaviors and beliefs.

Convincing Justifications

Self-justification and confirmation bias can have a profound effect on our thought processes, leading us to ignore contradictory evidence and become ever more convinced of our justifications. This is illustrated through the case of the satanic cults in the US in the 1980s, where despite a lack of evidence, the accusers remained convinced that the cults were infiltrating society. Additionally, the pyramid of choice explains how the tendency to justify ourselves can shape our views on morality. As we make choices, we move down a pyramid and lose sight of our broader options. Self-justification and confirmation bias exacerbate this process, creating increasingly divergent views on morality.

The Fallacy of Memory

Our memories are rarely accurate, prone to bias, and are prone to false memories. This summary delves into the subject of memory, revealing its limitations and the importance of cross-checking them with historical facts and accounts.

Most people believe that their memory is an accurate reflection of past events. However, studies show that memories are prone to bias and can be entirely false. Memories are biased to better suit our current situation, and this bias can creep in to justify our behavior or beliefs.

The phenomenon of false memories is not uncommon. For instance, millions of Americans will testify to encountering aliens and even describe the details of the alien encounters. Studies attribute such claims to jet lag and fatigue from driving long distances without adequate rest. Essentially, these incidents are episodes of sleep paralysis where the person is awake but unable to move. In around 5 percent of sleep paralysis cases, the person also hallucinates, experiencing a waking dream, which in some cases, concocts the alien encounters. Although these memories are entirely false, the person’s brain still treats them as real, and they become part of their life narrative.

To be sure that our memories are genuinely ours, we must cross-check them with undisputed historical facts and accounts. The trials and tribulations of Binjamin Wilkomirski’s childhood in Nazi concentration camps were a sobering reminder of the importance of cross-checking memories. After historical analysis of the material, his story was proven false. It turned out that he had never suffered in concentration camps but had written the book based on various other sources as a way to cope with his own troubled childhood.

In conclusion, our memories are rarely accurate and can be biased and even entirely false. The fallacy of memory underlines the importance of cross-checking memories with historical facts and accounts to ensure authenticity.

The Importance of Acknowledging Mistakes in Medical Research

Mistakes are an integral part of scientific advancements, yet medical professionals are often reluctant to admit their mistakes. This behavior not only prevents progress in the field but can also harm patients. The article provides an example of Ignaz Semmelweis, a physician who saved many lives by recognizing and rectifying a mistake. However, not all medical mistakes are recognized or acknowledged, leading to a closed-loop in medical research that stifles improvements. One commonly made mistake is clinical intuition, where doctors assume their first judgment is correct and do not explore alternative diagnoses. This bias can lead to the misdiagnosis of patients. Therefore, it is essential for medical professionals to be open about their mistakes to allow for progress and prevent harm to patients.

The Flaws of Our Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system may not always be just, as self-justification can lead to wrongful convictions. Studies show that a significant number of exonerated prisoners have confessed to crimes they didn’t commit. Despite this, police officers and lawyers are hesitant to alter their investigation methods. This has resulted in endemic mistreatment of suspects, as seen in the Suffolk County, New York 1989 study, where police officers would brutally mistreat suspects, illegally tap phones and falsify evidence to gain wrongful convictions. Moreover, the “testilying” phenomenon emerged in the 1990s, where police officers fabricated evidence. Technology like DNA testing has helped identify wrongful convictions, and changes such as video recording police interrogations and teaching the dangers of confirmation bias are being implemented. The criminal justice system must undergo significant reform to eliminate such miscarriages of justice caused by self-justification.

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