Authors: Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
APA Style Citation
Aronson, E. and Tavris, C. (2007). Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) uses relatable personal and global examples to demonstrate how individuals rationalize poor behavior. As the title suggests, we are far more likely to identify negative behaviors in others than in ourselves. The text provides many relatable examples of attribution theory and cognitive dissonance. George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq after 9-11 was in part based in the belief that Sadam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Once thousands had died and billions of dollars had been spent without finding any weapons of mass destruction, he rationalized the invasion by explaining that we had gotten rid of “a vey bad guy”. Similar behavior can be seen when people do not report cash earnings on their income taxes, place personal items onto a business account, rationalize their lack of exercise, or refuse to take personal responsibility for their mistakes. We shape our memories in such a way that portrays us in the best light to protect our fragile self-esteem.
In marital surveys, when both spouses are asked to report what percentage of house cleaning they contribute to the household, the total nearly always is more than 100%. Each partner takes credit for more than they likely contributed, but feels as if they are telling the truth as they remember it. This unconscious distortion of reality allows us to feel better about ourselves and to move on to new decisions rather than agonizing over the past. To reduce the dissonance we may feel when our actions and beliefs do not match, we must provide ourselves (and sometimes others) with an explanation of why we behaved in such a way. The creation of this explanation allows us to view ourselves as sensible and competent.
Often those who have placed a great deal of effort into events that do not work out such as supporting a political candidate who turns out to be a crook, find ways to explain why their support was important, or are reluctant to believe the truth about the candidate. They feel the need to justify their efforts. Those who spent no time in support of the candidate may not have a problem believing the individual behaved criminally because they have less of an investment. Similarly, fraternity members who have gone through a rough hazing period are likely to claim they are more devoted to the organization than those who did not have to go through such a ritual. In part, those who went through the hazing want to believe that the suffering had been worth it. These and other examples of effort justification occur for everyone at some point and even awareness of the phenomena does not make one immune to its power.
We have a tendency to interpret information in a way that makes it consistent with our preexisting schemas and beliefs. Politicians who are found to have accepted bribes from lobbyists often began by accepting lunch to listen to some ideas, then perhaps talking on a golf course, and then maybe taking a golf trip. As the “gifts” become more extravagant, the politician rationalizes their actions by convincing him or herself that they have not been influenced by the desires of the lobbyist. They may also however may gradually change their beliefs by telling themselves that the lobbyist does make some good points.
Tavris and Aronson discuss the confirmation bias through the example of the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy debates. Those individuals who supported Kennedy watched the debate and believed that Nixon was taking a beating, while those that supported Nixon believed the reverse to be true. Stereotypes and prejudice may also be reinforced by confirmation bias, as we look for behavior consistent with what we would accept from a certain group for whom we hold (generally negative) stereotypes. Even when presented with contrary evidence, individuals tend to dismiss the contrary information and persevere in their original beliefs.
Memory can also fall victim to expectations and biases. James Frey wrote the book A Million Little Pieces, recounting his battle with addiction. After the book became a best seller, it was found that the book contained many details that were not true, but he claimed he had written what he believed had occurred. While Frey ultimately admitted to the misinformation, our memories often are distorted to help us recall events in the manner in which we want to remember it rather than as it actually occurred. When others are amused by a story we tell, we may have a tendency to embellish the story on the next telling while still believing that we are indeed sharing what actually happened. Even when we are confident about memories it does not mean that the memory is correct. We can also incorporate other people’s memories into our own without realizing that we are adopting these new memories. Even in bizarre situations such as people claiming to have been abducted by aliens, they really believe that these events have occurred because their brain is telling them that these memories are real and must be true.
The way in which questions are framed or posed to others may influence what people recall and can permanently change their memories of an event. These false memories are sometimes used to convict innocent people of crimes they did not commit. Thomas Lee Goldstein, a college student and ex-marine was sent to prison for 24 years for a crime he did not commit. The district attorney and detectives who prosecuted the case were convinced they had found the correct culprit and even after Goldstein was found innocent, claimed that he was guilty. One prosecutor stated, “Innocent men are never convicted. Don't worry about it, it will never happen…it is a physical impossibility.” With a statement like that, it is unlikely that this prosecutor’s mistakes will ever be freely admitted. Prosecutors convince themselves that even if the person is not guilty of the accused crime, they are still a bad person and perhaps deserved the prison time for some unknown offense. This rationalization makes the prosecutors less culpable and reduces cognitive dissonance. Once detectives or prosecutors determine who they believe is guilty nearly every action will be viewed as a confirmation of guilt even in the face of contrary evidence. Even DNA evidence has been dismissed because detectives are so convinced that “have their man.” The assumption of guilt often produces a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Couples who are divorcing often implicitly reassure themselves of their mates negative attributes to convince themselves that they are making the correct decision, while those who remain married to flawed partners downplay those flaws to convince themselves that the person is worthy of their efforts. When we inflict pain on others, we convince ourselves that they must have done something to deserve this and we become more convinced regarding the victims negative behavior or attributes. In describing the atrocities of killing civilians during the Vietnam War, General William Westmoreland said, “The Oriental does not put the same high price on life as does the Westerner.” If Westmoreland had recognized that all life was equal, he would have had to admit his own poor choices. Even Hitler believed that others began the fight, claiming that Germany had been humiliated at the Treaty of Versailles and had to retaliate in some fashion.
In some cases however, individuals have come forward to admit their mistakes, John F. Kennedy told newspaper publishers after the Bay of Pigs invasion, “This administration intends to be candid about its errors. For as a wise man once said, ‘An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it…’”. Patients are less likely to sue for malpractice when a doctor admits mistakes. Tavris and Aronson recommend putting space between a thought and a behavior by taking a moment to reflect on the best course of action. This short reprieve may allow us the time necessary to make a better decision in the first place which can eliminate the need for creating a justification later. General Lee took responsibility for the thousands of Southern dead at the Battle of Gettysburg, yet this made him more revered by his troops. Carol Dweck discusses how learning from our mistakes can help us develop a growth mindset which allows people to learn more and perform better in the long run. In 2007 George Bush responded to questions regarding the War in Iraq and was finally able to admit, “Mistakes were Made”.
Other Related Resources
NPR podcast with Elliot Aronson
American Scientist: An interview with author Carol Tavris
Review by Steve Drizin J.D.: Center for Wrongful convictions
Brian Williams and False Memories
Psychological Figures and Concepts
Just world phenomenon