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

by Carol Tavris

Paperback, 2015


Mariner Books (2015), Edition: Revised, New edition, 400 pages


Two distinguished psychologists look at the role of self-justification in human life, explaining how and why we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility and restore our belief in our intelligence, moral rectitude, and correctness; assess the potential repercussions of such a course of action; and reveal how it can be overcome.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Periodista
There are some good points here: applications of psychological research to everyday problems and decisions. Like when you made a major life decision--say, a divorce--most people don't regret it because they acquire a sort of tunnel vision: they keep seeing and recalling reasons why it was the right decision. The steps we go through to resolve cognitive dissonance.

But the book left a bad taste in my mouth as it lost focus completely. The authors jumped the tracks and began using the findings on how humans behave and think to explain nation-state behavior! I couldn't believe it. Tavris must be in her 60's at least, has PhD, worked at Psychology Today for years, written many books ... she knows better than this. Unless there's senility setting in.

If you're a French person whose entire family has been killed by Germans, or a Korean person whose family was killed and tortured for generations by the Japanese ... when you find yourself in the others' midst, it's unlikely you'll behave very well. Funny thing is, if that same individual is part of a government, she may well build bridges to the former enemy. Single persons rarely make state policy. Deep personal animosity can be put aside for the moment because the future of the state and its people has to take priority. There are all sorts of U.S. policymakers that could illustrate this point: Kissinger, Albright, foreign-born military leaders.

Then the book veered off into another weird tangent in admiration of Japanese education. We're told an absurd anecdote about a Japanese kid being given time to work out a math problem on his own in comparison with the more rote quality of US education. Or course, she's reversed the nationalities.

The stepped-up reliance on testing in the US--tests as the end all and be all--is very much the Japanese style of education. Could very well be the emphasis was imported from Japan. If you only teach to the test, test scores will improve ... it's just that everyone else, anything that can't be tested, falls by the wayside.

Meanwhile, Japanese wring their hands about how their system must foster more individuality and creativity if they're ever to have a Silicon Valley.

Some of Tavris and Aronson's conclusions about Japan were drawn from superficial studies done by people like xxx Stevenson back in the 1980's. They even go off on one of their tears based on an "epiphany" that Stevenson had watching a Japanese kid at a blackboard. Aren't social scientists supposed to rely on evidence other then epiphanies? Especially when the presence of a foreign observer in a classroom can affect the normal routine?

How could they remain so ignorant of all the real-life books written since then Americans and others that lived in Japan? Like by people with kids in Japanese schools. James Fallows. Karl van Whats-his-name. Sure, Japan hasn't been any country's role model since the late 1980's. But if you're going to bring up such a weird comparison, wouldn't you check to see what has been published since then?

They also mentioned a Chinese (Taiwan) study and then leap to some conclusion about "most Asians"! Most Asians believing that abilities are innate and Americans think whatever.

Of course the real striking differences on this question are along developed vs developed country lines. People in the latter tend to think that with a half decent education to start off, abilities will shine through. In developing countries, people--well, of the lower- and middle-classes, that is--tend to believe a lot more is in the hands of fate. So why even try? Or try to marry a richer man. Hook up with a godfather. And they're right because unless you've got some money or connections, you're not going to get into that private kindergarten or elementary school that gets you along the way. Even tho it's a semi-developed country, Hong Kongers tend to think that way; less so for Singaporean Chinese and Taiwanese. I think this probably has to do with the atrocious public schools in HK. If you only get that far, your fate is pretty much sealed very early on.
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LibraryThing member ctorstens
Absolutely one of the best pop-psych books I've read.
LibraryThing member rcampoamor
Started out quite repetitive but redeemed itself in the later chapters by finally applying the overworked basic principle to other fields (police interviewing, politics, etc).
LibraryThing member sgerbic
This book is making the rounds of the skeptical community, Matt and Sharon are buying them up and giving them free to whomever will take them. Tavris will be at TAM8 this year so I can get it signed.

This is just crammed with information, stories and studies. Overwhelming at times as you need to digest the info before you can learn more. Everything sounds great and useful but hard to put into daily practice.

My takeaways: Admit your mistakes. Learn why you did it and move on. intelligence is not inherited, you have to work at it. Teaching children that it is okay and desirable to make mistakes and learn from them is a major way to help them grow and live happier lives.

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LibraryThing member tkadlec
The book was full of good information, and good discussions around cognitive dissonance. It's fault, however, was that the anecdotes tended to be very politically charged, and very biased.Unfortunately, the authors bias came through very strongly in several of the examples used, and this distracts from the points the authors are attempting to make. In addition, a few of the examples felt like they didn't really fit in with the subject matter, and were instead used to continue to justify the authors biases (ironic I know).… (more)
LibraryThing member ScribbleScribe
I've found that if a book references scientific studies to back up their claims, that they end up changing my view of how human beings "work" so to speak. Always look for a bibliography in the back of a self-help book. Better yet, bypass the self-help section at your book store entirely and go to the psychology section. You'll get much more accurate information from there than you would an opinion based self-help book in the self-improvement section.

My favorite part of this book was the section that talked about how prosecuters and police men are reluctant to retract their opinion of a suspect's culpability even in the face of exonerating evidence. Also, the section on the interaction between couples was quite interesting and changed my view of the dynamics of romantic relationships.

Overall an eye-opener of a book that'll change your self-concept and how you view others. Worth it to read.
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LibraryThing member Kara
When I finished, my first thought was, "Wow, I know so many people who really need to read this book" which made me realize that I was one of those people.

I would recommend this to anyone who hasn't previously studied cognitive dissonance. The examples were interesting. And despite what some other reviewers have said, the political examples came from both sides of the aisle.… (more)
LibraryThing member Sovranty
The main theme of the book - cognitive dissonance - is applied throughout life, from the personal to the professional. The book becomes slightly over redundant on the fact that it is one theory applied to the many different trials of life; however, it may take some people longer than others to accept the theory, and thus, in need of so many examples and reiterations. The book only faintly hits on cultural biases associated with this theory.

If you understand the theory from the first and get tired of the examples, you are safe to skim the majority of the book, only really needing chapters 1, 7, and 8. It is an interesting read nonetheless.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
Readable book about cognitive dissonance and how we fool ourselves to smooth off the edges of our own behavior and slide down the slippery slope from small transgressions to big ones, justifying everything from affairs to torture. Unexpected case in point: Doing a favor for someone makes you like them more, because you tell yourself that you wouldn’t have done a favor for a jerk. There’s also discussion of the malleability of human memory and how various people were tragically misled into thinking that most instances of child sexual abuse were repressed and then recovered rather than remembered all along. The ending suggestions for avoiding the dynamics of self-justification are difficult, but the authors make the excellent point that people who like you already will like you more for straight-up admitting error rather than losing respect for you.… (more)
LibraryThing member TheCrow2
You think you can rely on your memories e.g. some of your absolute clear childhood ones? Well, think again. After you read this stunning eye-opener book about how false memories and cognitive dissonance works you'll see the world through a different eyes.... And hopefully not just the world but yourself too...
LibraryThing member mdubois
I guess I can't say it is a mistake to read this book; I already spent the time to read so I have to self-justify that it was a good use of time....just kidding, it really is a good use of time. The book presents the problems of our (often unconscious) self-justification and the reconciliation of our mistakes with the type of person we think we are. The cognitive dissonance of making mistakes when we think are not the type of person who would make mistakes leads us to justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts.

The book discusses the influence of self-justification on public mistakes, investments, relationships, politics and the law. It shows the problem of using correlation as causation, a technique that is helpful after the fact to help us justify bad things we do. Unfortunately, the data shows the opposite, that the mistakes we make lead us to find correlations that would cause us to do such things, reducing the cognitive dissonance we have when we know we are doing something wrong.

Overall, a data-supported and thoughtful analysis of The Emperor's New Clothes, and the negative effects in our lives of self-justification over admission of mistakes, learning and growth.
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LibraryThing member psiloiordinary
Another way to hold a mirror up to your brain.

A book for all skeptics.
LibraryThing member satyridae
Fascinating and eye-opening analysis of cognitive dissonance and the steps we take to reduce the dissonance. Politicians are the easy targets, and exploited here as such, but Tavris & Aronson also delve into personal stories. Several of them held up a mirror to my own self-justifications and made me flinch. Riveting and insightful. Recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member dmarsh451
I'm reading this because I laughed my hypocritical butt off when I saw the title.
good light read about the nuts and bolts of hypocrisy mostly through those curious tests we read about in the filler parts of the newspaper. Repressed memory chapter very interesting.
The main thing I learned from this book is that if I am ever arrested I am requesting a lawyer before I say a word.… (more)
LibraryThing member dcunning11235
This is a book worthy of being read by everybody and accessible enough to be read by anyone.
LibraryThing member Rascalstar
Do you suspect agents of the law at any level don't operate fairly? What about historians, psychiatrists, medical clinicians, scientists, the clergy? Is what they espouse and write fact and trustworthy? And how about your own memory? Crystal clear? Better read this book.

In plain language you can find out what you and everyone else really does, why, and how you might change how you think and act. The book may open your eyes to the people around you at all levels -- why and how things turn out the way they do. When mistakes are made, why is everyone so reluctant to correct them? Some of these mistakes affect the lives of others or large segments of the population, perhaps companies, anything you can think of. Doesn't affect you? Read this book.

The way people operate every day affects us all. Don't believe it? Read this book. If you've ever been blamed for something you didn't do, treated unfairly in any respect, or puzzled over how things could go so wrong, this book may help you understand how truly scary the behavior of perfectly "normal" people can be. Yes, normal. We're not talking about deviants or mental illness here. Normal people with normal jobs. The information within these pages may help you one day.
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LibraryThing member thegreatape
Woof. Good read, difficult as expected. Her ideas around self justification and narrative preservation clicked with my intuitions about my own behavior during more than a few uncomfortable times in my past. This feels like a mental framework that will be useful in the future.

There's a lot to recommend in here, but... specifically, this is one I wish software engineers would required to read before engaging in any sort of tooling or language advocacy.… (more)
LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
Self-justification is the commonest response to cognitive dissonance. It’s the reason we typically end up deceiving ourselves and sometimes others, all the while believing that we are in the right. Tavris and Aronson explode our practice of self-justification with comprehensive appeal to experimental psychology, reams of scientific articles, statistics, and therapeutic experience that, first, lays out the conditions that give rise to cognitive dissonance and then the standard kinds of response that are found. They explore these in the realms of history, science, therapy, criminal justice, and personal relationships. The analysis is astounding. You will be amazed at the discrepancy between things we say, do, and believe, and what the science actually shows.

Tavris and Aronson affect a breezy, colloquial style in their writing. They are quite willing to call out hypocrisy and foolishness. But they substantiate their judgements with substantial appeal to the scientific literature. (There are forty pages of endnotes.) The result is a book that is highly readable but also remarkably grounded in supporting scientific research.

So pervasive is the practice of self-justification in the face of cognitive dissonance that the reader can easily despair. How can we possibly overcome this pervasive distortion of reality? And indeed, instances of people in authority admitting to making mistakes are so rare that only a tiny portion of the book canvases them. Nonetheless, the authors do provide some general guidance as to how we might work against our potential for self-justification at least in our own lives. Like me, you might wish for more. However, the larger task of opening readers’ eyes to what is going on around them is most assuredly accomplished.

Certainly recommended.
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LibraryThing member bness2
This is a solidly researched book and has so many examples of the concepts being presented that it is hard to put down. If you have ever wondered why people can do things and believe things that sometimes go against even the clearest evidence, then read this book. We all confront cognitive dissonance in our lives (e.g., doing something I know violates my own moral code and then having trouble seeing seeing how I could have done such a bad thing when I believe I am a good person), and by default what most of us do about it is to self-justify our own actions. Fascinating, and you are almost guaranteed to see yourself in this book somewhere, if you can be honest with yourself.… (more)

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