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Boston Skeptics’ Book Club #17: Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

Posted on : May-02-2011 | By : Mary | In : Blog Post, Book Club


It doesn't get much more dissonant than this.

This weekend, the Boston Skeptics’ Book Club met up to discuss Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, a book about Cognitive Dissonance Theory and self-justification. As skeptics, we try to be objective and judge based only on facts and reason, but we can’t avoid the effects of cognitive dissonance.

The authors write, “We justify behavior we know is wrong so that we still see ourselves as honest people.” In other not-really-much-simpler words, cognitive dissonance is the constant that balances out our moral equation. When encountering a dissonance, one must either change one’s original belief or refute/reinterpret the data to turn it to consonance. Both sides of the equation balance in our heads and our world is restored to normal. A good phrase the authors use is believing is seeing, which means that if you hold a certain belief, you have already pre-judged anything related to that belief, good or bad. If evidence agrees with us, we think it’s reliable. If not, it’s biased or foolish. Or, as George Carlin would put it, “ Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

If you don’t have time to read the book, here are some of the points:

  • “Aggression begets self-justification, which begets more aggression”: If you say something mean to someone, they must have done something to deserve it, and therefore you need to continue to treat them badly. Admitting that you were wrong and an aggressor may be to dissonant to admit.
  • Once we make a decision, we find reasons to justify why that decision was better than others.
  • Asking others to do favors for you makes them like you more. (In their mind, if they did a favor for you, you must’ve been worth helping, and therefore you’re a trustworthy person.)
  • Each side of a rift uses self-justification to blame the other. The only real way to end conflict is if both sides apologize, forgive, and are committed to moving on.
  • “Pain felt is more intense than pain inflicted.”
  • Police are under the impression that they do not interrogate innocent people, so if you find yourself in an interrogation situation, repeat this phrase: I want a lawyer. Now.
  • Also, if you are ever wrongfully convicted, the prosecutor will likely not care if they find out that you’re innocent, so long as your case is closed. Put your faith in good friends and lawyers who will fight for you.

Interestingly, even though we are loath to admit mistakes (because we think people will judge us as stupid), people admire those who own up to their wrongs. In fact, patients are less likely to sue doctors that admit fault and promise to try better in the future. Making mistakes in your life is important to your learning process. It is important to think of mistakes as learning experiences instead of failures, because the former is not dissonant with the view we have of ourselves and we will work harder instead of trying to be perfect.

Of course, this book confirms my previously held beliefs about cognition, and therefore it is unbiased and reliable.

However, a few people at Book Club brought up the point that while the book has many examples of how cognitive dissonance affects us, it doesn’t examine how to deal with overcoming cognitive dissonance. There are a few examples here and there but mostly the book just illustrates our lack of free will. Personally, I don’t think there is any one way of dealing with dissonance in others, except by just planting a seed of doubt. It’s very important that when you are expressing a skeptical view point to someone who has been drinking the holistic homeopathic water, you aren’t too forceful about it. Self-justification can be a gradual process, so just by explaining your view calmly, you might have an eventual lasting impression. If you express your view in a not-so-friendly manner, it will be too much and your arguments will be explained away. People are more receptive to change if they think it’s come as a personal revelation, not just because someone told them so.

The next book club meeting is on Saturday, June 11th from 3-5pm and we are discussing The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. Location is TBD, depending on the weather, but we should be meeting either in Harvard Yard or in our usual indoor spot in the cafeteria of the Northwest Building on Harvard Campus in Cambridge.

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Comments (3)

Handy little extract of the book, Mary. I have posted an extended comment on the book on my blog, which I hope I may advertise here: Tavris and Aronson’s Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Reading Notes.”

For our next meeting, I found an interesting, rather opprobrious assessment of Sam Harris’s cumulative oeuvre in The Nation here.

PS. It is very bothersome that the format of this site does not indicate links until the pointer reaches them. The comment that I just posted includes two links, the first in the title in quotation marks in the first paragraph and the second in the word “here” at the end of the second paragraph.

Fixed. Comments with links should be have as expected.

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