Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)
Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Harmful Acts by Carol Tarvis and Elliot Aronson came out in 2007. It explores the idea of Cognitive Dissonance, which is when a person holds cognitions, or ideas, attitudes or opinions that are psychologically inconsistent. It seems absurd, but people do often hold conflicting beliefs and deny that that they conflict.
We all have blind spots. Some of those blind spots are due to Naive Realism. We believe ourselves to be realistic, unbiased and that we see things as they are when, in fact, we do not. One step at a time we are seduced into self-deception and self-justification for our unrealistic beliefs and biased behaviors. We put a lot of energy into preserving our prejudices rather than being forced to change it. We tell ourselves we were sleepy, frustrated, tired, drunk or stressed when we let our true feelings be known. Saying it was the booze talking is not a valid excuse though!
We should all have a system of checks and balances in place. This means we shouldn’t surround ourselves with people who always agree with us. It is good to know people who are willing to disagree with you and tell you are wrong.
Memory is the self-serving historian and often is not accurate at all. We all tell stories about our lives—but we also add details and omit inconvenient facts when we tell these stories. We give our stories small enhancing spin. And if that spin goes well, the next time we tell the story we give it slightly more embellishment. We justify that white lie because we are making the story better—until one day we may not remember how it happened exactly or that something happened at all. History is always written from the stand point of the victor in history books and our mis-remembering of our own history isn’t random. The mistakes are particular and purposeful.
The metaphor of memory as a filing system is wrong. It is more like watching a few unconnected frames of a movie that we have to piece together or reconstruct. We store both the bits of information along with our ever-changing narrative in our memory. And then there is source confusion. Sometimes we incorporate photos or other people’s accounts of an incident into our memory. We fuse our true memory with moments from other sources, which can be confusing to say the least.
Memories can be falsified intentionally or unintentionally a clinical setting as well. Sometimes therapists have lead patients to believe they were abused but repressed the memories when the patients weren’t abused at all. Witnesses to crimes and even confessions to crimes can be unreliable as well. Cops have been known to falsify evidence to catch someone they think is guilty. DNA and Crime Scene Investigation, which has been in use since 1989, has improved the system, but it still is not perfect.
Your marriage narrative accurately predicts rather you’ll stay together or get a divorce. Cognitive Dissonance are part of the post-divorce vindictiveness. It is all too easy to blame the other person for leaving or forcing you to leave them.
If you are a victim of a crime you may dwell on it for far too long and wonder why such a horrible thing could happen to such a good person. On the other end of the spectrum good people can become torturers. They justify the prisoner deserves it and soon they are committing acts they normally would never even consider.
“It is considered unhealthy in America to remember mistakes, neurotic to think about them and psychotic to dwell on them” says Lillian Herman. Americans do appear to have a prejudice against people who make mistakes. We tend to think people are stupid when even the smartest person can make a mistake. George Bush made a mistake in invading Iraq, but instead of withdrawing and apologizing, he added more troops. Publicly, He made a self-justification for a colossal mistake. Today’s kids or “Generation Me” as they are called, have taken to blaming the teacher for their inadequacies instead of working harder to “get it.”
Whatever the case may be, it is important to let go of whatever happened and own up to your mistakes. You need to apologize and say “I was wrong and you were right.” We have to be able to evolve and become better people.