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Mistakes Were Made but not by me

Page history last edited by Martin Poulter 15 years, 3 months ago

Notes on Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)


Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (2007) Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Harcourt. ISBN:9780151010981 (Google information)


For clear, engaging explanations of psychological research, this is one of the best books you can get. Cognitive biases are like optical illusions, distorting our decisions, memories and judgement. This book focuses in particular on self-directed biases: the distortions of memory and explanation that make sure that each of us is the hero, not the villain, or our own life story.


When corrupt police frame innocent people, how do they justify to themselves what they are doing? When a couple divorce, how can two former lovers come to hate each other with such a passion? When political or military mistakes lead to thousands of deaths, how do the decision-makers live with themselves? The authors take academic research on cognitive dissonance, self-justification or stereotypes and apply it to a spectrum of recent events from the White House to Mel Gibson's racism.


It is eye-opening to read how malleable and unreliable memory is, and how easy it is to create feedback loops of increasing certainty from just a hint of evidence. An appalling example is the recovered memory craze of the 80s and 90s, which is discussed at length. The book isn't entirely downbeat, even though it explains how prosecutions, marriages or therapy sessions can go terribly wrong. It shows that it is easy for good people to hurt others, but we can avoid these traps with humility and self-questioning. They call science "a form of arrogance control".


A theme running through the work of these two psychologists is how science can address real problems of human conflict. That warm, humane spirit pervades this book and anybody curious about the science or the solutions would benefit from reading it.


Structure of the Book


Chapter 1: Cognitive dissonance: The Engine of Self-justification

Chapter 2: Pride and Prejudice, and Other Blind Spots

Chapter 3: Memory, the Self-justifying Historian

  • False memories

Chapter 4: Good Intentions, Bad Science: The Closed Loop of Clinical Judgment

  • "Recovered memories"

Chapter 5: Law and Disorder

  • How prejudices and self-justification affect each stage of the judicial process
    • The Investigators
    • The Interrogators
    • The Prosecutors
  • Jumping to Convictions (recommendations about how to improve the situation)

Chapter 6: Love's Assassin: Self-justification in Marriage

  • Examples of how self-justification in relationships can lead each partner to the illusion that they are the reasonable one and that the other is hard to live with
  • The crucial role of attribution in the happiness or unhappiness of the relationship: i.e. seeing your spouse as being a stupid person rather than doing something stupid
  • Self-justification in choices about relationships, e.g. after a difficult decision to leave someone, minimising their positive qualities and after a difficult decision to stay with them, minimising their negative qualities

Chapter 7: Wounds, Rifts and Wars

Chapter 8: Letting Go and Owning Up

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