Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews



Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson




(Highly Recommended)




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Psychologists Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson have collaborated to create a fascinating book about why we people who do wrong justify our actions. Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts is supported by years of research on how the brain works, what extraordinary steps we take to deal with dissonance, and the happy world of self-deception. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, “Memory, the Self-justifying Historian,” pp. 68-71:


What we...refer to confidently as memory...is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.

—memoirist and editor William Maxwell


Many years ago, during the Jimmy Carter administration, Gore Vidal was on the Today show being interviewed by Tom Brokaw, the host. According to Vidal, Brokaw started by saying, “You’ve written a lot about bisexuality. . .“ but Vidal cut him off, say­ing, “Tom, let me tell you about these morning shows. It’s too early to talk about sex. Nobody wants to hear about it at this hour, or if they do, they are doing it. Don’t bring it up.” “Yeah, uh, but Gore, uh, you have written a lot about bisex. - “ Vidal interrupted, saying that his new book had nothing to do with bisexuality and he’d rather talk about politics. Brokaw tried once more, and Vidal again de­clined, saying, “Now let’s talk about Carter. . . - What is he doing with these Brazilian dictators pretending they are freedom-loving, democratic leaders?” And so the conversation turned to Carter for the rest of the interview. Several years later, when Brokaw had become anchor of the Nightly News, Time did a feature on him, asking him about any especially difficult interviews he had conducted. Brokaw singled out the conversation with Gore Vidal: “I wanted to talk poli­tics,” Brokaw recalled, “and he wanted to talk about bisexuality.”

It was a “total reversal,” Vidal said, “to make me the villain of the story.”

Was it Tom Brokaw’s intention to turn Gore Vidal into the vil­lain of the story? Was Brokaw lying, as Vidal implied? That is un­likely. After all, Brokaw chose the story to tell the Time reporter; he could have selected any difficult interview in his long career to talk about, rather than one that required him to embellish or lie; indeed, for all he knew, the reporter would check the original transcript. Brokaw made the reversal of who-said-what unconsciously, not to make Vidal look bad, but to make himself look good. As the new an­chor of the Nightly News, it would have been unseemly for him to have been asking questions about bisexuality; better to believe (and remember) that he had always chosen the intellectual high road of politics.

When two people produce entirely different memories of the same event, observers usually assume that one of them is lying. Of course, some people do invent or embellish stories to manipulate or deceive their audiences, as James Frey notably did with his bestseller A Million Little Pieces. But most of us, most of the time, are neither telling the whole truth nor intentionally deceiving. We aren’t lying; We are selfjustifying. All of us, as we tell our stories, add details and omit inconvenient facts; we give the tale a small, self-enhancing spin; that spin goes over so well that the next time we add a slightly more dramatic embellishment; we justify that little white lie as making the story better and clearer—until what we remember may not have happened that way, or even may not have happened at all.

In this way, memory becomes our personal, live-in, self-justifying historian. Social psychologist Anthony Greenwald once described the self as being ruled by a “totalitarian ego” that ruthlessly destroys information it doesn’t want to hear and, like all fascist leaders, rewrites history from the standpoint of the victor.2 But whereas a to­talitarian ruler rewrites history to put one over on future generations, the totalitarian ego rewrites history to put one over on itself. History is written by the victors, and when we write our own histories, we do so just as the conquerors of nations do: to justify our actions and make us look and feel good about ourselves and what we did or what we failed to do. If mistakes were made, memory helps us remember that they were made by someone else. If we were there, we were just innocent bystanders.

At the simplest level, memory smoothes out the wrinkles of dis­sonance by enabling the confirmation bias to hum along, selectively causing us to forget discrepant, disconfirming information about be­liefs we hold dear. For example, if we were perfectly rational beings, we would try to remember smart, sensible ideas and not bother tax­ing our minds by remembering foolish ones. But dissonance theory predicts that we will conveniently forget good arguments made by an opponent just as we forget foolish arguments made by our own side. A silly argument in favor of our own position arouses dissonance because it raises doubts about the wisdom of that position or the in­telligence of the people who agree with it. Likewise, a sensible argu­ment by an opponent also arouses dissonance because it raises the possibility that the other side, God forbid, may be right or have a point to take seriously. Because a silly argument on our side and a good argument on the other guy’s side both arouse dissonance, the theory predicts that we will either not learn these arguments very well or will forget them quickly. And that is just what Edward Jones and Rika Kohier showed in a classic experiment on attitudes toward desegregation in North Carolina in l958. Each side tended to re­member the plausible arguments agreeing with their own position and the implausible arguments agreeing with the opposing position; each side forgot the implausible arguments for their view and the plausible arguments for the opposition.

Of course, our memories can be remarkably detailed and accurate, too. We remember first kisses and favorite teachers. We remember family stories, movies, dates, baseball stats, childhood humiliations and triumphs. We remember the central events of our life stories. But when we do misremember, our mistakes aren’t random. The everyday, dissonance-reducing distortions of memory help us make sense of the world and our place in it, protecting our decisions and beliefs. The distortion is even more powerful when it is motivated by the need to keep our self-concept consistent; by the wish to be right; by the need to preserve self-esteem; by the need to excuse failures or bad decisions; or by the need to find an explanation, preferably one safely in the past, of current problems.4 Confabulation, distortion, and plain forgetting are the foot soldiers of memory, and they are summoned to the front lines when the totalitarian ego wants to pro­tect us from the pain and embarrassment of actions we took that are dissonant with our core self-images: “I did that?” That is why mem­ory researchers love to quote Nietzsche: “I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride, and remains in­exorable. Eventually—memory yields.”


The language throughout Mistakes Were Made is clear and readable, and the many examples and illustrations will illuminate every reader. The rest of the chapter excerpted above goes on to explore the junk science behind repressed memory restoration. Every chapter provides insight. If, like me, you become frustrated at evasions to accepting culpability, you’ll love Mistakes Were Made. At least now, we can understand why it happens.


Steve Hopkins, December 20, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the January 2008 issue of Executive Times


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