Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) is a book about self-justification, the sort of rationalizing in which everyday folk engage to feel better about the poor decisions they make on an everyday basis, but it is also a book that helps illuminate the self-justification of the not-so-everyday folk and the much larger poor decisions often made by people in positions of power. Tavris and Aronson1, two social psychologists, do not simply write about self-justifying phenomena; they explain to the reader the whys of them.
This is perhaps the best book on a psychological topic written for the lay audience that I have read. In eight chapters (not including Tavris and Aronson’s introduction and afterword), the authors explain their underlying tenet – cognitive dissonance – and then take the reader through a series of real life applications of the need to self-justify and the places in our lives we do it most frequently. Particularly relevant to the general reader are the chapters on therapy (Chapter 42), the law (Chapter 53), and marriage (Chapter 6), although all chapters have much to offer everyone.
As a social psychologist, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) was a pleasure to read on numerous levels. The volume of research the authors incorporated into the book to bolster their ideas is impressive, but more impressive is the way in which they used the science. Always clear and engaging, never heavy handed, each individual study reported is accessible, and the applicability of the findings to the topic at hand is readily seen. Tavris and Aronson are so skilled at this, I will be taking cues from their presentation of research findings in my own lecturing from this point forward, as they spend scant paragraphs delivering material I typical labor an hour or more to convey (and do so with no loss of information or import).
The grand achievement of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) is the synthesis of many disparate solo theories of self-justification into a unified whole under the umbrella of cognitive dissonance. The biases we all have, the behaviors in which we engage to make ourselves feel better about the choices we make, have been studied at length by social psychologists, but cognitive dissonance stands alone. Or has stood alone. As scholar-teachers, we lecture on them separately, often as series of self-justifying behaviors. The utility of this book is its cohesive accounting of all of these behaviors as single slices from the same pie and the resurrection of dissonance theory from the ashes of classic theory into something current and far more than simply credible.
As co-authors, Tavris and Aronson write remarkably well together. Often lapsing into the first person, they require parenthetical expressions to indicate which of them is addressing the reader at the time (e.g., “One of us (Elliot)…”). So seamless is their collaboration that there are no distractions from differing styles or voices. As well, the prose moves along at a brisk clip without jargon (unless it is explicitly defined in the moment), and the reader is often treated to wry wit or a clever turn of phrase in unexpected moments.
On the whole, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) was a complete success to start the new year’s reading list. I highly recommend this book to anyone remotely interested in why we do… well, just about anything we do.
1Aronson recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Society for his contributions to the field of psychology
2Which my Research Methods class will be reading this upcoming semester.
3Which my Psychology and Law class will be reading this upcoming semester.