A compassionate, wise, fascinating and instructive take on how and why you – and everyone else, including the authors – work so hard to delude yourself about your mistakes.
Why, authors Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson ask, do people find it so difficult to admit they are wrong – even when the evidence of a mistake confronts them? In this fascinating study, Tavris and Aronson explore the reasons underlying peoples’ resistance to admitting faultand their desperation to justify their flawed actions or beliefs.
The authors, both social psychologists, offer a wealth of illuminating examples, and suggestions for overcoming the desire to deny your mistakes rather than learning from them. Tavris, a writer and lecturer, is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities. Aronson is a professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a distinguished visiting professor at Stanford University.
The Wall Street Journal called their book, “Entertaining, illuminating and — when you recognize yourself in the stories it tells — mortifying.” And noted author Francine Prose, writing for O, The Oprah Magazine, found it to be, “a revelatory study of how lovers, lawyers, doctors, politicians — and all of us — pull the wool over our own eyes.”
Tavris and Aronson state that avoiding cognitive dissonance– holding two incompatible ideas or beliefs – drives people to self-justification. You’re likely, they report, to stay loyal to ideas you already held or to the group you already belonged to, even if they harm you; changing means admitting you made a poor choice.
To err is human, but humans then have a choice between covering up and fessing up.” Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
Tavris and Aronson offer a significant insight: someone who is upset because he or she participated in bullying – behavior inconsistent with the self-perception of being a good person – will blame the victim to justify his or her actions and then will proceed to bully someone else again.
You believe that you see the world objectively, the authors note, and you probably feel that other people who perceive things differently must suffer from bias or delusion. Well, they say, everyone actually has such biases, but people generally remain unaware of their own blind spots.
When we…are forced to face our own mistakes and take responsibility for them, the result can be an exhilarating, liberating experience. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
Sadly, Tavris and Aronson discovered, examining your inner thoughts and motives will most likely confirm your belief in your own impartiality. To uncover and correct your hidden biases and prejudices, the authors advise allowing people into your life who can see through your self-justifications.
When two people relate a story of past events and the details diverge, the authors explain, listeners assume someone is lying. The more likely scenario, Tavris and Aronson understand, is that both parties remember events in ways that support their self-justifications. Memory allows people to recall information that confirms their sense of self and to forget events that might cause cognitive dissonance. Your memory helps you create your stories, and those stories create your memories.
Memory is an act of reconstruction, and it is not, the authors assert, like pulling up a file on your computer. They explain that any given memory melds actual recollection with subsequent information. Tavris and Aronson enter fascinating territory as they describe how people’s false memories allow them to construct entirely new selves.
The authors disclose that false memories of victimization, in particular, offer people the sense of having an excuse for their problems – thereby letting them avoid facing their issues. In this section, as in most of the book, Tavris and Aronson repeat – though obliquely – one of their main themes: it’s your responsibility to explore why you behave as you do.
Therapists who believe that they see something in a patient – say, a repressed memory of trauma – don’t have a perspective against which to check their suppositions. Thus, therapists can inadvertently encourage patients to provide evidence – justification – for imagined wrongs, which, in turn, bolsters the therapists’ belief in their own insights. Here, as elsewhere, Tavris and Aronson break down the insidious labyrinth of mutually satisfying, mutually self-sustaining self-delusion.
You have plenty of external incentives for denying that you made a mistake, but you have an even greater internal one: You want to think of yourself as an honorable, competent person who would never help convict the wrong guy.Carol Tavrish and Elliot Aronson
Denying and avoiding dissonance in your life, Tavris and Aronson posit, foments a host of problems, while learning to live with dissonance leads to growth. This means considering the discomfort your mistakes cause before you make amends. This is particularly difficult when your mistake caused harm or occurred in your professional role.
Tavris and Aronson urge you to take a moment to reflect and spot your biases before responding defensively when you feel wrongfully criticized for an action or belief.
Tavris and Aronson write with great compassion and no shortage of wit about how people must, as a survival mechanism, lie to themselves and blame others. You might think an entire volume on this depressing aspect of the human condition might make the authors cynical, but in fact it seems only to strengthen their belief in people’s ability to transcend their limitations. That belief makes this rather academic, severe work oddly inspirational. And, throughout, Tavris and Aronson caution you that every self-deluding person they describe could be you or either of them. This kind, consistent reminder makes their words and the context of those words all the more memorable and useful.
Enjoyable related readings include Elephants on Acid by Alex Boese; The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt; and The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher F. Chabris.