Mistakes Were Made but Not By Me by Carol Tavris

Rating: 8/10

Read More on AmazonGet My Searchable Collection of 200+ Book Notes

High-Level Thoughts

Fantastic introduction to biases and how to identify them in ourselves and others. Read it! Sort of like the other-minded companion to Paradox of Choice.

Summary Notes

“Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. Even irrefutable evidence is rarely enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification.”

“We look at the behavior of politicians with amusement or alarm or horror, but, psychologically, what they do is no different in kind, though certainly in consequence, from what most of us have done at one time or another in our private lives. We stay in an unhappy relationship or merely one that is going nowhere because, after all, we invested so much time in making it work. We stay in a deadening job way too long because we look for all the reasons to justify staying and are unable to clearly assess the benefits of leaving. We buy a lemon of a car because it looks gorgeous, spend thousands of dollars to keep the damn thing running, and then we spend even more to justify that investment. We self-righteously create a rift with a friend or relative over some real or imagined slight, yet see ourselves as the pursuers of peace— if only the other side would apologize and make amends.”

“When we cross these lines, we are justifying behavior that we know is wrong precisely so that we can continue to see ourselves as honest people and not criminals or thieves.”

“Memories are often pruned and shaped by an ego-enhancing bias that blurs the edges of past events, softens culpability, and distorts what really happened.”

Cognitive Dissonance:

  • “Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.””
  • “A dog may appear contrite for having been caught peeing on the carpet, but she will not try to think up justifications for her misbehavior. Humans think; and because we think, dissonance theory demonstrated that our behavior transcends the effects of rewards and punishments and often contradicts them.”
  • “On the contrary: If the new information is consonant with our beliefs, we think it is well founded and useful: “Just what I always said!” But if the new information is dissonant, then we consider it biased or foolish: “What a dumb argument!” So powerful is the need for consonance that when people are forced to look at disconfirming evidence, they will find a way to criticize, distort, or dismiss it so that they can maintain or even strengthen their existing belief. This mental contortion is called the “confirmation bias.””
  • “In this study, the researchers simply intercepted people who were standing in line to place two-dollar bets and other people who had just left the window. The investigators asked everyone how certain they were that their horses would win. The bettors who had placed their bets were far more certain about their choice than were the folks waiting in line. 14 But, of course, nothing had changed except the finality of placing the bet. People become more certain they are right about something they just did if they can’t undo it.”
  • “The more costly a decision, in terms of time, money, effort, or inconvenience, and the more irrevocable its consequences, the greater the dissonance and the greater the need to reduce it by overemphasizing the good things about the choice made.”
  • “Actually, decades of experimental research have found exactly the opposite: that when people vent their feelings aggressively they often feel worse, pump up their blood pressure, and make themselves even angrier. 16 Venting is especially likely to backfire if a person commits an aggressive act against another person directly, which is exactly what cognitive dissonance theory would predict. When you do anything that harms someone else— get them in trouble, verbally abuse them, or punch them out— a powerful new factor comes into play: the need to justify what you did.”

Pride, Prejudice, and Blind Spots

  • “We take our own involvement in an issue as a source of accuracy and enlightenment—“ I’ve felt strongly about gun control for years; therefore, I know what I’m talking about”— but we regard such personal feelings on the part of others who hold different views as a source of bias—“ She can’t possibly be impartial about gun control because she’s felt strongly about it for years.””
  • “Once people have a prejudice, just as once they have a political ideology, they do not easily drop it, even if the evidence indisputably contradicts a core justification for it. Rather, they come up with another justification to preserve their belief or course of action.”
  • “into maintaining consonance between their prejudice and information that is inconsistent with it. They actually pay more attention to this inconsistent information than to consistent information, because, like Mr. X and the Minnesota neighbor, they need to figure out how to explain away the dissonant evidence. In one experiment, (straight) students were asked to evaluate a gay man, “Robert,” who was described as doing eight things that were consistent with the gay stereotype (e.g., he had studied interpretive dance) and eight things that were inconsistent (e.g., he had watched a football game one Sunday). Anti-gay participants twisted the evidence about Robert and later described him as being far more “feminine” than unbiased students did, thereby maintaining their prejudice. To resolve the dissonance caused by the inconsistent facts, they explained them away as being an artifact of the situation. Sure, Robert watched a football game, but only because his cousin Fred was visiting.”
  • “Nice try, but the evidence shows clearly that while inebriation makes it easier for people to reveal their prejudices, it doesn’t put those attitudes in their minds in the first place.”
  • “We need a few trusted naysayers in our lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of self-justifications and yank us back to reality if we veer too far off. This is especially important for people in positions of power.”

Memory and why it sucks:

  • “This small story illustrates three important things about memory: how disorienting it is to realize that a vivid memory, one full of emotion and detail, is indisputably wrong; that even being absolutely, positively sure a memory is accurate does not mean that it is; and how errors in memory support our current feelings and beliefs.”
  • “Parent blaming is a popular and convenient form of self-justification because it allows people to live less uncomfortably with their regrets and imperfections.”

Bad Science:

  • “Every so often, a heartwarming news story tells of a shipwrecked sailor who was on the verge of drowning in a turbulent sea. Suddenly, a dolphin popped up at his side and, gently but firmly, nudged the swimmer safely to shore. It is tempting to conclude that dolphins must really like human beings, enough to save us from drowning. But wait— are dolphins aware that humans don’t swim as well as they do? Are they actually intending to be helpful? To answer that question, we would need to know how many shipwrecked sailors have been gently nudged further out to sea by dolphins, there to drown and never be heard from again. We don’t know about those cases, because the swimmers don’t live to tell us about their evil-dolphin experiences. If we had that information, we might conclude that dolphins are neither benevolent nor evil; they are just being playful.”
  • ““Truly traumatic events— terrifying, life-threatening experiences— are never forgotten, let alone if they are repeated,” says McNally. “The basic principle is: if the abuse was traumatic at the time it occurred, it is unlikely to be forgotten. If it was forgotten, then it was unlikely to have been traumatic. And even if it was forgotten, there is no evidence that it was blocked, repressed, sealed behind a mental barrier, inaccessible.””
  • “This is obviously disconfirming information for clinicians committed to the belief that people who have been brutalized for years will repress the memory. If they are right, surely Holocaust survivors would be leading candidates for repression. But as far as anyone knows, and as McNally documents, no survivors of the Holocaust have forgotten or repressed what happened to them.”

Love and Marriage and Self Justification

  • “From our standpoint, therefore, misunderstandings, conflicts, personality differences, and even angry quarrels are not the assassins of love; self-justification is.”
  • “The tipping point at which a couple starts rewriting their love story, Gottman finds, is when the “magic ratio” dips below five-to-one: Successful couples have a ratio of five times as many positive interactions (such as expressions of love, affection, and humor) to negative ones (such as expressions of annoyance and complaints).”

Letting Go and Owning Up:

  • “A man travels many miles to consult the wisest guru in the land. When he arrives, he asks the wise man: “Oh, wise guru, what is the secret of a happy life?” “Good judgment,” says the guru. “But oh, wise guru,” says the man, “how do I achieve good judgment?” “Bad judgment,” says the guru.”
  • “We want to hear, we long to hear, “I screwed up. I will do my best to ensure that it will not happen again.” Most of us are not impressed when a leader offers the form of Kennedy’s admission without its essence, as in Ronald Reagan’s response to the Iran-Contra scandal, which may be summarized as “I didn’t do anything wrong myself, but it happened on my watch, so, well, I guess I’ll take responsibility.””
  • “The boy kept at it for forty-five minutes, making repeated mistakes, as Stevenson and Stigler became increasingly anxious and embarrassed for him. Yet the boy himself was utterly unselfconscious, and the American observers wondered why they felt worse than he did. “Our culture exacts a great cost psychologically for making a mistake,” Stigler recalled, “whereas in Japan, it doesn’t seem to be that way. In Japan, mistakes, error, confusion [are] all just a natural part of the learning process.””

Did You Enjoy This?

Then consider signing up for my Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles, book notes, and podcast episodes.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.