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Blind Spots

William B. Swann

Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. xii + 292 pp. Harcourt, 2007. $25.

There are at least two kinds of deceptive statements. The more common and familiar type ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman") is made willfully, with the goal of misleading listeners into believing something that the deceiver knows to be untrue. The second sort ("They're trying to say 'Did you make a mistake going into Iraq?' And the answer is 'Absolutely not.'") is made when the speaker has persuaded himself that something false is actually true. In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), authors Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson focus on this latter category, which involves self-deception. The authors make a compelling case that self-justifications of this sort are especially pernicious, because they allow the person making them to feel better while remaining unaware of what is happening. Thus emboldened, he or she will not only fail to take corrective action but will be prone to make additional mistakes, be untruthful about them and so on. Even if this individual is not the leader of the free world, the results can be catastrophic.

The intellectual centerpiece of the book is the theory of cognitive dissonance, first proposed in 1957 by social psychologist Leon Festinger. Cognitive dissonance is the tension that can arise from having two conflicting thoughts at the same time, as when one engages in behavior that is inconsistent with one's beliefs. Festinger theorized that perceiving a contradiction between two cognitions (a term that encompasses attitudes, beliefs, emotions and behaviors) induces a drive to acquire new beliefs or modify existing ones to reduce the dissonance. Tavris and Aronson are especially well suited to discuss these ideas: The former has distinguished herself as a popularizer of social-psychological theories and principles, and the latter began his career as a researcher and conducted several landmark studies of dissonance before turning to other topics.

There are actually several versions of the theory, but as explicated here it bears a strong resemblance to Freud's concept of rationalization. It does, however, have some important new twists. Significantly, the key theoretical mechanisms underlying rationalization have remained mysterious and untestable. In contrast, 50 years of systematic research have carefully plumbed the inner workings of dissonance theory. The central tenet of the authors' version is that people's brains are wired to find consistency between what they do and their positive images of themselves. Presumably this is why people engage in a wide array of mental gymnastics to salvage their self-esteem rather than own up to their mistakes. The typical outcome is that people twist the truth to make it seem kinder or more flattering than it actually is. In extreme cases, they may engage in distortion and denial of objective reality.

Brandishing the banner of dissonance theory, Tavris and Aronson charge through a breathtakingly diverse collection of substantive topics. The result is both engaging and informative. Their key argument is that dissonance theory can explain many laboratory findings and elements of many naturally occurring phenomena. For example, the authors maintain that when ordinary people blithely agreed to administer dangerously strong electric shocks to hapless learners in Stanley Milgram's classic experiments, the subjects' penchant for self-justification ("the experimenter told me to continue") was a key contributor to their complicity. Similarly, in instances in which prosecutors have refused to back down when DNA evidence has revealed that a defendant was wrongfully sentenced for a crime, Tavris and Aronson attribute theprosecutors' refusal to admit error to pernicious self-justification processes. The authors also maintain that most champions of the repressed-memory movement, when confronted with information suggesting that the "memories" of alleged victims are false, simply dismiss the evidence as being a form of backlash against child victims and incest survivors.

As the book's title suggests, one of the topics touched on is contemporary politics. Tavris and Aronson mention in the endnotes that many U.S. presidents have used the phrase "mistakes were made," including Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Although Alberto Gonzales's use of the phrase a few months ago ("I acknowledge that mistakes were made here") occurred too recently to make it into the book, the authors do discuss some of the self-justifications and self-deceptions of the current administration. For example, they characterize George W. Bush as "the poster boy for 'tenacious clinging to a discredited belief.'"

Tavris and Aronson do an artful job of illustrating the contribution that social-psychological research on self-justification can make to understanding numerous social phenomena. Moreover, they do so in a manner that is often witty and always engaging. This book will undoubtedly bring important scientific findings to life for readers from all walks of life.

My only reservation is that on a few occasions the authors' zeal for applying dissonance theory to everything under the sun leads them to engage in scientific imperialism that seems, well, self-justifying. For example, to the uninitiated, the book's discussion of the Milgram experiment might suggest that Milgram documented that dissonance reduction has the power to precipitate murder. In reality, the role that cognitive dissonance played in the Milgram studies was purely anecdotal and has never been established conclusively. Instead, Milgram's primary contribution was to show that people have been so well socialized to obey authority figures that they will agree to engage in behavior that could place a fellow human being in jeopardy. Similarly, given that Tavris and Aronson take the not entirely uncontroversial position that dissonance always operates in the service of maintaining positive images of oneself ("our efforts at self-justification are all designed to serve our need to feel good about what we have done, what we believe, and who we are," they say), it is puzzling that they credit cognitive dissonance theory with explaining empirical evidence that people with a negative self-view may try to validate that low opinion of themselves by dismissing success experiences as accidents or anomalies. Clearly, something like dissonance (a desire for psychological coherence, perhaps) is motivating such reactions, but it cannot be the authors' version of it, with its claim that dissonance is motivated by a desire to preserve positive self-views. More generally, if one buys the assumption that dissonance is restricted to people with positive self-views (and not all theorists do), then dissonance is not a universal motive but instead applies only to the roughly 70 percent of the population who possess positive self-views.

But these are relatively minor quibbles that did little to dilute my enthusiasm for this fascinating book. In an era in which fidelity to truth has been sacrificed so often at the altar of spin, Mistakes Were Made performs the valuable service of demystifying the process of self-justification. In so doing, it provides the reader with a framework for understanding how self-justification works and for recognizing it in other people and themselves. In the waning days of the Bush administration, this indictment of rationalization and of the refusal to admit mistakes will surely have much resonance.

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