Mistakes Were Made

(but not by me)  Why we Justify foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts.

by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Some Authors, C.S.Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Mark Twain, as examples are veritable quote mines.  Well, the Magpie made the effort to get this book on interlibrary loan from Fort MacMurray of all places, and I immediately recognized it as a quote mine.

It’s a bit of an uncomfortable book because it raises the specter of my own forays past and present into self-justification.  However it does shine its light elsewhere enough of the time to make it bearable reading.  And as I’ve said before, it’s so quotable.

“All of us share the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for any actions that will turn out to be harmful, immoral, or stupid. . . Most of us find it difficult, if not impossible to say, “I was wrong; I made a terrible mistake.” The higher the stakes –emotional, financial, moral– the greater the difficulty.”  and “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.”

“Self-justification is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done. In fact, come to think of it, it was the right thing. . . . Self-justification not only minimizes our mistakes and bad decisions; it is also the reason that everyone can see a hypocrite in action except the hypocrite. It allows us to create a distinction between our moral lapses and someone else’s, and to blur the discrepancy between our actions and our moral convictions.”

“Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistant, such as ‘Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me’ and ‘I smoke two packs a day.'”

“Dissonance is disquieting because to hold two ideas that contradict each other is to flirt with absurdity and, as Albert Camus observed, we humans are creatures who spend our lives trying to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd.”

“If a person voluntarily goes through a difficult or a painful experience in order to attain some goal or object, that goal or object becomes more attractive. If, on your way to join a discussion group, a flowerpot fell from the open window of an apartment building and hit you on the head, you would not like the discussion group any better.  But if you volunteered to get hit on the head by a flowerpot to become a member of the group, you would definitely like the group more.”

“I will look at any additional evidence to confirm the opinion to which I have already come.” -Lord Molson, British Politician (1903-1991)

Against the catharsis hypothesis, “when people vent their feelings aggressively they often feel worse, pump up their blood pressure, and make themselves even angrier. Venting is especially likely to backfire if a person commits an aggressive act against another person directly- a powerful new factor comes into play; the need to justify what you did.”

[the bully asks] “How can a decent kid like me, have done such a cruel thing to a nice, innocent little kid like him?’ To reduce dissonance, he will try to convince himself that the victim is neither nice or innocent. “He is such a nerd and crybaby.”  Once the boy starts down the path of blaming the victim he becomes more likely to beat up on the victim with even greater ferocity the next chance he gets.”

“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 it’s consequences, the greater the dissonance and the greater the need to reduce it by overemphasizing the good things about the choice made. Therefore, when you are about to make a big purchase, or an important decision- don’t ask someone who has just done it. That person will be highly motivated to convince you that it is the right thing to do.  Ask someone who is still gathering information.”

“How do you get an honest man to lose his ethical compass? You get him to take one step at a time, and self-justification will do the rest.”

(The Pyramid of choice.  Two young men who have a middling attitude to cheating get caught in a crises situation. One cheats, the other does not. Having made the choice, the two who were originally not far apart in belief justify their actions, then “internalize their beliefs and come to believe that they have always felt that way. It is as if they had started off at the top of a pyramid, a millimeter apart; but by the time they have finished justifying their individual actions, they have slid to the bottom and now stand at opposite corners of its base. The one who did not cheat thinks the other to be totally immoral and the one who cheated thinks the other is hopelessly puritanical.)

“When the person at the top of the pyramid is uncertain, when there are benefits and costs of both choices, then he or she will feel a particular urgency to justify the choice made. But by the time the person is at the bottom of the pyramid, ambivalence will have morphed into certainty and he or she will be miles away from anyone who took a different route.”

“Often, standing at the top of the pyramid we are faced not with a black and white, go-no-go decision but with a gray choice whose consequences are shrouded. The first steps along the path are morally ambiguous, and the right decision is not always clear. We make an early, apparently inconsequential decision, and then we justify it to reduce the ambiguity of the choice. This starts a process of entrapment-action, justification, further action- that increases our intensity and commitment, and may end up taking us far from our original intentions or principles.”

“Naive realism- the inescapable conviction that we perceive objects and events clearly, as they really are. . . it creates a logical labyrinth because it presupposes two things. One, people who are open-minded and fair ought to agree with a reasonable opinion. And two, any opinion I hold must be reasonable; if it weren’t, I wouldn’t hold it. Therefore, if I can just get my opponents to sit down here and listen to me, so that I can tell them how things really are, they will agree with me. And if they don’t, it must be because they are biased.”

‘Who would jeopardize a career and a reputation for a trip to Scotland? The answer is: no one, if  that were the first offer he got: but many of us would if it were and offer preceded by many smaller ones we had accepted. Pride, followed by self-justification, paves the road to Scotland.”

The Problem of the Benevolent Dolphin

Every so often a heartwarming story tells of a ship wrecked sailor who was on the verge of drowning until a friendly dolphin nudged him to shore. But was it 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.  Perhaps dolphins are neither benevolent nor evil, they are just being playful.”

“The most powerful piece of evidence a detective can produce in an investigation is a confession, because it is the one thing most likely to convince a prosecutor, jury, and a judge of a person’s guilt. Accordingly police interrogators are trained to get it, even if that means lying to the suspect and using, as one detective proudly admitted to a reporter, “trickery and deceit.” Most people are surprised to know that this is entirely legal. Detectives are proud of their ability to trick a suspect into confessing; it’s a mark of how well they have learned their trade.”

“Perpetrators, whether individuals or nations, write versions of history in which their behavior was justified and provoked by the other side, their behavior was sensible and meaningful; if they made mistakes or went too far, at least everything turned out for the best in the long run, and it’s all in the past now anyway. Victims tend to write accounts of the same history in which they describe the perpetrator’s actions as arbitrary and meaningless, or else intentionally malicious and brutal; in which their own retaliation was impeccably appropriate and morally justified; and in which nothing turned out for the best. In fact, everything turned out for the worst, and we are still irritated about it.”


  1. Lila said

    Thanks for this page. I’d actually forgotten some of the wonderful details of this book.

  2. scott said

    The problem of the benevolent dolphin is a the problem of a selection bias.
    I’ve run into a real life example of it on http://www.archive.org

    The only people who bother to rate old movies are people who are interested enough to search for, download, and watch old movies (not to mention, rate them afterwards!)

    As a result, there is a tremendous positive bias in the ratings. It’s a problem with any internet forum/community in general – polls on the internet are generally not worth the time it takes to examine the results.

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