Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me
is a 2007 nonfiction book by social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. The book uses anecdotal, historical, and scientific evidence to explain why keeping mistakes quietly is always endlessly worse than admitting those mistakes--both to the public and to ourselves.
One of the most fascinating things about the book is how it uses brain science to explain why the urge to cover up our mistakes is so strong. It's not just a matter of personal or public shame, the authors write. It's also a way for our brains to compensate for the cognitive dissonance that occurs when our well-intentioned actions end up hurting ourselves or the people we love. When we make a mistake, our brain now has to cope with two different ways of looking at ourselves. For example, if we tell ourselves we're going to study hard for a test but fail to do so, there are two versions of ourselves looking back at us in the mirror: the version with academic ambitions who takes scholarly pursuits seriously, and the version of ourselves that would rather be lazy and goof off than excel academically. Because the brain struggles to make sense of these two selves, one way out is for the brain to tell itself that not studying wasn't a mistake at all.
On this topic and how it relates to the brain, the authors write, "Is the brain designed to make us flare in anger when we think we are being attacked? Fine—but most of us learn to count to ten and find alternatives to beating the other guy with a cudgel. An appreciation of how dissonance works, in ourselves and others, gives us some ways to override our wiring. And protect us from those who can’t.”
We then have to create justifications for why it wasn't a mistake--justifications that often strain reality. Maybe we feel like studying wouldn't have helped anyway, we tell ourselves. Or maybe we tell ourselves that the test itself wasn't worth taking or even that academics themselves aren't important.
False justifications also feed off of themselves depending on the severity of our mistakes, the authors write: "In the horrifying calculus of self-deception, the greater the pain we inflict on others, the greater the need to justify it to maintain our feelings of decency and self-worth.”
These false justifications make the situation even worse because they lead to confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the practice of being blind to all evidence except that which supports one's preconceived notions. This does worse damage to us than we realize, the authors assert. It's not just that we reach incorrect conclusions when we're guided by confirmation bias. The authors also argue that confirmation bias can lead to a realignment of the very morals and guiding principles by which a person lives his or her life.
The authors illustrate this idea through a metaphor
of two people standing on a pyramid. Each is given the opportunity to steal $500 from a wallet they find. From atop the pyramid, each person can see all the possible paths their decision might take. One person decides to steal, the other decides to put the money back. After the decision is made, however, each person descends down the pyramid on their path. But as they get farther down the pyramid, it gets harder and harder to see all the other possible outcomes of other possible modes of life. And with only their own path in front of them, they keep making the same types of decisions that launched them on that path, just to maintain their course because it's the only one they allow themselves to see.
The most important step to getting off any path launched by a mistake, the authors argue, is to admit that we made a mistake and that we're on the wrong path. The authors use the example of students in China and Japan versus American students. In China and Japan, students are called up at random to complete math problems. If the student gets the problem wrong, the class and teacher work together with the student until he or she gets the problem right. Compare that to how math classes usually work in America, the authors say, where getting called up to the chalkboard is usually a source of shame meant to be avoided by students.Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me
presents a number of compelling arguments to help individuals and communities cope with their own mistakes.