Monday, September 8, 2014

What I've Taken Away from Reading Mistakes were made (but not by ME): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts

Back on August 7th I posted a 41 minute video presentation from the 2014 TAM Conference given by Dr. Carol Tavris: Who's Lying, Who's Self-Justifying? Origins of the He Said/She Said Gap in Sexual Allegations if you haven’t watched it you really should its amazing.
Later that day I emailed back and fourth with Dr. Tavris. In one of her email’s she told me about a book that she co-wrote with Elliot Aronson titled Mistakes were made (but not by ME): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts in 2007/2008 and that she and the other author are revising it at the end of 2014 adding new chapters.

I have already recommended this book to all the Virginia lawmakers and now I am recommending it to all the readers of this blog. It has something for everyone.

Here is a small sampling of what I have taken away from Mistakes were made (but not by ME): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts ………… 

We all share the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for any actions that turn out to be harmful, immoral or stupid. 

Most of us will never be in a position to make decisions affecting the lives and deaths of millions of people, but whether the consequences of our mistakes are trivial or tragic, on a small scale or on a national canvas, 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. 

In fact, most people when directly confronted with proof they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously. 

Lying to the public to convince them of something you know is untrue is not the same as lying to yourself. 

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 actions and our moral convictions.

Self-justification has costs and benefits. It allows us to sleep at night. Without it we would prolong the awful pangs or embarrassment, we would torture ourselves with regret, we would agonize after almost every decision.

Yet mindless self-justification draws us deeper into disaster, like quicksand. It blocks our ability to see our errors, let alone correct them. It distorts reality, keeping us from getting all of the information we need to assess the issue clearly. 

Self-justification exacerbates prejudice and corruption, distorts memory, turns professional confidence into arrogance and creates and perpetuates injustice. 

Too often, out of the best intentions, we do the very thing guaranteed to make matters worse. 

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

Self-serving distortions of our memory become the perverted logic of Self-justification. 

Memories create our stories, but our stories also create our memories. 

Cognitive dissonance; the hardwired psychological mechanism that creates self-justification and protects our certainties, self-esteem and tribal affiliations. 

If new information is consonant with our beliefs, we think it is well founded and useful “Just what I’ve 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 discomforting evidence, they will find a way to criticize it, distort or dismiss it so they can maintain or even strengthen that existing belief. This mental contortion is called the “confirmation bias”, once our minds are made up, it is hard to change them. The confirmation bias even sees to it that no evidence – the absence of evidence – is evidence for what we believe. 

Most Americans know they are supposed to say “we learn from our mistakes” but deep down they don’t believe it for a minute. They think mistakes mean you are stupid. Mistake are treated like a hot-potato, eager to get rid of them even if you have to toss it into someone else’s lap. 

Our greatest hope of self-correction lies in making sure we have a few naysayers/critics around us who will puncture our protective bubble of self-justification (denial) and yank us back into reality.

We can not learn from our mistakes unless we first admit that we made some. Whether in our personal lives or an embarrassing professional mistake, facing that intolerable realization is critical to growing and learning. 

We also can not create a better system if we continue to refuse to accept the research, data and experience that experts in specific fields have gathered just because we might believe in an eye-for-an-eye or it’s better to be safe than sorry no matter how many innocent or non-threats get swept up. Or worse, you simply don’t like the messenger so you will ignore the entire message. 

If our lawmakers would acknowledge that past legislative failures like creating new and redefining current sex crimes, lowering the bar of guilt while expanding the punishment and broadening the umbrella of who is labeled a “Sex Offender” while turning the Registry from an administrative tool into a vindictive lifelong punishment then we could begin the trip down the road to reform. 

But if they do finally acknowledge the train-has-run-off-the-tracks, they think their past proposals and votes will be viewed as failures. So they continue to do more harm by proposing more myth-based legislation to continue the fa├žade of public safety and that it's working. But we all know it's not!

In our own lives, we all need to stop self-justifying when it is distorting reality, hurting someone else or hurting ourselves.  

When someone criticizes, critiques or cautions you, instead of going on the immediate defense take a minute to think about what they’ve said and what facts there are to back up their statement before you respond. They could be saving you from yourself; you just don’t see it because you’re so used to defending your beliefs and actions.  

If we want our elected officials to stop self-justifying, we must practice what we preach. The alternative would be, hypocritical. 

Mary Devoy