“But not by me” reads the subtitle to this staple non-pology. Mistakes Were Made by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson is a fascinating look into the psychology of being wrong. Examples range from psychiatrists, scientists, politicians, TV hosts, all the way to regular people on the street. The focus of this book is not that people are wrong, but that they refuse to admit they are wrong even to themselves and thus confound the error. As I read this book there was a disconcerting transition from recognising the mistakes other people make to recognising those same mistakes in myself. It turns out that everybody errs and nobody admits to it.
The major driver behind our inability to admit mistakes is the need to reduce cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling of simultaneously holding two contradictory beliefs. In this case the belief that ‘I am a good person’ conflicts with the belief ‘I made a mistake’ and rationalisation kicks in to try and eliminate one of these two beliefs. The easiest one to avoid is ‘I made a mistake’ and that is often the one to go. The authors talk about the numerous ways in which we all try and reduce dissonance. We blame other people, we come up with justifications for our actions, and we ignore evidence that shows we are wrong. Interestingly, we also rewrite our very memories of events to make them seem more favourable to our point of view. This chapter really made me question how accurate anyone (including myself) could be when trying to recall past events.
The most illuminating example(s) in Mistakes Were Made were those that dealt with recovered memories. Recovering memories used to be a legitimate psychiatric practice and helped thousands of people ‘remember’ child abuse, sexual assaults, satanic rituals, and even alien abductions. You’d think by the time aliens came up, the accuracy of the technique might be called into question but the authors do a great job of explaining how accepting small steps can lead to ending at ludicrous (even criminal) outcomes that would not have been accepted in the beginning. The allegations of parental sexual abuse had devastating impacts of real families and some of those involved still can’t admit they were wrong.
Mistakes Were Made contains numerous lessons that anyone could apply to their own lives. I learned a lot from this book and it changed the way I think about how other think and act. The central message from this book is that we all would be better off admitting to each other (and ourselves) when we are wrong.
Overall: 9/10 fantastic read.