Review: Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why we Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

The imperfection of our human brains has been a frequent topic of books lately, most notably Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. Mistakes were made goes into considerable depth on one key failing, cognitive dissonance. The authors call cognitive dissonance the “engine of self-justification” and attribute many examples of irrational behavior to our attempts to resolve it.

Simply put, cognitive dissonance is a state of tension occurs when we have two conflicting ideas, beliefs, or attitudes. For example, a smoker must reconcile, “Smoking is dumb, and might kill me,” with, “I smoke two packs a day.” These dissonant thoughts create a state of anxiety until they are resolved. So, a smoker might adopt beliefs like, “Those cancer statistics are rigged by anti-smoking zealots,” or, “My grandfather smoked and he’s 95, so it can’t be as bad as they say.”

This need to avoid inconsistency in our brains leads to “confirmation bias,” the tendency to reject information that conflicts with what we believe while accepting anything that supports it. Sadly, according to the authors, cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias have affected our legal system in a big way. Once police and prosecutors focus on a suspect, for example, it becomes very difficult for them to accept new information in a neutral manner. Evidence that casts any doubt on the suspect’s guilt or points in another direction may be dismissed as irrelevant. And, in most cases, these are honest, hard-working public servants. They aren’t trying to frame innocent people and, in the vast majority of cases, the suspect is guilty as charged. Tavris and Aronson describe situations where even after convictions are overturned by incontrovertible evidence, police and prosecutors continue to believe they were right.

Mistakes Were Made spends a chapter on the fallibility of memory, including an extensive review of “recovered memory” pseudoscience. Although the practice is now discredited, for years therapists used hypnosis and other techniques to “discover” abuse that occurred many years earlier and was “repressed” to the point where the victims, now adults, had no idea that abuse had occurred. The ability of an interviewer to implant false memories by leading questions is also covered in depth.

The practical applications of the information in this book are more likely to lie in neuromanagement than neuromarketing. Understanding how we can fall prey to our fallible brains is a key management skill. While some major examples of irrational decision-making (like the Bay of Pigs fiasco) occur in the public sector and eventually are well documented, thousands of business decisions made in conference rooms are just as bad. Left to their own devices, people will tend to form opinions and then begin to reject information that contradicts those opinions. Marketing campaigns and new product introductions develop momentum, and any data signaling problems ahead is dismissed as flawed.

Mistakes Were Made even touches on marriage, and how relationships can be damaged by each partner’s tendency toward self-justification. While natural, this proclivity magnifies differences and leads to a situation which magnifies and aggravates differences to the point where a relationship can be destroyed by minor events.

Tavris and Aronson give readers some hope. The more we are aware of our tendency to reduce cognitive dissonance by adopting irrational beliefs and justifications, the less likely we are to get trapped in that way. By encouraging openness and debate in a decision-making process, and making a real effort to hear arguments and process information that conflicts with our beliefs, we can improve our chance of success. Frank admission of error, whether by a doctor, politician, or prosecutor, is the gold standard of rational thinking.

Mistakes Were Made is a good read for brain buffs who want more evidence that humans are anything but rational. Reading the book will both improve your own decision-making and help you understand why others do things or hold beliefs that don’t seem to make sense. Although it’s not a management book, Mistakes offers a prescription for better ways to evaluate information and make decisions.

Amazon Links: Mistakes Were Made (Paper) / Kindle Version

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