I was recently at a bookstore and saw a book called “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts”. What a title, right? I was quite literally unable to leave the store without buying it and reading it immediately. As I watch events unfold in the world, in the political arena, and in dealing with people in my day to day life, I often find myself wondering, “how can they act like this? or “how can they think like that?” with a mixture of utter confusion, amazement, and sometimes anger and frustration. This book is a study on the human brain, and its “blind spots” and aims to answer the question of why as human beings we often stubbornly stick by beliefs and practices that at best serve to keep us stuck, and at worst harm ourselves and others.
Based on decades of research on human motivation and behavior, the authors (Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson) argue for the power of “cognitive dissonance” or “dissonance theory”. Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable situation where we hold two contradictory opinions, beliefs, feelings, etc in our minds at the same time. (For example, a smoker might believe that smoking is bad for their health, and yet also smoke two packs a day.) When dissonance is present, dissonance theory states that we must find a way to reduce the dissonance by justifying ourselves or our behavior so we can go back to feeling like we are consistent people again. (So to take the example of the smoker again, they might justify their smoking by convincing themselves it’s really not so bad after all – helps maintain healthy weight, or helps relax them, etc.) The authors show numerous examples in both research but also current (or reasonably current) world events that demonstrate the enormous motivational power human beings have to reduce our cognitive dissonance!
Their research has huge implications on larger systems like our health care, legal, and political systems as well as fields of study including my own! Anytime an organization or community of people buy into an idea or a certain way of doing things, we may become vulnerable to no longer questioning or thinking critically about our ideas and practices. This can lead to unconscious and automatic processes of filtering out crucial information, data, and observations that lead to us only seeing information we “want” to see or that confirms what we already believe.
Their work also has implications for our relationships as the same types of brain blind spots can occur here as well – we can get so caught up in justifying our own position on things that we cannot see the other person’s point of view as legitimate. In discussing marriage, the authors say that self-justification can sometimes appropriately protect us from moments of feeling clumsy, incompetent, or forgetful. However, “the kind that can erode a marriage reflects a more serious effort to protect not what we did but who we are, and it comes in two versions: ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ and ‘Even if I’m wrong, too bad, that’s just the way I am’”.
The message of the book is that if we become aware of our brain’s blind spots, and the motivation to reduce cognitive dissonance then we can learn to pause and “insert a moment of reflection” that allows us to think before we respond; to “break out of the cycle of action followed by self-justification, followed by more committed action.” We can learn to resolve dissonance in ways that are productive, or even learn to tolerate dissonance and live with it when we can’t resolve it. For example, when someone we love does something incredibly hurtful or we do something that hurts others – this is the kind of dissonance that can be the most difficult to tolerate, but to quote Shimon Peres, “When a friend makes a mistake, the friend remains a friend, and the mistake remains a mistake.”
If you are interested in learning more about dissonance theory check out this link: