books,  communication,  the ethical life

Great Book: Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

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I’ve always been fascinated by disagreements and alternative perspectives on things, so I’m greatly enjoying reading the book Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Travris and Elliot Aronson. The subtitle to the book is “Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.”

One of the key metaphors in the book is of a decision being like the tip of a pyramid. At some point a person might be uncertain about which way he or she will go. Once a person makes a decision and starts down that one side of the pyramid the person will be constantly attempting to justify the decision. Whereas before the choice is made a person might be rather ambivalent about an issue, once the choice is made the person finds themselves moving further and further to one side, more and more committed to his or her position. Do something mean to someone else, and you’ll find ways of justifying doing so; you’ll see more problems with that person. Cheat on a test and you’ll start to view cheating as not so big a deal.

My cheesy graphic.

The book talks about decisions and beliefs in a variety of contexts from the troubles facing police officers unwilling to look at evidence to the contrary of their theory, to nations unwilling to accept compromises simply because of who suggested the compromises. It talks about how self-justification in marriages leads people further and further into viewing their spouse as the problem.

It has a chapter about false memories, and how a people fall susceptible to believing in things like alien abductions. It talks about the need for outside objective input and how psychotherapists face the problem of not being able to get that input. If a client disagrees with them on something, they can blame the client for being in denial. I think conspiracy theorists are too apt to do the same thing, refusing any outside commentary as proof that the other isn’t awake. Religious groups also face this. No evidence to the contrary of their beliefs count, because everything anyone else says can be taken as proof of how wrong others are.

The book argues we need to keep open to the possibility that we ourselves are wrong. It points out that the scientific method involves asking oneself, how could this be proven wrong? We should always be open to the possibility of being wrong – to realize that it isn’t the end of the world to be wrong.  We should accept having been wrong too, and strive to make a culture where people can come forward and say “I made a mistake.”

How, I wonder, do we do that? How do we accept people making mistakes and accept apologies? In so many cases it’s tempting to say, “he doesn’t mean it” or “he’s just saying that” or “even if he apologies, it doesn’t change the fact that really bad things happened because of his decisions.” Does justice demand that mistakes are punished even if someone apologies?

I think about all the times people in public positions say something horribly hideously wrong. Think of the worst racist or homophobic or sexist comment you’ve heard someone say in public. Should an apology be all that’s necessary or should the person have to resign? To use religious terms, what sin is unforgivable? (In Harry Potter terms, what spells are unforgivable?)  I suppose one could say that a true apology and acknowledgement of one’s wrongs means accepting the punishment or consequences, but what about the times when there are no punishments to be meted out? Is saying something offensive enough to justify the consequence of losing one’s job? Should life be a one-strike-you’re-out game?

Take a different situation. If a midwife’s incompetence means a baby dies, should an apology and acknowledgement be enough? What if the midwife pursues further education and training to assure that she doesn’t make the same mistakes again? Would that be considered enough? If a person has the opportunity to cover up his mistake and avoid having to pay a huge fine, but instead the person comes forward and admits to what has happened, should the having come forward get the person a more lenient sentence? I’m thinking now of a question of immunity for people who accepted donated money to a political campaign and were reimbursed for it by the politician’s relative, who had already exceeded the amount he was legally allowed to donate. Without their testimony the case might not go forward, but with their testimony they would face punishment. Should they be able to say they made a mistake, and attempt to correct it by testifying? Or does that just open the door to more of the same in the future with people knowing that they are caught they can get out by ratting on whomever is paying them? (Is fear of punishment a deterrent to crime?) But I’m getting sidetracked from the book now, sharing these thoughts of my own.

It is the last two chapters that I find most interesting. In a discussion on torture the authors point out, without minimizing the harm done to the tortured, that torture also harms the people doing the torture and even all citizens who then face the dilemma of how to deal with their government having done wrong. They write:

Most people want to believe that their government is working in their behalf, that it knows what it’s doing, and that it’s doing the right thing. Therefore, if our government decides that torture is necessary in the war against terrorism, most citizens, to avoid dissonance, will agree. Yet, over time, that is how the moral conscience of a nation deteriorates.” (pg 204)

Now of course of course there are people who take pride in believing that the government is wrong. The problem is the tendency to argue the government is wrong in everything. The argument goes something like “the government is wrong in limiting raw milk, thus the government should not have any food safety rules.” People want to justify their belief that the government is wrong, and all sense goes out the windows. The same people seem to obsess over how all medical and scientific information is also wrong.

I don’t want to get side tracked now with how crazy I think some people are. I want to write about the idea that people face dissonance when they want to believe that their country is a good country but also recognize that their country is doing something it shouldn’t. I think the same idea applies to a huge variety of topics besides torture. What does it mean to recognize that the products we buy are often produced in near-slavery conditions? What would it mean for us to face the idea that our agriculture is poisoning the ocean? We want to believe that we are good people. How do we accept the idea that our habits and lifestyles are destroying the planet? Do we stop thinking of humans as good creatures? Or can we somehow separate things out and say “okay, I’m a good person but my everyday life is based on exploiting others?”

The book isn’t religious, yet the language made me think slightly of theological classes I took long ago. The authors wrote in a purely secular manner about people justifying themselves and their decisions.  One of the religious ideas that I love most is the idea that we are all sinners. We can make mistakes. There have been times when I’ve had trouble with the language of everyone being sinners because I felt like it held up a standard of perfection and said “ha, you can’t meet this.” Yet it isn’t about a standard we can’t meet, and in my mind it isn’t about whether some big guy in the sky approves. In my mind it is about finding a way to deal with the dissonance. It is about being free to acknowledge one’s mistakes instead of having to justify them.

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