Jun 212012

In their book, Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, authors Carol Tarvis and Elliot Aronson define cognitive dissonance as  “a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent…”   They call cognitive dissonance, “the engine of self-justification” .

I think this book should be required reading for everyone, but especially for anyone trying to make sense of psychopaths.  The authors describe research that backs up each premise, but it’s not a dry read because they punctuate the facts with stories from case studies and historical records.

Although it wasn’t explicitly written about psychopaths, for me the book illuminates how a predator and his victim are both operating in a state of cognitive dissonance.

Why We Self-justify

Ben Franklin advised that if you want a big favor, get a small one first. When we do someone a favor, we grow to like them.   In other words, you like the people you are nice to.  Psychopaths know this and use it in their pity ploys. Their victims self-justify that the psychopath is worthy of their kindness because they wouldn’t do favors for jerks.

Psychopaths are also mired in their own cognitive dissonance. Even sadistic psychopaths, who are aware that they hurt others because they really enjoy it, need to justify that the victims “deserved it”.   Ironically, psychopaths can’t see their own cognitive dissonance, but they understand cognitive dissonance in other people very well.  By inciting others to participate in small transgressions –racist or sexist jokes, petty theft, minor rule breaking –they lure others down the slippery slope of self- justification.  Later, the transgressors believe that even more egregious behavior isn’t that bad, because they’ve already justified it.

Persecutors use cognitive dissonance to seed hatred.  When they incite their minions to hurt others, they know that the minions will self-justify by hating the victim. The victim must deserve to be hated.  Now the psychopaths have a legion of minions at their command to continue the persecution.

What the book points out, is that no matter which side you are on, you can see the other side self-justifying but you can’t see your own self-justification.

Choose Wisely Because You’ll Be Happy No Matter What You Choose.

Our actions affect our beliefs because we need to justify that we’ve acted correctly. Self-justification reinforces the belief that we have made the right choice, simply because we feel happier believing it.  When faced with cognitive dissonance, you’ll justify being happy about your choice and then you’ll choose that behavior again.  It’s self-reinforcing.  There are angels and the devils inside us. Whichever one we feed, wins.

Bad Memory or Cognitive Dissonance?

It isn’t only our beliefs that change due to our choices, so do our memories.  Chapter 3 focuses on the subject of memory and cognitive dissonance.  I was amazed to read how fluid history becomes when subjected to cognitive dissonance.  Anyone who has had a relationship with a psychopath knows that they rewrite history.  Similarly, the victims of psychopaths repress memories or have implanted memories.  Chapter 4 continues this vein as it describes how clinical therapists can create and implant false memories in their clients.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

Chapter 5 discusses how law enforcement and the court system can be affected by cognitive dissonance. For me, it was the most revolting chapter.  It describes horrible miscarriages of justice that have occurred solely because human beings have their ego invested in being right.

Chapter 6 addresses how self-justification can destroy marriages and relationships.  The authors’ give excellent advice when they say, “Successful partners extend to each other, the same self-forgiving ways of thinking we extend to ourselves.”  I think this is true –unless you’re married to a psychopath.  In that case, you’re forgiving more abuse from your spouse than you would ever forgive from yourself.  Although this perspective was not discussed in this chapter, the next chapter did discuss abuse and betrayal.

Chapter 7 ushers in the topic of justification in betrayal.  Whether between spouses or countries, this is the most difficult to understand.  Perpetrators of evil are not always evil.  Sometimes they really aren’t psychopaths and the book describes various experiments in which the mechanism of self-deception allows an otherwise normal person to commit atrocities.

Forgiveness: Separating the Sinner from the Sin.

Chapter 8 is about “Letting Go and Owning Up”.  The authors make the case that our culture does not separate the sin from the sinner.  Mistakes are difficult to own up to because we feel shame about the mistakes.  This describes the bypassed shame of narcissism.  Narcissists can never admit to mistakes and that’s why they can never learn from them.  In order to overcome cognitive dissonance it’s necessary to own up, atone, and resolve to do better.  The mistake is what we did, not who we are.  This first step, allows confession to culminate in the process of forgiveness.

Chapter 2 starts with a verse from Matthew 7:3 “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” I had always thought that this verse was a reference to hypocrisy. Now I see that it’s about cognitive dissonance as well.

Copyright © 2012-2013 Skylar

  9 Responses to “Book Review: Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

  1. you had me right up to the implanted memory piece. i need to read the book, as there are few things including and after that that i need context for. but before that i am shaking my head in agreement.

    the opening lines to on of her majesties verbose missives about who and what she is or isn’t include many of the elements of self deception mentioned here. (She is her own worst character. Curious that she can create a relatively believable emotional plot line for her character’s stories, but not for herself…why IS that??)

    One of the things she is infamous for is stating that she only ####ed around one of her other dupes for ’18 months’, not the ‘2 years’ purported by the people who were calling her out for her behaviour. …and saying that she ‘would apologize’ but it wouldn’t be ‘taken the right way’….I can only conjecture that the spath thought the dupe might think it was an admission of guilt and the spath wasn’t having THAT.

    Am very interested in reading about memory and cog. dis.

    and all of this reminds me to be careful of my possibly n boss.

    • Onejoy,
      the book makes a very good case for each of the assertions, especially the implanted memories. I’m convinced that OTHER people have implanted memories, but of course, I don’t! 😀 I would know if I did… right?

      Actually, most things I remember from way back are very clear. I had a perfect memory for most of my life. It’s only recently that it’s starting to slip. Old age? or is it PTSD? Any event that I question, seems to leave an indelible memory. That’s why the WTF? bucket got so full.

      There was a recent incident though…I got a phone call from K. He told me how his court case on his mortgage went. But I forgot it was K who told me, I thought BF had told me. Later, when BF was telling me about K’s court case, I said, “you already told me.”

      BF denied having told me and I was perplexed for a bit, then I remembered that it was K. So that would be a case of a partially false memory. It happens, especially when it’s something you don’t really care about. Personally, I think that if it’s important, you remember exactly how it happened.

  2. I have been gone for a couple of weeks. Just got this book, so will report back. I am reading Dangerous Liasons. Claudia Moscovici is an excellent writer. My computer died so sending via new smartphone. Yikes! So much going on that is difficult to relay. I saw a book today abput psychopathology that looked cynical and kind of disbelieving. I was shocked and disregarded it. I think I will go back to find it as it could be educational. Sorry so short. Doing this from a phone is awkward. Xoxo to you all. Slim

    • Hi Slim,
      Nice to “see” you.
      I hope you find the book as eye-opening as I did. It helped me to see how common cognitive dissonance is. We experience it all the time. I think that we almost need it to manage life.

      For example, we KNOW that when we are driving down the road at 60-70mph with hundreds of other people doing the same thing, our lives are one mistake away from over. A moment of inattention, on our part or the part of another driver, and it’s all done.

      We tell ourselves that it’s ok, it won’t happen to us and we get in the car and drive. That’s cog/dis, but it works fine. None of us are dead yet, right? Well, except for the 30,000 plus people who die in motor vehicle accidents annually.

      Cog/dis enables us to move and to do things. It enables us to believe we should do things even though we have no idea whether it will make any difference in the long run. Cog dis means you BELIEVE.

      I think that’s why spaths play with our cog/dis — because they don’t believe in anything. They know that belief is what empowers people and they want to take that power away by showing us how very wrong our beliefs were and how powerless we really are.

      The key, is to play with your own cog dis until you know it so well that you can take it or leave it. Not easy. I’ve tried. I’m still working on this.

      I think the only thing we can truly believe in is God. Why? Because His existence can’t be disproved.

  3. GREAT book review sky

  4. Sky you said above:

    Choose Wisely Because You’ll Be Happy No Matter What You Choose.

    Our actions affect our beliefs because we need to justify that we’ve acted correctly. Self-justification reinforces the belief that we have made the right choice, simply because we feel happier believing it. When faced with cognitive dissonance, you’ll justify being happy about your choice and then you’ll choose that behavior again. It’s self-reinforcing. There are angels and the devils inside us. Whichever one we feed, wins.

    I am going to oder this book I think, reading over this review again, I think it is going to sit on my shelf beside several other books on this topic of “don’t believe everything you know” (or think you know!)

  5. Oxy, I’m glad you’re getting the book.

    I think that just knowing that it’s human to rationalize and self-justify, makes it easier to forgive myself for having done that and then move on to face the truth.

  6. […] real it becomes to the victims. A psychopath introduced the MacGuffin, but through rationalization, the victims’ own behavior reinforces their belief in the veracity of the MacGuffin, because the victims have to believe that they are acting […]

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