Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)
By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
Pg 17 – Severe initiations increase a members liking for the group.
Pg 18 – If the new information is consonant with our beliefs, we think it is well founded and useful: “Just what I always said!” But if the new information is dissonant, then we consider it biased or foolish: “What a dumb argument!” So powerful is the need for consonance that when people are forced to look at disconfirming evidence, they will find a way to criticize, distort, or dismiss it so that they can maintain or even strengthen their existing belief. This mental contortion is called the “confirmation bias.”
Pg 19 - … MRI while trying to process dissonant or consonant information… found that reasoning areas of the brain virtually shut down when participants were confronted with dissonant information, and the emotion circuits of the brain lit up happily when consonance was restored… once our minds are made up, it is hard to change them.
Pg 26 – … when people vent their feelings aggressively they often feel worse, pump up their blood pressure, and make themselves even angrier.
Pg 26 – when you do anything to harm someone else… a powerful new factor comes into play: the need to justify what you did… once the boy starts down the path of blaming the victim, he becomes likely to beat up on the victim with even greater ferocity the next chance he gets.
Pg 27 – Fortunately dissonance theory also shows us how a person’s generous actions can create a spiral of benevolence and compassion, a “virtuous cycle”.
Pg 29 – Because most people have a reasonably positive self-concept, believing themselves to be competent, moral, smart, their efforts at reducing dissonance will be designed to preserve their positive self-images… To reduce that dissonance, her (Mrs Keech, doomsday cult leader) followers could either have modified their opinion of their intelligence or justified the “incredibly stupid” thing they did. It’s not a close contest; it’s justification by three lengths. Mrs Keech’s true believers saved their self-esteem by deciding they hadn’t done anything stupid; in fact, they had been really smart to join this group because their faith saved the world from destruction. In fact, if everyone were smart, they would join too. Where’s that busy street corner?
Pg 33 – (The Pyramid of Choice) When the person at the top of the pyramid is uncertain, when there are benefits and costs at both choices, then he or she will feel a particular urgency to justify the choice made. But by the time the person is at the bottom of the pyramid, ambivalence will have morphed into certainty, and he or she will be miles away from anyone who took a different route.
pg 48 – The great danger to the public comes from the self-justifications of well-intentioned scientists and physicians who, because of their need to reduce dissonance, truly believe themselves to be above the influence of their corporate funders. Yet, like a plant turning toward the sun, they turn toward the interests of their sponsors without even being aware they are doing so.
Pg 53 – Once you take the gift, no matter how small, the process starts. You will feel the urge to give something back, even if it’s only, at first, your attention, your willingness to listen, your sympathy for the giver. Eventually you will be more willing to give your prescription, your ruling, your vote.
Pg 58 – Us is the most fundamental social category in the brain’s organizing system, and it’s hardwired.
Pg 59 – Without feeling attached to groups that give our lives meaning, identity, and purpose, we would suffer the intolerable sensation that we were loose marbles floating in a random universe. Therefore, we will do what it takes to preserve these attachments. Evolutionary psychologists argue that ethnocentrism – the belief that our own culture, nation, or religion is superior to all others – aids survival by strengthening our bonds to our primary social groups and thus increasing our willingness to work, fight, and occasionally die for them.
Pg 61 – Mr. X doesn’t even try to respond to Mr. Y’s evidence; he just slides along to another reason for his dislike of the Jews. Once people have a prejudice, just as once they have a political ideology, they do not easily drop it, even if the evidence indisputably contradicts a core justification for it. Rather, they come up with another justification to preserve their belief or course of action.
Pg 61 – “Trying to educate a bigot is like shining light into the pupil of an eye – it constricts.” Most people will put a lot of effort into preserving their prejudice rather than having to change it, often by way of waiving away disconfirming evidence as “exceptions that prove the rule.” (What would disprove the rule, we wonder?)
Pg 68 – “In normal circumstances,” wrote Hitler’s henchman Albert Speer in his memoirs, “people who turn their backs on reality are soon set straight by the mockery and criticism of those around them, which makes them aware they have lost credibility. In the Third Reich there were no such correctives, especially for those who belonged to the upper stratum. On the contrary, every self-deception was multiplied as in a hall of distorting mirrors, becoming a repeatedly confirmed picture of a fantastical dream world which no longer bore any relationship to the grim outside world. In those mirrors I could see nothing but my own face reproduced many times over.” Given that everyone has some blind spots, our greatest hope of self-correction lies in making sure we are not operating in a hall of mirrors, in which all we see are distorted reflections of our own desires and convictions. We need a few trusted naysayers in our lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of self-justification and yank us back to reality if we veer too far off.
Pg 69 – All of us, as we tell our stories, add details and omit inconvenient facts; we give the tale a small, self-enhancing spin; that spin goes over so well that the next time we add a slightly more dramatic embellishment; we justify that little white lie as making the story better and clearer – until what we remember may not have happened that way, or even may not have happened at all. In this way, memory becomes our personal, live-in, self-justifying historian.
Pg 70 – But dissonance theory predicts that we will conveniently forget good arguments made by an opponent just as we forget foolish arguments made by our own side.
Pg 76 – By far, the most important distortions and confabulations of memory are those that serve to justify and explain our own lives.
Pg 86 – “imagination inflation,” because the more you imagine something, the more likely you are to inflate it into an actual memory, adding details as you go.
Pg 88 – (Sleep paralysis) During the deepest stage of sleep when dreaming is most likely to occur, a part of the brain shuts down body movements, so you won’t go hurling yourself around the bed as you dream of chasing tigers. If you awaken from this stage before your body does, you will actually be momentarily paralyzed; if your brain is still generating dream images, you will, for a few seconds, have a waking dream. That’s why those figures on the bed are dreamlike, nightmarish – you are dreaming, but with your eyes open.
Pg 90 – once the seed of belief was planted, once alien abduction was even suspected, the abductees began to search for confirmatory evidence. And once the search had begun, the evidence almost always turned up.
Pg 93 – when they are brought into the laboratory and asked to describe their traumatic abductions by aliens, their heightened physiological reactions (such as heart rate and blood pressure) are as great as those of patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They have come to believe their own stories.
Pg 103 – In the profession of psychotherapy, clinical psychologists are the closest equivalents of trained lawyers… In contrast, most psychiatrists, who have medical degrees, learn about medicine and medication, but they rarely learn much about the scientific method or even about basic research in psychology.
Pg 105 – What these therapists see confirms what they believe, and what they believe shapes what they see. It’s a closed loop.
Pg 108 – “The weakness of the relationship between accuracy and confidence is one of the best documented phenomena in the 100-year history of eyewitness memory research.”
Pg 108 – The scientific method consists of the use of procedures designed to show not that our predictions and hypothesis are right, but that they might be wrong. Scientific reasoning is useful to anyone in any job because it makes us face the possibility, even the dire reality, that we were mistaken. It forces us to confront our self-justifications and put them on public display for others to puncture. At its core, therefore, science is a form of arrogance control.
Pg 109 – If every outcome confirms your hypothesis that all men unconsciously suffer from castration anxiety; or that intelligent design, rather than evolution, accounts for the diversity of species; or that your favorite psychic would have accurately predicted 9/11 if only she hadn’t been taking a shower that morning; or that dolphins are kind to humans, your beliefs are a matter of faith, not science.
Pg 110 – What unites these clinical practitioners is their misplaced reliance on their own powers of observation and the closed loop it creates. Everything they see confirms what they believe.
Pg 111 – “The notion that the mind protects itself by repressing or dissociating memories of trauma, rendering them inaccessible to awareness, is a piece of psychiatric folklore devoid of convincing empirical support.” Overwhelmingly, the evidence shows just the opposite.
Pg 113 – But if everything you observe in your clinical experience is evidence to support your beliefs, what would you consider counterevidence?
Pg 116 – Other studies of the unreliability of clinical predictions, and there are hundreds of them, are dissonance-creating news to the mental-health professionals whose self-confidence rests on the belief that their expert assessments are extremely accurate. When we said that science is a form of arrogance control, that’s what we mean.
Pg 119 – The scientists have shown that very young children, under age five, often cannot tell the difference between something they were told and something that actually happened to them.
Pg 123 – To do so would have been to realize that they had harmed the very women and children they were trying to help. It was much easier to preserve their commitments by rejecting the scientific research as being irrelevant to clinical practice. And as soon as they took that self-justifying step, they could not go back without enormous psychological difficulty. Today, standing at the bottom of the self-justifying pyramid, miles away professionally from their scientific colleagues, having devoted two decades to promoting a form of therapy that Richard McNally calls “the worst catastrophe to befall the mental-health field since the lobotomy era,” most recovered-memory clinicians remain as committed as ever to their beliefs. How have they reduced their dissonance? …minimizing the extent of the damage caused… blaming the victim… killing the messenger… dismiss all the scientific research as being part of a backlash…
Pg 125 – There are almost no psychotherapists who practiced recovered-memory therapy who have admitted that they were wrong. Of course, they may fear lawsuits. But from the few who have publicly admitted their errors, we can see what it took to shake them out of their protective cocoons of self-justification. For Linda Ross, it was taking herself out of the closed loop of private therapy sessions and forcing herself to confront, in person, parents whose lives had been destroyed by their daughter’s accusations… “Now I heard how absolutely ludicrous it sounded…”
Pg 131 – You want to think of yourself as an honorable, competent person who would never convict the wrong guy. But how can you possibly think you got the right guy in the face of the new evidence to the contrary? Because, you convince yourself, the evidence is lousy, and look, he’s a bad guy; even if he didn’t commit this particular crime, he undoubtedly committed another one. The alternative, that you sent an innocent man to prison for fifteen years, is so antithetical to your view of your competence that you will go through mental hoops to convince yourself that you couldn’t possibly have made such a blunder.
Pg 135 – It does seem ludicrous that the detectives did not change their minds, or at least entertain a moment of doubt, when Stephanie’s blood turned up on Tuite’s sweater. But once the detectives had convinced themselves that Michael and his friends were guilty, they started down the decision pyramid, self-justifying every bump to the bottom.
Pg 136 – In one experiment, jurors listened to an audiotaped reenactment of an actual murder trial and then said how they would have voted and why. Instead of considering and weighing possible verdicts in light of the evidence, most people immediately constructed a story about what had happened and then, as evidence was presented during the mock trial, they accepted only the evidence that supported their preconceived version of what had happened.
Pg 137 – In the case of Patrick Dunn of Bakersfield, California... the police chose to believe the uncorroborated account of a career criminal, which supported their theory that Dunn was guilty, rather than corroborated statements by an impartial witness, which would have exonerated him. This decision was unbelievable to the defendant, who asked his lawyer, Stan Simrin, “But don’t they want the truth?” “Yes,” Simrin said, “and they are convinced they have found it. They believe the truth is you are guilty. And now they will do whatever it takes to convict you.”
Pg 145 - … training does not increase accuracy; it increases people’s confidence in their accuracy.
Pg 149 - … many prosecutors end up being prepared to sabotage their own side’s goal of justice to preserve their convictions, in both meanings of the world.
Pg 149 – In the cases of crimes that have roused public emotions, they are under enormous pressure to get a conviction quickly. Any doubts they might have are drowned in the satisfaction of feeling that they are representing the forces of good against a vile criminal.
Pg 150 – Across the country, as DNA testing has freed hundreds of prisoners, news accounts often include a quote or two from the prosecutors who originally tried them. For example, in Philadelphia, District Attorney Bruce L Castor Jr. was asked by reporters what scientific basis he had for rejecting a DNA test that exonerated a man who had been in prison for 20 years. He replied, “I have no scientific basis. I know because I trust my detective and my tape-recorded confession.” How do we know that this casual dismissal of DNA testing, which is persuasive to just about everyone else on the planet, is a sign of self-justification and not simply an honest assessment of the evidence? It’s like the horse-race study we described in chapter 1: Once we have placed our bets, we don’t want to entertain any information that casts doubts on that decision. That is why prosecutors will interpret the same evidence in two ways, depending on when it is discovered. Early in an investigation, the police use DNA to confirm a suspect’s guilt of rule the person out. But when DNA tests are conducted after a defendant has been indicted and convicted, the prosecutors typically dismiss it as being irrelevant, not important enough to reopen the case… But DNA evidence should be used the same way whenever it turns up; it is the need for self-justification that prevents most prosecutors from being able to do that. Defense attorney Peter J Neufield says that in his experience, reinterpreting the evidence to justify the original verdict is extremely common among prosecutors and judges.
Pg 152 – Doubt is not the enemy of justice; overconfidence is.
Pg 201 – It is much more reassuring to believe they are evil and be done with them. We dare not let a glimmer of their humanity in the door, because it might force us to face the haunting truth of Pogo’s great line, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Pg 223 – Perhaps the greatest lesson of dissonance theory is that we can’t wait around for people to have moral conversions, personality transplants, sudden changes of heart, or new insights that will cause them to sit up straight, admit error, and do the right thing.
Pg 227 – “It is part of the scientific attitude to change one’s beliefs once they are discredited. Well, it’s not an easy thing to do. Combine invested time, invested money, high hopes, high expectations, and a relative amount of pride, and you’re up for quite a challenge when confronted with contradicting evidence.”
Pg 228 – Understanding how the mind yearns for confidence and rejects information that questions our beliefs, decisions, or preferences, teaches us to be open to the possibility of error. It also helps us let go of the need to be right.
Pg 229 – “Nowadays, when I feel passionate that I am 100% right about a decision that others question, I look at it again; that’s all.” Berry did not have to admit that she made a mistake; she didn’t make a mistake. But she did have to let go of her need to be right.
Pg 213 – Understanding how dissonance operates helps us rethink our own muddles, but it is also a useful skill for helping friends and relatives get out of theirs. Too often, out of the best of intentions, we do the very thing guaranteed to make matters worse: We hector, lecture, bully, plead, or threaten. Anthony Pratkanis, a social psychologist who investigated how scammers prey on their elderly targets, collected heartbreaking stories of family members pleading with relatives who had been defrauded: “Can’t you see the guy is a thief and the offer is a scam? You’re being ripped off!” “Ironically this natural tendency to lecture may be one of the worst things a family member or friend can do,” Pratkanis says. “A lecture just makes the victim feel more defensive and pushes him or her further into the clutches of the fraud criminal.” Anyone who understands dissonance knows why. Shouting “What were you thinking?” will backfire because it means “Boy, are you stupid.” Such accusations cause already embarrassed victims to withdraw further into themselves and clam up, refusing to tell anyone what they are doing. And what they are doing is investing more money, or buying more magazines, because now they really have an incentive to get the family savings back, show they are not stupid or senile, and prove that what they were thinking was perfectly sensible. Therefore, says Pratkanis, before the victim of a scam will inch back from the precipice, he or she needs to feel respected and supported. Helpful relatives can encourage the person to talk about his or her values and how those values influenced what happened, while they listen uncritically. Instead of irritably asking “How could you possibly have believed that creep?” you say “Tell me what appealed to you about the guy that made you believe him.” Con artists take advantage of people’s best qualities – their kindness, politeness, and their desire to honor their commitments, reciprocate a gift, or help a friend. Praising the victim for having these worthy values, says Pratkanis, even if they got the person into hot water in this particular situation, will offset feelings of insecurity and incompetence.