Book Review: Mistakes were Made (but not by Me)

Review of Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (2007) Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts. ISBN 978-0151010981 (Hardback), 978-1905177219 (Paperback)

For clear, engaging explanations of psychological research, this is one of the best books you can get. Cognitive biases are like optical illusions, distorting our decisions, memories and judgement. This book focuses in particular on self-directed biases: the distortions of memory and explanation that make sure that each of us is the hero, not the villain, or our own life story.

When corrupt police frame innocent people, how do they justify to themselves what they are doing? When a couple divorce, how can two former lovers come to hate each other with such passion? When political or military mistakes lead to thousands of deaths, how do the decision-makers live with themselves? The authors take academic research (on cognitive dissonance, stereotypes, obedience and more) and apply it to a wide spectrum of issues from the White House to Mel Gibson’s racism.

It is eye-opening to read how malleable and unreliable memory is, and how easy it is to create feedback loops of increasing certainty from just a glimmer of evidence. An appalling example is the recovered memory craze of the 80s and 90s, which is discussed at length. The book isn’t entirely downbeat, even though it explains how prosecutions, marriages or therapy sessions can go terribly wrong. It shows how easy it is for good people to hurt others, but that we can avoid these traps with humility and self-questioning. They call science “a form of arrogance control”.

A theme running through the work of these two psychologists is how science can address real problems of human conflict. That warm, humane spirit pervades this book and I think anybody curious about the science or the solutions would benefit from reading it.

  1. #1 by michaelwebster on June 3, 2009 - 3:24 pm

    Martin, you might be interested in this review I wrote on Travis/Aronson’s book.

  2. #2 by shelleywelly on September 1, 2009 - 7:34 am


    Self justification, rationalisationa nd denial are well known phenomenon in the field of counselling? It is worth noting though that there are individual differences at play here that do not seem to have been included in the book?

    Not all people automatically reconstruct memories to create a positive self image. Some individuals do blame out as soon as mistakes occur but others blame themselves and can get stuck going over and over painful situations.

    In personlaity tests (where tested) this trait is called neuroticism (NEO- PIR) or adjustment (Hogan’s). Too much adjustment leads to self confidence and lack of reflection/ introspection. This greatly helps action orientated behanviour but impedes learning where as too little adjustment leads to self doubt and procrastination. Learning can also be impeded by too much introspection and negative self image.

    This is the one personlaity area (sorry can’t remember citation but will look it up if you are interested) that predicts success? If you are more confident and less likely to balme yourself you are more likely to be successful. However when confident turns to arrogance then …..I’m not so sure?


  3. #3 by Martin Poulter on September 1, 2009 - 11:35 am

    Thanks a lot for the informative comment and the delightful username, Shelley. Yes, individual differences do matter, and there are people such as depressives who have opposite biases. A lot of bias research is done on students in prestigious universities, so there’s a bias there towards people who are already in a sense successful.

    However, Tavris and Aronson’s point is that the people with the self-justifying/ enhancing biases are in politics, the legal system, the military and so on. They’re driving the bus that we’re on, so there’s potentially major harm done when they won’t acknowledge their role in the consequences. Cheers,

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