Tuesday 21 June 2011

Mistakes Were Made

Finished June 17
Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
This book has been on my to read list for a while, and a couple of chapters were reading in a recent HR course I took, so when I saw it as I was weeding a section at work, I grabbed it. And what a wonderful read it was.
The authors looked at what they saw happening: people dodging responsibility when things went wrong, public figures unwilling to take responsibility when they made mistakes, people blind to the hypocrisy they exhibit to others, and went after the reasons behind them.
Making mistakes affects our feelings about ourselves and we are wired to lessen that feeling of cognitive dissonance. We do this by standing by our decisions, making excuses and explanations, and expanding the blame to others (i.e. he started it). Often this means that others lose respect for us, and we exacerbate the initial mistake. As they did the research they discovered that knowing about the phenomena doesn't mean you are immune to it, but at least being aware means that you can choose to stop when you see yourself going down that road.
They talk about many instances of this from false memory syndrome, to wrongful convictions, from mistakes in the workplace to marital relations. I recognized myself, and the society I live in.
One example is to do with the criminal justice system. "But from our vantage point, the greatest impediment to admitting and correcting mistakes in the criminal-justice system is that most of its members reduce dissonance by denying that there is a problem. ... Doubt is not the enemy of justice; overconfidence is." To me this is portrayed in two recent situations. The first is that of Canadian pathologist Charles Smith whose errors from 1982 to 2003 in blaming parents and other caregivers for children's death has resulted in a public inquiry into more than 220 cases and countless lives ruined. Another example is the G20 in Toronto last year, in which there were blatant examples of miscarriages of justice and violation of human rights and yet the authorities are still denying the need for a public inquiry and the police have closed ranks, refusing to admit publicly than any of them did wrong.
A similar thing occurs in marriage "While happy partners are giving each other the benefit of the doubt, unhappy partners are doing just the opposite." In unhappy couples, one partner doing something nice is explained as a fluke or due to some outside circumstance, whereas mistakes are signs of malice and embedded flaws.
The book looks at how we self-justify, showing that we minimize our own actions or their effects whenever possible, and make excuses when we can't, driving us further away from an honest accounting and resolution.
This book should be required reading, particularly for those in a position of power or authority.

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