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Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

Posted by CB on September 21, 2008 at 21:06:54

This is the title of a book I just read. The subtitle is: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. The authors are social psychology researchers Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson.

The book, which is written for the general public, begins by describing a study conducted in the mid-1950s involving a group of people who believed the world would end on December 21. The researchers infiltrated this group to find out what would happen when (or if) the prophesy of deliverance via a space ship failed. Of course, there was a prophet--Marian Keech--who gathered a faithful band about her on the day of predicted deliverance.

Based on cognitive dissonance theory, the social psychologists studying the group made some predictions. They predicted that the group members who sacrificed the most--sold homes, quit jobs, etc.--would become even more convinced of the prophesy after it failed to materialize exactly as expected, while members of the group who were less committed would fall away.

Sure enough, Dec. 21, 1954 came and went, but the "sold-out" believers continued to believe and became even more fervent in their prosetelyzing activities. As predicted, the less committed followers dropped away.

What happens when people becomes emotionally attached to a belief is that they develop a tremendous need to justify their conviction despite all evidence to the contrary. Information that conflicts with a strongly held belief creates dissonance, or a state of psychological discomfort. In order to alleviate that psychological discomfort, people will either block out and deny the implications of conflicting information or--imagine this--simply admit they were wrong. Problem is, the more a person's ego and identity gets wrapped up with an erroneous belief or bad behavior, the more difficult it is for the individual to admit error. That's because the person is defending more than a belief--they're defending the ego.

Cognitive dissonance is a universal feature of human experience--it essentially explains our blind spots and how they work for us or against us. A major way to avoid becoming trapped by the self justification that arises from cognitive dissonance is to keep an open, skeptical mind. It never hurts to develop the humility necessary to say "I was wrong" on a fairly regular basis.

I highly recommend this book, as it applies the theory of cognitive dissonance to a wide range of human endeavors, including personal relationships, the legal system & law enforcement, historic memory, and of course, politics. Cognitive dissonance is at work any time we humans try to make sense of an otherwise chaotic existence.