Monday, September 10, 2007

Mistakes were made...Cognitive Dissonance Theory

William Swann reviews the book by Tavris and Aronson "Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts." On cognitive dissonance theory:
..the authors' version is that people's brains are wired to find consistency between what they do and their positive images of themselves. Presumably this is why people engage in a wide array of mental gymnastics to salvage their self-esteem rather than own up to their mistakes. The typical outcome is that people twist the truth to make it seem kinder or more flattering than it actually is. In extreme cases, they may engage in distortion and denial of objective reality...dissonance theory can explain many laboratory findings and elements of many naturally occurring phenomena. For example, the authors maintain that when ordinary people blithely agreed to administer dangerously strong electric shocks to hapless learners in Stanley Milgram's classic experiments, the subjects' penchant for self-justification ("the experimenter told me to continue") was a key contributor to their complicity. Similarly, in instances in which prosecutors have refused to back down when DNA evidence has revealed that a defendant was wrongfully sentenced for a crime, Tavris and Aronson attribute theprosecutors' refusal to admit error to pernicious self-justification processes. The authors also maintain that most champions of the repressed-memory movement, when confronted with information suggesting that the "memories" of alleged victims are false, simply dismiss the evidence as being a form of backlash against child victims and incest survivors...As the book's title suggests, one of the topics touched on is contemporary politics. Tavris and Aronson mention in the endnotes that many U.S. presidents have used the phrase "mistakes were made," including Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. Although Alberto Gonzales's use of the phrase a few months ago ("I acknowledge that mistakes were made here") occurred too recently to make it into the book, the authors do discuss some of the self-justifications and self-deceptions of the current administration. For example, they characterize George W. Bush as "the poster boy for 'tenacious clinging to a discredited belief.'"

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