Anyone who has made a mistake in their life has also tried to justify it, even if it is completely their fault and they know it. Nobody likes to admit a mistake and we all try to cover goof-ups. Why do we do this? More importantly, how does this affect our decisions, our interpersonal relationships, and our professional lives?
Mistakes were made (But not by me) by Carol Travis and Elliot Aronson delves into the tendency of humans to avoid owning up to their mistakes. It reveals that we indulge in self-justification – a habit that can have and has had severe repercussions in the scientific and medical field, in the criminal justice system, and in government dealings and decisions. This psychological tendency not only impacts our decisions but also our relationships.
Self-justification has several factors behind it. Let’s find out why is it so hard to say ‘I made a mistake’ and really believe it?
1. Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of unpleasantness that results from two conflicting views or ideas. It leads to self-justification for our actions, ideas, and behaviors. Cognitive dissonance and self-justification of actions lead to habits and development of strongly held beliefs. It is then very difficult to understand the root cause of why a mistake might have happened.
A person who continues smoking even after regretting the habit self-justifies, “I don’t smoke much. It’s not affecting my health.” Here, the person has conflicting views – one of smoking and the other of regretting the habit. To resolve the cognitive dissonance, the person justifies their mistake.
Another example of cognitive dissonance and self-justification is former U.S. President George W. Bush’s conviction that war with Iraq was the right decision (despite not finding weapons of mass destruction – a justification for the war)
2. Confirmation Bias And Narrow Mindedness
How do people justify their mistakes? Backed by years of research, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) explains why we all love to justify ourselves.
When avoiding cognitive dissonance becomes necessary, people find ways to convince themselves of their justification. They experience confirmation bias – a belief that any evidence is really supporting their view (self-justification), even if there is more evidence that is contrary. People become blind towards any other evidence highlighting their mistake.
In the medical field, mistakes are often justified or even hidden due to confirmation bias. Doctors experience confirmation bias and develop their diagnosis. This leads to them becoming narrow-minded to any other view, or even try to tailor evidence to mirror their original diagnosis, and to satiate their cognitive dissonance.
3. Morality And The Pyramid Of Choice
The authors Carol Travis and Elliot Aronson highlight (with backing research) that strong confirmation bias and continuous self-justifications can change perceptions of morality. Perceptions of morality change step-by-step and slowly.
The pyramid of choice can be explained with an example of two people having the chance to commit adultery. Both persons are said to be standing atop the pyramid with a bird’s eye view of the repercussions of the choices they will make.
Let us consider that both make opposite choices – one decides to commit adultery, and one chooses to remain faithful. They start descending the pyramid, focussing on their respective narrow pathways. As they proceed, they can no longer see the broader perspective of the choices they had earlier. The one committing adultery is convinced that his path is right. On their narrow paths, self-justification and confirmation bias strengthen their beliefs, obscuring their morality in turn.
Self-justification is prevalent even in the criminal justice system. Many have been subject to wrongful convictions due to the self-justifying tendency of humans. A study of wrongful convictions in 1989 showed that in Suffolk County, New York resorted to questionable means to obtain evidence for a conviction. This is a classic example of how one loses the thread of morality due to self-justification.
4. Unreliable Memory
Self-justification is fed by memory. Many people claim to have a good memory. They are confident of an accurate account of happenings when interrogated. However, this notion is often a misconception. No matter how good one’s memory is, it is always subject to bias that justifies one’s beliefs and behavior in the current situation (and not the actual behavior exhibited at the time the situation unfolded).
False memories or fabricated memories of events that have never happened also influence self-justification. The brain believes these false memories (or create them) and convinces a person that their version of what happened is accurate.
An author named Binjamin Wilkomirski, wrote a book of his experiences as a child in Nazi concentration camps. Historical analyses of his book revealed that his recount was a fabrication of stories from other sources. It was merely his brains coping mechanism against his troubled childhood. His brain had planted false memories which he believed to be real experiences. A similar example can be found in people who claim to have been abducted by aliens.
5. The Blame-Game And How It Impacts Relationships
Whether it is a personal relationship or a professional one, disagreements and mistakes are natural. However, it is self-justification, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and unreliable memory that can take a relationship in a downward spiral. If left unchecked, it can lead to an end to the relationship.
Self-justification, in a bid to avoid cognitive dissonance, results in placing the blame for mistakes on others. Blame feeds confirmation bias and often result in the demise of relationships even if reconciliation would have been possible.
Self-justification and blame lead to conflicts between governments too, especially in polarised views and at times of conflict. One government justifies its actions by blaming the opposing government, and the other does the same. In the 1979 Iran Hostage Crises, both the U.S. and Iran got into a blame-game over their actions, which were merely responses to the actions of the other.
The Way Out
Cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, blame and self-justification can all lead to destruction. How does one get out of the cycle?
Ironically, the only way to resolve cognitive dissonance is by admitting one’s mistake. One must let go of confirmation bias and look objectively at the evidence. We must objectively cross-check the validity of facts and not rely only on memory, especially when the stakes are high. We should avoid blaming others, and be receptive to criticism and take it positively.
Benjamin Franklin said, “It’s the easiest thing in the world for a man to deceive himself.” And books like these help me to reflect on my own behaviour and better understand people around me.