Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Caroll Tavris and Elliot Aronson


An insightful examination of how and why we self-justify everything we do and the dangers of this human tendency to self-justify. You will walk away with a humbling skepticism about the reliability of your memory, the source of your beliefs, and the motivations behind your actions.

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Key Takeaways

Dangers of self-justification

“That is why self-justification is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done.”

“Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as ‘Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.’”

As humans, we justify all our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to protect ourselves from cognitive dissonance. While this tendency to self-justify can protect us and keep us sane, it can also convince us that we made the right decision when we certainly did not. The problem is that we will hold this false belief in our decision strongly and castigate those who challenge it.

Why fraternities work

“The results are always the same: severe initiations increase a member’s liking for the group.”

If we go through a laborious and intense process to become a part of a particular group, that laborious and intense process will increase our liking for that group. This happens because we need to convince ourselves that going through the process was worth the effort. This principle explains why fraternity hazing, even when it includes things that violate our values, leads us to feel a stronger bond and liking for the members of the group.

The dangers of expertise

“Yet hundreds of studies have shown that, compared to predictions based on actuarial data, predictions based on an expert’s years of training and personal experience are rarely better than chance. But when an expert is wrong, the centerpiece of his or her professional identity is threatened.”

The predictions made by “experts” with years of training and experience are rarely more accurate than if we made the prediction by chance. But because experts tie their identities to their ability to accurately predict outcomes in their field, they will work hard to justify any predictions that were wrong and attribute the bad prediction to circumstances outside of themselves, rather than admitting that they were just wrong.

Our identity shapes our perception

“Our convictions about who we are carry us through the day, and we are constantly interpreting the things that happen to us through the filter of those core beliefs.”

The story we tell us about who we are shapes how we perceive the things that happen to us and the interactions we have in our daily lives. Essentially, these core beliefs about our identity create a lens through which we view the world, and that lens may look very different from the person sitting next to us.

How to get an honest man to do bad things

“How do you get an honest man to lose his ethical compass? You get him to take one step at a time, and self-justification will do the rest.”

Numerous studies, such as the Milgram experiment, have shown how good and ethical people can end up doing immoral and harmful things. It starts with one seemingly benign step in the immoral direction, and it snowballs with our need to justify our prior behaviors, which then makes us more likely to go further in the immoral direction without realizing it.

Why rich people don’t talk about poor people in the right way

“When affluent people speak of the underprivileged, they rarely thank their lucky stars that they are privileged, let alone consider that they might be overprivileged. Privilege is their blind spot. It is invisible and they don’t think twice about it; they justify their social position as something they are entitled to. In one way or another, all of us are blind to whatever privileges life has handed us, even if those privileges are temporary.”

If you are privileged, your privilege becomes your blind spot. Rarely, if ever, do you recognize this privilege as something that was a fortunate and random thing handed to you. Rather, you will justify your right to the privilege, and it will prevent you from accurately understanding and speaking about people who do not have that same privilege.

The rule of reciprocation

“The reason Big Pharma spends so much on small gifts as well as the big ones is well known to marketers, lobbyists, and social psychologists: being given a gift evokes an implicit desire to reciprocate.”

The rule of reciprocation works as follows: when someone gives us something, we feel obligated to give them something back. Many industries, including Big Pharma, exploit this rule to influence people to do the things that they want. For example, a representative from a pharmaceutical company may give a doctor a small gift so that the doctor is then more likely to prescribe the drugs that boost the pharmaceutical company’s bottom line.

This rule explains many things in life, including why lobbyists are successful in influencing politicians and why businesses are successful in influencing customers.


“Cognitive psychologists view stereotypes as energy-saving devices that allow us to make efficient decisions on the basis of past experiences; they help us quickly process new information, retrieve memories, identify real differences between groups, and predict, often with considerable accuracy, how others will behave or think.”

“The downside is that stereotypes flatten out differences within the category we are looking at and exaggerate differences between categories.”

“Once people have a prejudice, just as once they have a political ideology, they do not easily drop it, even if the evidence indisputably contradicts a core justification for it. Rather, they come up with another justification to preserve their belief or rationalize a course of action.”

Biologically, we form stereotypes to save energy and make efficient decisions. But while stereotypes help us operate more efficiency, the problem is that they do not accurately account for individual differences, which leads us to underweight differences within a particular group and overweight differences between particular groups.

Further, once we form stereotypes or other prejudices, it’s incredibly difficult to drop them. So when we experience something that doesn’t fit our stereotype, instead of updating our beliefs with the new evidence, we find a way to justify or rationalize our existing beliefs.

Parent blaming

“Parent blaming is a popular and convenient form of self-justification because it allows people to live less uncomfortably with their regrets and imperfections.”

People who don’t like their lives commonly blame their parents for their condition. Instead of adopting responsibility for their imperfections and poor decisions, they place the blame on their parents. In doing so, they find comfort in perceiving that they don’t have control over their suboptimal reality.

The fickleness of memory

“Memories create our stories, but our stories also create our memories. Once we have a narrative, we shape our memories to fit into it.”

“Memories are distorted in a self-enhancing direction in all sorts of ways. Men and women alike remember having fewer sexual partners than they’ve actually had; they remember having far more sex with those partners than they actually had; and they remember using condoms more often than they actually did.”

“An appreciation of the distortions of memory, a realization that even deeply felt memories might be wrong, might encourage people to hold their memories more lightly, drop the certainty that their memories are always accurate, and let go of the appealing impulse to use the past to justify problems of the present.”

While we think that we accurately remember the past, we don’t. Instead, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives often shape how we remember things that happen to us. We form a narrative about our life, and then we adjust our memories to fit that narrative.

We also distort our memories to create more positive pictures of ourselves, even when those pictures don’t accurately reflect reality. The next time you hold onto a memory strongly, perhaps to prove a point or paint a negative picture of someone else, try to remember that your memory might not be as accurate as you believe.

Have you really changed?

“Of course, all of us do grow and mature, but generally not as much as we think. This bias in memory explains why each of us feels that we have changed profoundly, but our friends, enemies, and loved ones are the same old friends, enemies, and loved ones they ever were.”

When we think about our personal growth, we often overestimate our own growth and discount the growth of others.

The psychology and psychiatry disconnect

“As the popularity of psychoanalysis declined and the biomedical model of disorder gained the upper hand, most psychiatrists began treating patients with medication rather than any form of talk therapy. Yet while psychiatrists learn about the brain, many still learn almost nothing about psychology or about the questioning, skeptical essence of science.”

As the practices of psychology and psychiatry have developed, many psychiatrists have not been trained in psychology, which dampens their ability to understand the patient and provide holistic treatment.

Memory repression

“The notion that the mind protects itself by repressing or dissociating memories of trauma, rendering them inaccessible to awareness, is a piece of psychiatric folklore devoid of convincing empirical support.”

The common belief that people repress traumatic memories to protect themselves is not true.

From unquestioned to belief to a desire to understand

“This change, from the uncritical “believe the children” to the more discerning “understand the children,” reflects a recognition that mental-health professionals need to think more like scientists and less like advocates; they must weigh all the evidence fairly and consider the possibility that their suspicions are unfounded. If they do not, it will not be justice that is served, but self-justification.”

In the 90s, many people were accused and convicted of crimes that they did not commit because mental health professional believed what children told them without question. Instead of seeking to understand the children and understanding that there was a possibility that what they said might not be true, they served as justice-serving advocates that ended up putting people who didn’t commit crimes in jail.

Self-justification in love

“Many newlyweds, seeking confirmation that they have married the perfect person, overlook or dismiss any evidence that might be a warning sign of trouble or conflict ahead: “He goes into a sulk if I even chat with another man; how cute, it means he loves me.”

People will go to extreme lengths to confirm their existing beliefs. This is why you think your partner’s particular habits are cute in the beginning of the relationship, but find those same habits incredibly annoying when the relationship starts to fall apart.

How to reduce the harm of self-justification

“And if you can admit a mistake when it is the size of an acorn, it will be easier to repair than if you wait until it becomes the size of a tree, with deep, wide-ranging roots.”

“By looking at our actions critically and dispassionately, as if we were observing someone else, we stand a chance of breaking out of the cycle of action, followed by self-justification, followed by more committed action.”

“Mindful awareness of how dissonance operates is therefore the first step toward controlling its effects.”

Learning to admit a mistake when it happens will help you prevent the disaster that will come if you let that mistake compound. To do this, you need to recognize your fallibility and be humble about your convictions, beliefs, and memories. You need to remember that you will naturally do anything in your power to confirm and preserve your beliefs, including unconsciously distorting your perceptions and memories.

“If we can resist the temptation to justify our actions in a rigid, overconfident way, we can leave the door open to empathy and an appreciation of life’s complexity, including the possibility that what was right for us might not have been right for others.”

Reducing your tendency to justify your actions in an overconfident manner can lead you to live a life with more empathy and appreciation for the complexity of life. What’s right for you might not be right for others, and what you believe to be right, might not be right at all.

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