Yesterday we discussed the cognitive blind spots our brains generate that can make it difficult for us to honestly assess our actions and determine our responsibility for those actions and their consequences. We discovered the way in which our brains are inclined to flatter and shield our egos from blame when we make mistakes.
Despite how difficult it is to counter the mechanisms of our ego defense system, the task is not wholly insurmountable. Every man who wishes to take on the mantle of manhood must make the effort. In doing so, you will find that striving to take responsibility for your life and ownership of your mistakes is incredibly worthwhile for many reasons:
Allows you to make better decisions. Self-justifications distort reality. The more you use them, the more you create an alternate universe for yourself. This leads to a decreased ability to make good choices, as the information you’re using to do so is warped. This can keep you from the people and pursuits that could have been good for you – if only you had been able to see them clearly for what they were. For example, that professor who was “out to get you” might have become an incredible mentor, if you had seen his criticism as a desire to help, rather than an attack.
Most dangerously, one self-justification begets another, setting off a domino effect that sends you more and more off track. Once you justify one decision, you’re deeper into it, and to get rid the dissonance you’ll feel worrying if was the right choice, you’ll make a decision that digs you even further into it. And the cycle continues. For example if you bully a kid at school, you’ll then feel some dissonance in the aftermath for hurting someone (no one likes to think of themselves as cruel), so you’ll justify that decision by saying the kid is an annoying crybaby who deserved it. The more you dwell on those justifications, the more convinced of them you’ll become, and the more you’ll feel like bullying him again.
Keeps little problems from turning into big ones. Related to the point above, if you can own up to a mistake as soon as you make it and do your best to correct it or make it right, you can prevent it from turning into a huge problem that’s going to be difficult to solve. A snowballed mistake may torpedo various aspects of your relationships and career before you can get yourself out from under it.
Allows you to learn from your mistakes. Simple — you can’t learn from your mistakes if you can’t acknowledge you’ve made them! And if you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re destined to repeat them. That’s a recipe for quickly going nowhere in life.
Engenders the respect of others. We often hide our mistakes from other people because we worry they will think less of us once they’ve seen that we’ve messed up. But, frankly acknowledging your mistakes, apologizing for them, and then earnestly working to make things right almost always has the opposite effect – people respect you for it. There might still be consequences, of course, but people will appreciate your honesty. If they use your confession as a way to belittle and use you, those are probably not the kind of people you want to work/live with anyway. It’s actually when you hide your mistakes, and they’re found out anyway, that people lose their respect and their trust in you.
Strengthens relationships. Self-justification is a cold, hard relationship killer, as it causes us to build a case of total blame against the other person when things are going poorly between you.
There are two ways to explain mistakes: the person did what they did because of the situation, or, because of who they are. We use the former explanation with ourselves — “I forgot her birthday because I have so much on my mind right now.” We tend to use the second explanation on others — “She forgot my birthday because she’s so self-centered.” We don’t critique their behavior, but their character – they don’t do bad stuff, they are bad. This kind of blanket condemnation is called a global label. The person is stupid, crazy, useless, selfish, immature, bitchy, evil, lazy, etc. They’re a failed human being.
Global labels are almost never accurate, but your brain finds them very satisfying to develop and spew. They allow you to see your partner as deliberately hurting you — as intentionally sinking the relationship. It’s their fault, and you’re the victim, so you feel entitled to punish and attack them.
Once you give someone a global label – “She’s self-centered” – you focus on gathering evidence to confirm your conclusion, and overlook all evidence to the contrary. Velcro and Teflon. You keep mulling over how she forgot your birthday, but don’t think about how just yesterday she canceled plans with her friends to stay home and help you finish a paper. As you strengthen your “case” against her, you’re filled with self-righteous indignation, which allows you to go on the attack. Then, when you see you’ve hurt her, dissonance arises (again nobody likes to think of themselves as mean or heartless), so you gather more evidence to justify your attacks as well-deserved. And on it goes. When the global label becomes firmly entrenched, you come to see the person as hopelessly flawed and unable to change (“You’re just like your father!”), which leads to you feeling contempt for them, one of the death knells of a relationship.
Conversely, being able to admit fault, being able to acknowledge one’s role in the current health of the relationship, and having empathy for why your partner might do what she does from time to time without being hopelessly flawed (just like you!), leads to strong, healthy relationships.
The Bottom Line: Owning up to our mistakes allows us to take responsibility for our lives. If we can’t accurately perceive who we are, how we behave (and how others behave towards us), and how our behavior affects others and our own lives, life will always feel like something that’s happening to us, rather than something we are in control of. Men with an internal locus of control — those who believe they can shape life through their own decisions and actions — are more confident, more likely to seek learning and be leaders, more disciplined, and better able to deal with stress and challenges. Men with an external locus of control, on the other hand, believe the course of their life is determined by luck and other people, and see themselves as victims. They are prone to problems with both their physical and mental health, and often plagued by stress, anxiety, and depression. When they make mistakes, they are apt to think, “Why is this happening to me?”
Men with an internal locus of control are achievement-oriented and more likely to find academic and professional success. Instead of remaining in a childish mindset, they grow into mature manhood. Instead of seeing themselves as the victim and blaming others for their failures, they learn from their mistakes and use them as stepping stones to getting stronger and moving ahead.
How to Take Greater Ownership of Your Mistakes
“The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none.” -Thomas Carlyle
It’s not possible to be aware of all of our self-justification blind spots. You probably wouldn’t want to be, actually, lest you become unable to extricate yourself from a fetal position of regret. But it is possible, and desirable, to cultivate a greater awareness and ownership of our behavior and mistakes, especially those of a meaningful nature; you don’t need to rehearse the time you farted during class in the second grade over and over, but you do need to get at the root of why you always end up cheating on your girlfriends.
The common denominator in the points below is humility. It is those who are most confident, to the point of narcissism, who have the most trouble admitting their shortcomings; the gap between their behavior and their self-image is so wide, the dissonance so strong, that they readily reach for justifications that keep their ego intact. (People will low-esteem experience dissonance when something good happens to them and will try to explain it away, and even sabotage it to dissipate the dissonance: “Why is this hot chick into me? Maybe she made a bet with her friends.”)
If it seems like responsibility-shirking is on the rise, it may not be your imagination. Narcissism has risen 30% among college students since 1979, and studies show their self-confidence is at an all-time high. The majority of college students think they are above average when it comes to social and intellectual confidence, leadership qualities, and the drive to succeed, even though this is statistically impossible, and belied by the facts; the students who rate themselves highly often do not have the grades to back that claim, and things like writing ability and number of hours spent studying has gone down over the last few decades, not up.
Confidence is a great thing, but it must also be linked to honest self-assessment and actual achievement. It must be leavened by clear-eyed humility. Otherwise, narcissism will keep us from seeing, and correcting for, our shortcomings. How do we find that wise humility?
Just like it may not be possible to eliminate every blind spot while you’re driving, but you can catch most with a look over your shoulder, you can catch your self-justifications with some extra care and reflection. Here’s how to shoulder-check your mistakes:
Nip it in the bud. As mentioned above, justifying a little mistake can allow it to grow into a huge one. And the more the emotional, financial, and moral stakes of a mistake mount, the harder it becomes to admit. So own up to a mistake when it’s small and do it as soon as possible after it happens. This is the oh-so-easy-to-justify-because-it’s-no-big-deal stage, but you have to ignore that temptation and nip it in the bud before it slowly grows into the this-mistake-is-destroying-my-life stage. How do you do that? You:
Tune into, and hold onto, the niggling feeling of dissonance. Unless you’re a sociopath, when you make a mistake you’ll feel cognitive dissonance — some might call it your conscience — kick in. For most people, it’s only a flash before they push it away with immediate justifications for why they’re not at fault. Our ego defense system kicks in automatically. In order to take greater ownership of your mistakes, you need to be able to locate that dissonance signal amongst all the self-justifications playing a soothing piper’s tune, and then tune in and hold it there. No one likes mental discomfort, so it really takes a kind of courage to be able to simply sit with that tension even as your brain screams to make it go away.
Try to sort through why your conscience is panged. While your immediate reaction may be to blame the situation or the other person, take an honest look at what role you may have had in precipitating that situation, or handling it poorly, and what you may have done to provoke the other person and what may have led to them reacting the way they did. Examine things from a different angle and from the other person’s perspective.
Have people in your life who keep you accountable. People who shirk responsibility for their behavior surround themselves with yes men who never contradict their justifications. Without any honest feedback, they fall further and further into the rabbit hole of their ego-driven delusions. Every man needs people in his life who are willing to give it to him straight, who are willing to call him out when he’s messed up, and who do it out of love. It’s tempting to avoid these people and retreat into your echo chamber of excuses, but they’re the kind of people who will truly help you thrive.
Fight the confirmation bias. If you remember from last time, the confirmation bias describes our brain’s tendency to latch onto information that flatters our preexisting beliefs, and to shun information that contradicts it. Knowing this, we need to consciously tamp down our knee-jerk reaction to an opposing viewpoint and try to listen open-mindedly before rendering judgment. We must in fact actively and purposefully seek out those different viewpoints, even when our brain keeps trying to drag us back to the comfortable confines of our like-minded tribe.
Don’t play the “if only” game. Men who play the “if only” game justify their failures and struggles by saying they would turn things around if only x, y, or z would happen. “If only I had more time in the morning, I’d work out and lose all this weight.” “If only I had a less stressful job, I wouldn’t be so short with my kids.”
The only variable you have total control over is you. If you let your co-workers/friends/girlfriend “make” you feel a certain way, you’ve stopped being an active agent in your life, and become a victim.
Increase your problem-solving skills. The “expectancy-value theory” of psychology says that a person’s likelihood of taking an action is dependent on how much the person values a particular outcome and how much the person believes that taking the action will produce that outcome. To put that in simple terms: We blame others and play the victim when we don’t believe that we can solve a problem ourselves. The more confident we feel in our problem-solving abilities and the more skills we have at our disposal, the more likely we are to take responsibility for turning something around.
Put yourself in the others’ shoes. Tavris and Aronson argue that “the couples who grow together over the years have figured out a way to live with a minimum of self-justification, which is another way of saying that they are able to put empathy for the partner ahead of defending their own territory.” How do they do that? “They are able to yield, just enough, on the self-justifying excuse, ‘That’s the kind of person I am.’” When we give someone else a global label, we do it with the idea that they’re hopelessly flawed. But when one is thrown at us, we defend it as a cherished part of our identity! “That’s who I am! You have to accept it!” But you have to be able to take an honest look at how “who you are” might be detrimental to those you love and your life as a whole. And your partner, in turn, must have some empathy for those traits that are indeed deeply ingrained – for better or worse — within you.
For example, Kate comes from a line of feisty Italians who think yelling about things big and small is totally normal. My family, on the other hand, is pretty quiet and passive. When she and I argue, or even have an animated discussion, she often starts raising her voice. If I say, “Why are you so angry? Why are you yelling?” she’ll say, “I’m not angry and I’m not yelling. I’m just talking excitedly! This is normal!” I’d tell her that raising her voice made the discussion feel hostile to me and she would respond with, “Well that’s the way I am.” And I’d say, “Well it feels stressful to me. That’s the way I am.”
“That’s the way I am” is an easy way to protect our egos, and to keep us from having to do the hard work of trying to change. Once you think about it though, do the things we do that hurt those we love need to be held onto as cherished parts of our identities? Kate and I have both tried to have more empathy for each other on this issue. She tries not to yell, or, uh, talk excitedly as much, and I try not to equate a raised voice with hostility and high stakes. It is indeed hard to make big changes, but little steps, showing you’re trying, can make a big difference.
Get over the idea that making mistakes=being stupid. When a couple of researchers were observing a Japanese classroom back in the 70s they were astounded to see a student very calmly work through a problem on the chalkboard, in front of his peers, for 45 minutes. They were amazed to realize that they felt more uncomfortable for him than he felt himself!
A prominent idea in the West, especially America, is that abilities like intelligence are largely innate. The Japanese, on the other hand, see intelligence as a function of effort. Thus, when Americans make mistakes, they see it as a failure of who they are, while the Japanese view mistakes as simply part of the learning process and evidence that you can work through something and improve.
Studies by psychologist Carol Dweck have shown that students praised for general qualities like intelligence and self-worth (“You are special!”) give up quicker and enjoy learning less than those praised for their effort. The former group, because they see intelligence and other traits as innate qualities you either have or don’t have, will feel dissonance when they struggle with a problem – if they’re having a hard time, does that they mean they’re not as effortlessly bright and special as they’ve been told they are? They thus end up giving up altogether rather than risking a failure that would damage and call into question their self-concept. Students commended for their effort, on the other hand, end up doing better in the long run because they see their struggles as simply part of the process of getting better, not as a reflection on their core identity.
Students praised for how bright and talented and special they are end up as adults who struggle to take personal responsibility for their mistakes. Admitting to any kind of failure feels like admitting that they’re not the exceptional person their parents told them they were.
The more you see success not as a function of inherent traits, but of effort and work, the less threatening making mistakes becomes. We must, as Tavris and Aronson put it, “learn to see mistakes not as terrible personal failings to be denied or justified, but as inevitable aspects of life that help us grow, and grow up.”
For more insight into why it’s hard (but not impossible) to take personal responsibility, listen to our podcast with Elliot Aronson:
Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson