Personal responsibility, the ability to own up to one’s mistakes, is a foundational element of character. It’s also the only way we can grow and get better. But as anyone with any experience being human well understands, dang, it sure can be hard to do.
My guest today explains why, and how you can yet rise to meet this important challenge. His name is Elliot Aronson, and he’s a social psychologist and the co-author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Elliot first explains how and why we engage in self-justification to avoid facing our mistakes, and how this process is driven by the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. We then discuss how once you make a decision in a certain direction, good or bad, you become more entrenched in your attitude about it and more likely to continue down that same path, and how this phenomenon represents what Elliot calls “the pyramid of choice.” We end our conversation with how we can learn to approach the mistakes of others with more generosity, and our own mistakes with more honesty.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- Why being unable to own up to your mistakes is so insidious
- How to live with cognitive dissonance (and how people often do it poorly)
- How cheating (or not cheating) changes your future attitudes towards cheating
- What’s the way “out” of cheating? How do you own up to it?
- The vicious cycle of unwanted behavior
- Why we end up demonizing people in the midst of big changes
- Why we’re so intent on not changing our mind about something
- How dissonance shows up in our criminal justice system
- The stories we tell ourselves to justify holding on to our wrong beliefs
- What can you do today to start avoiding self-justifications
- The power of forgiveness — towards yourself and others
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Why Is It So Hard to Own Up to Our Mistakes?
- The Importance of Owning Up to Your Mistakes and How to Do It
- Ride the Dissonance
- How to Develop Greater Self-Awareness
- Just Mercy
- “For Peres, Pullout Has Moral Value”
- Is Forgiveness Manly?
- Cooperation in the Classroom
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
If you appreciate the full text transcript, please consider donating to AoM. It will help cover the costs of transcription and allow other to enjoy it. Thank you!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Personal responsibility, the ability to own up to one’s mistakes, is a foundational element of character. It’s also the only way we can grow and get better. But as anyone with any experience being human well understands, man, it can sure be hard to do.
My guest today explains why, and how you can yet rise to meet this important challenge. His name is Elliot Aronson, he’s a social psychologist and the co-author of Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Elliot first explains how and why we engage in self-justification to avoid facing our mistakes, and how this process is driven by the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. We then discuss how once you make a decision in a certain direction, good or bad, become more entrenched in your attitude about it and more likely to continue down that same path, and how this phenomenon represents what Elliot calls “the pyramid of choice.” And we end our conversation with how we can learn to approach the mistakes of others with more generosity, and our own mistakes with more honesty. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/mistakes.
Elliot Aronson, welcome to the show.
Elliot Aronson: Thank you. Good to be here.
Brett McKay: So you are one of the authors of a book called Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, and it’s all about why it’s so hard to admit that we’re wrong, we made a mistake. What got you studying this train of thought in psychology?
Elliot Aronson: Well, I’ve been researching the whole issue of how the human mind works, and especially how it works to form attitudes and opinions. I’ve been doing that for more than 65 years, ever since I started graduate school 65 years ago, and it’s an exciting area because it’s terribly important to know how it works in terms of forming opinions and forming attitudes toward a wide variety of things. Some of the opinions and attitudes we form are accurate and useful to ourselves and to the people around us, and others are inaccurate or not useful, and sometimes even destructive. And there are certain tricks that the mind plays on us that we’ll get into, I guess in the course of this interview, that, with some of the research we’ve done, we’ve been able to find the conditions under which people can process information in a reasonable way and the conditions under which they can’t. Now, in the past 15 years or so, I have gotten specifically interested on the issue of mistakes and how people handle mistakes, whether they double down and convince themselves that they were right all the time, and all they have to do is push a little harder, or whether they can own up to having made a mistake, back off and try a different tack.
There’s a wonderful parable from Eastern philosophy, about a wealthy and powerful man from Europe, who was terribly unhappy, his marriage of 35 years was falling apart, his grown children hated him and feared him, his employees were frightened of him, and he was just incredibly unhappy, and so he decided to go to India to visit the person that’s considered the wisest guru in the world. And he went through all these hardships and he climbed the mountain to get to the cave where the guru lives, and the guru was not only the wisest person on earth, but also, a very quiet guy who hardly ever spoke a word. And he came to the guru who was sitting in front of his cave and he said, “Oh wise guru, what is the secret to happiness?” And the guru said, “Good judgment.” And the guy says, “Wow, good judgment. Okay, so… Wait a minute, how do you arrive at good judgement?” And the guru looked down at the ground and looked up at the sky and stroked his beard and said, “Bad judgement.”
Now, that’s very wise advice, except if you’re unable to own up to your mistakes, then you will never learn from them, and so bad judgment only works as a way to get to good judgment if you can recognize your mistakes, change your behavior and keep monitoring your behavior until you get it right, and then bad judgment does indeed lead to good judgment, but unless we can do that, unless we can own up and recognize mistakes when we make them, we’re in serious trouble.
Brett McKay: You call this inability to own up mistakes, self-justification, and there’s varying degrees of self-justification, there’s small ones we do on a day-to-day basis and there’s ones that are even bigger. But just on a day-to-day basis, where do we see self-justification happen?
Elliot Aronson: Any bad habits that we have, we can… If we have a hard time breaking it, we can convince ourselves that it might not be such a bad habit, and as a matter of fact, it might really be good for us. If you take something like smoking. Suppose I smoke two packs of cigarettes and then I get some information that indicates that smoking may cause cancer or heart disease or all kinds of illnesses, but I’ve tried to quit smoking and I find it difficult to do, I might then try to convince myself that actually, when I smoke, I’m not eating dessert, and therefore I’m not becoming obese, and obesity is a health problem as well, and therefore I’m actually ahead of the game by smoking. Or I can look around and I see that my Uncle Charlie, who’s 85 years old and smokes a pack a day is still alive, and therefore it certainly doesn’t kill everybody, therefore it might not kill me. Or I might even say out loud to myself, I’d rather live a slightly shorter life and do the kind of things I wanna do, than lead a restricted life where I can’t enjoy a good smoke every now and then. All of those things are good ways to justify the fact that we don’t want to give up smoking, but it could be very important. It could cost us our lives.
Brett McKay: It sounds like Aesop’s fable of The Fox and The Sour Grapes sort of is that it’s like, “Well, I didn’t want those grapes anyway, they were terrible.”
Elliot Aronson: Yeah, if you can’t do something and then it makes you feel better about yourself. Because here’s the thing, the reason I call it self-justification is that most people consider themselves to be better than average on a few basic things, like intelligence, like competence and like morality. If you did a survey of 100,000 people, you would find that 85% to 95% of them consider themselves to be better than average on all three of those dimensions. Now, as you know, no more than 50% or 55% of the world can be better than average, but people do believe they’re better than average. So if I as a better-than-average intelligent person do something stupid, I’m threatened with the notion that I did something stupid and that means that I may be stupid, and therefore, I will try to convince myself that it’s not a stupid thing to do. If I do something that’s incompetent or immoral, I will try to convince myself that it wasn’t my fault, that the other person deserved the bad thing I did to him or her. We’ve seen people do this over and over again. And in a way that is forgetting the legal aspects of these things, it is a way a person has of maintaining the belief that he or she is smart, capable, and moral, even when they do something that might be stupid, incapable or immoral.
Brett McKay: And so, it’s sort of like this tension between what people think about themselves and then the things that they do that go against that idea they have in their head, this tension is called cognitive dissonance, and you call it the engine of self-justification. So can you flesh out cognitive dissonance more, is it just tension? Is it just that tension between what you think you are and what you do?
Elliot Aronson: Well, actually the way Leon Festinger, who invented the theory some 70 years ago, the way he defined it, was that any two cognitions, ideas, beliefs, etcetera, that don’t fit together, that where the one implies the opposite of the other, produces cognitive dissonance. And cognitive dissonance is an unpleasant drive state, a little bit like extreme hunger or extreme thirst, where you need to reduce it, except it takes place in the head, and it operates… Often, dissonance reduction operates at a level just below our level of awareness, so we don’t say to ourselves, “Oh, I’m feeling dissonance, I think I will reduce a little dissonance right now.” No, we do it reflexively and unconsciously. It’s universal, we’ve done research in all areas of the world. Every country in the world, people experience cognitive dissonance. It’s unconscious, and it can be… It can cause people a lot of problems.
On the surface, it can be harmless, and most of the time it is harmless. It does have one great advantage. If we make an error or do an embarrassing thing or do something that’s a little bit stupid, it helps us sleep at night if we can convince ourselves that it wasn’t our fault and it wasn’t as stupid as most people think it is, etcetera. And if we can do that for the small things, it does help us sleep at night, and it does reduce embarrassment and reduce feelings of that we’re not worth much, and to a large extent, that is a good thing. But when it becomes extreme, it can cause a great deal of harm to ourselves and the people around us.
Brett McKay: Well, an extreme example that you gave, I think it really highlights what cognitive dissonance is, and you talk about in the book, are doomsday believers; people who along to groups who believe the end of the world is coming at a certain point, and then that day comes and then nothing happens, and so there’s cognitive dissonance there. It’s like, well, it didn’t happen. How do people often adjust to that or resolve the dissonance there?
Elliot Aronson: Well, they do try. They could say to themselves, “Oh, I did the math wrong, I got the dates wrong. I added the calendar years minus the square root of pi or something like that. And it didn’t come out quite right. It’s not this month, it’s next month that it’s going to happen.” And indeed in one piece of research that we did, we found that people who were predicting the end of the earth on the midnight of a particular night, a space ship was supposed to come and deliver them to another planet where they would be safe because the earth is supposed to explode, and these people gave away all their money, because you don’t need money on another planet. They sold their houses, gave away the money for the houses, they gave away their cars. They gave away everything they owned, and then they were waiting out in this particular backyard of Mrs. Keech’s house, Mrs. Keech was the leader of this group, for the spaceship to arrive. And when it didn’t arrive, they got increasingly uncomfortable until Mrs. Keech had another vision where she heard the people from outer space saying that because that band of people were so loyal and were so believing that they decided to spare the earth after all.
So they all celebrated rather than saying, “Oh damn, we’ve made a terrible mistake. We gave away all our money.” Instead of cursing themselves for having been duped, they then went out and started to proselytize other people to join their cult, the cult that failed, but in their minds, they said, “We were a great success. We saved the earth from destruction.” And prior to the disconfirmation of their belief, prior to the fact that the earth didn’t come to an end when they said it would, they never tried to proselytize new members to join their group. But immediately afterwards they went around on street corners, they buttonholed people, tried to convince them to join their group because whatever dissonance they might have had would be diminished if they could convince other people that their belief was right.
Brett McKay: And in the book, you talk about how self-justification through cognitive dissonance, this doesn’t happen overnight, it’s often… I mean, it could happen overnight, but usually it’s a very slow process that you take step by step. Have you done the research? How long does it usually take or is it different for every type of circumstance or situation?
Elliot Aronson: Sometimes it occurs almost immediately, sometimes it occurs step by step. It depends on how difficult the situation is. For example, in one experiment that I helped design, by my colleague, Jud Mills, he found that you give people a personality test in which there are several questions about misdeeds, and one of the misdeeds is cheating on an exam. These are college students, and you ask them, “How would you rate cheating on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of how bad it is?” Okay, and you give that to hundreds of students, and then an exam comes up… I’ll give you this in hypothetical terms, suppose an exam comes up and you are a biology major and you wanna go to medical school, and you’re in the beginning of your senior year, and you know that this particular exam is really important as it’s going to determine whether you get into medical school or not. And you study hard and you think you know the stuff, but when you come into the exam room you completely pull a blank and you can’t understand any of the questions, let alone, answer them. And you’re devastated, you break into a cold sweat and your hands are shaking. And then you look up and you see that you happen to be sitting behind the person who is the smartest person in class and has the clearest largest handwriting you ever saw. And all you have to do is look over her shoulder and copy from her exam.
The question is, do you do it or don’t you do it? Either way… This is a difficult decision, either way, you’re going to experience dissonance. If you cheat, cheating is a bad thing to do, you consider yourself a moral person. If you cheat, it can be devastating. A lot of dissonance there. If you don’t cheat, you really wanna go to medical school, you wanna be a doctor and you have an opportunity to do it, the cognition “I wanna go to medical school” is dissonant with the cognition “I had a chance to go to medical school if I cheated, and I didn’t do it.” Okay, so either way, you experience cognitive dissonance. Now, the interesting question is, if you cheat or if you don’t cheat, what happens to your attitude toward cheating?
And what Mills found is those who have cheated on an exam moved their attitude tremendously in the direction of saying that cheating isn’t so bad. If at first they thought it’s a crime, alright, and people shouldn’t do it, and it’s a bad thing to do because you’re getting a grade that you don’t deserve, they move towards saying, “Ah, it’s really nothing. Everybody does it. If I didn’t do it, it would be… I’d be very foolish. Why not do it?” But if you resisted the temptation to cheat, then you convince yourself that cheating is a really terrible crime, people who cheat should be summarily expelled from the university and should never be allowed to come back again. The attitudes shift depending upon which choice they took. And the choice of these two people, their attitudes initially could have been a hair’s breadth apart, they could have been almost identical, but one decided to cheat and the other decided not to cheat, and by… Within a week or two, they have succeeded in convincing themselves that either cheating is the worst thing that you could have done or no problem at all.
Brett McKay: So it sounds like the next time the person who did decide to cheat, they were faced with the opportunity to cheat, they’d probably be more likely to cheat again, ’cause they’ve realized, “Oh. It’s not that bad.”
Elliot Aronson: The person who cheated the first time is more apt to cheat the second time. The person who resisted the temptation could be standing on street corners telling people how terrible cheating is. Everything is done to justify the action that is taken, and the more difficult the action, the more likely it is that you’re going to seek to confirm the wisdom of your choice in order to protect your ego, in order to reduce the dissonance.
Brett McKay: Well, let me make sure I understand dissonance theory. Is there two ways to resolve dissonance? Like one way would be to… Okay, if you made a mistake, like do the thing to correct the mistake, ’cause then you say, “Well, now I’m a… I did something that’s going against my sense of self, I’m gonna correct it, that’ll resolve the dissonance.”
Elliot Aronson: Right.
Brett McKay: That’s hard though. No one wants to do that. So the easier way to do it is just change your cognition about your behavior, so you’re like, “Well, it’s not as bad.”
Elliot Aronson: That’s exactly right, Brett. And the interesting thing though is you can reduce the dissonance for a particular act by changing your attitude toward that action, if you reduce it toward… If you’re inclined not to do that, but to say, “What kind of a person am I that did that?” There is a way out, and the way out that I offer people, and this may be our… In writing that book, may be our most important contribution to be able to say, “You know, I cheated this time, and because it was really important, I really needed to get into medical school, but I am not a cheater, cheating, I still think cheating is bad, and I did it, and I feel bad about that, but that’s not who I am. I did it this time. I promise myself, I’ll never do it again.”
Now, that can be done glibly, “Hey, I cheated and so what? I’m not gonna do that anymore,” or it can be done really by staying on the hook for a while, by living with the dissonance and then making a resolution that you really intend to stick to, not to let that happen, not to slide down that pyramid, you see, the metaphor we use is of a pyramid where if you can picture in your mind a pyramid sort of like an isosceles equilateral triangle, where the person who has an attitude towards cheating in this case or anything, but let’s say cheating in this case is standing at the very tip of that pyramid where he’s sort of in between, he thinks cheating is a bad thing, but there are worse things in the world, of course. Once he makes the decision to cheat, he starts sliding down the right-hand side of that pyramid until he hits the bottom which is at the floor level, which is far apart from the point at the left-hand side, so his attitude toward cheating is shifting to become, if he didn’t cheat, it’s becoming more and more toward seeing cheating as a terrible thing. If he did cheat, he’s sliding down the left hand side and his attitude is becoming more toward seeing cheating as not such a bad thing, as a matter of fact, everybody does it.
So that metaphor of the pyramid of choice, we call it, is what people generally do. Now, you can, however, with a lot of effort, you can say to yourself, “I did this terrible thing and it is a terrible thing, and I’m never gonna do it again,” and you actually reduce dissonance by forming in your mind the notion that you’re the kind of person who can recover from this bad behavior.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that idea of the pyramid is interesting ’cause it really illustrates this idea that dissonance can create sort of this vicious cycle, right? As soon as you make that, like you should talk about bullying, kids who bully a kid… Well, they start thinking, “Well, I bully the kid ’cause he deserved it,” Once you do it, then that just perpetuates more bullying. I think you also talked about people who lose weight, like a lot of weight, tend to be… There’s a dissonance there, they tend to actually end up being harsher sometimes to overweight people.
Elliot Aronson: Yeah. People who almost live in glass houses are the first ones to throw stones because they see what they could have been like if they didn’t try a little harder, so they’re very tough on people who they think aren’t trying hard enough, but… What was the first example you gave me? Because…
Brett McKay: The bullying one, so it’s like… Yeah.
Elliot Aronson: Bullying. For a hundred years, people believed the Freudian notion that if you aggress against somebody, that has a cathartic outcome, in other words, you get it off your chest, you yell and scream, and maybe even throw a punch at the person, and that gets it out of your system, and then you can go on your merry way. It turns out that what dissonance theory predicts is exactly the opposite, that hatred breeds aggression and aggression produces more hatred, which leads to more aggression, so that it is a vicious circle, the more we do a thing, if you bully a nerdy kid, and then you say to yourself, you did it ’cause you went along with the gang and they were all doing it, and you didn’t want to be a different kind of person, so you went along with it, you bully that kid and then you feel bad about it.
You’re saying, “Why did I do that?” And then you say, “Ah, that son of a bitch, he really deserved it, he is a real jerk and boy, if the shoe were on the other foot, he would have bullied me too, so I don’t feel so bad about it.” And then you hate him even more than you did before you bullied him, and that’s a number of experiments, some by my own students, showing exactly that effect. If you get a person in trouble, and maybe cost him his job, because… We set up an experiment where a person behind the counter said something snide to the people in the experiment, and then they either had an opportunity to get him in trouble with his boss, which they took, or they didn’t have that opportunity, and if they got him into trouble with his boss and he got fired for it, as part of the scenario that we cooked up, they ended up hating him more than they did if they didn’t get him into trouble. It’s very powerful effect.
Brett McKay: So another example where you see this dynamic play out is in break-ups or divorce, in a break-up or a divorce, a lot of pain, you’re hurting, your spouse is hurting, the kids are hurting. So you start thinking to yourself, “Man, am I doing the right thing? Is this worth it?” So there’s some cognitive dissonance there, and in order to resolve that dissonance, what a lot of people end up doing, is they start demonizing their soon-to-be former partner. They start thinking, “Yeah, this person is so terrible, if you look back at our 10 years of marriage, here’s all the terrible things they did that led up to this divorce. Yeah, this is the right thing to do.” So you start sliding down that side of the triangle of personal choice, where this person who you once loved, who you thought had enough redeeming qualities to marry them and be with… Spend the rest of your life with them, they’re now like the spawn of Satan. And so you start thinking, “This is the right choice. I’m doing the right thing.” And this is a big factor in why a lot of break-ups or divorce can be so acrimonious, and this sort of scenario is related to another part of self-justification, and that’s memory.
So I think the way we typically think of how memory working is that, okay, when we have a memory, it’s just a snapshot in time, we see things exactly how it happened, but that’s not how memory works, how memory really works is that we’re weaving together different pieces that are all in different parts of our brain, and in that weaving process, we start to slowly change things to suit the perspective that we wanna hold at this current moment.
Elliot Aronson: Often they get changed innocently, but you’re quite right, Brett, people often think of memory as if there’s a hidden tape recorder in our brain somewhere that has conversations down exactly, and who came to what party and who gave what Christmas present etcetera. It’s not true. Memory, all memories are constructed, and we piece things together to try to remember them accurately, but memory is what we call it our own built-in self-serving historian, because memories are distorted in a direction that helps us continue to maintain the self-concept of someone who is smart, competent and moral. And so, in our memories, we often come out on top, we often come out as the injured party who was doing the right thing, and the other person did something terrible to us, and the memory, it can be very slight, but the distortion might tip the balance away from reality as God sees it where both people were a little bit at fault and it tips it into a sort of a 60/40 or 70/30 fault-finding situation, and that’s what memory does for us.
Brett McKay: Yeah, going back to the marriage, once you’re in that divorce mode, and you look back at the marriage and you instead of thinking before you never would have thought about those events in the past as having a negative connotation, but then you look back and you’re like, “Oh wait, that thing that she did or he did 10 years ago, that was… That foretold what is happening now, and I knew it all along.”
Elliot Aronson: You dredge up the memories and you put a little extra twist on it to make it a little bit worse than it actually was.
Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah, and I think we do that too. I think we’ve all encountered that, where you retell a story to some friends and then your wife’s like, “Wait a minute, that’s not what happened,” and you’re like…
Elliot Aronson: Exactly, exactly right. And sometimes it’s… Often, most often, it’s purely innocent, it’s just forgetting, but often it’s motivated. It’s still obviously below the level of consciousness, you’re not intentionally distorting your memory, but it’s self-serving in some way
Brett McKay: Or you see this too, when people have like big life changes, and so they’re retelling their story and they may tell the story in a way where the before them was that you could already see the seeds of their change happening. I’ve seen this happen with people who decide to not go to church anymore, lose their faith or whatever, and when I knew them, they were really into it, really, really into it, but then when they tell the story, they start telling the story, “Well, all along I knew I wasn’t into this and this wasn’t right, and I was on my way out,” and then you’re like, “What? I don’t know, it seemed like you’re pretty into it. What changed?”
Elliot Aronson: That happens a lot, and we’ve got good data on that, for example, when George W. Bush decided to go to war in Iraq and he did it because he really did believe, I’m sure, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and he needed to be taken down. Almost everybody in this country was in favor of the war, 80% or so. And even Democrats, I think there was… 70%, somewhere around 70% of Democrats were in favor of the war. After the war turned out to be a disaster, and there turned out to be no weapons of mass destruction, and it sort of went on and on and on, if you asked Democrats, they said, “Oh no, only 30% said they believed they were in favor of the war at the time that Bush went to war,” but in reality, it was a good deal more than that, more than twice as many. And I don’t think they were lying to the interviewer, I think they were lying to themselves.
Brett McKay: Right, they’re trying to resolve the dissonance ’cause it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s sort of small level dissonance like on our personal lives and in our marriages, but you also talk about how dissonance can show up in our justice system and this interests me ’cause I remember in law school, learning about this idea that with the prosecutors who wrongfully convict somebody or really go hard to try to convict somebody, when it turns out that this person who was wrongfully convicted is exonerated through DNA evidence, something like that, oftentimes, the prosecutor is like, “Yeah, no, still guilty. Definitely guilty.” And you’re like, “What is going on there? The DNA says did not happen.”
Elliot Aronson: Yeah. And the same prosecutor, who would have accepted the DNA evidence as being exonerative, in other words, somebody gets raped… A guy rapes a woman and DNA evidence shows up, and if there’s evidence that shows that somebody else did it, not the one that they are accusing, the prosecutor will accept that evidence and will not go to trial, but once he’s convicted the guy, the same DNA evidence is gonna show up and he will not accept it. Now, why is that? And you know here’s the interesting thing in my own mind, for me. I’m convinced that he does it, not because he’s an evil guy, who simply wants to get a conviction and wants to keep that conviction, I think it’s because he believes himself to be a good guy and a competent guy, and a moral guy, and let’s say that this guy who was supposed to have committed a rape and a murder has been languishing in prison for 15 years, the prosecuting attorney, then some evidence shows up, DNA evidence that indicates that it wasn’t… Didn’t belong to that guy, and the guy has been protesting his innocence for 15 years, many prosecutors will refuse to accept that evidence because they think they’re a good guy and a good guy like me and a competent prosecutor like me, would not send the wrong guy to prison, and because he doesn’t wanna believe that he could have sent the wrong guy to prison for 15 years, he keeps him in prison for another 15 years, and that’s the irony and the tragedy of that kind of situation.
There are exceptions to this, and in our book, we talk about a guy named Thomas Baines, who was so sure that this guy that he convicted, who was in prison for 15 years and Baines… He kept… The guy kept begging for them to look at the DNA evidence, and Baines was so sure that this guy was just a pain in the neck, and he said, “Okay, let’s look this over,” and found it and the guy was right, and Baines apologized, released him, and that took an awful lot of moral courage on his part, because for the most part, the people… If the prosecutor who is presented with the DNA evidence 15 years later is the same prosecutor who convicted the guy, that prosecutor will be very resistant to owning up to the fact that he sent the wrong person to prison.
Brett McKay: So how do you… I think we kind of talked about a little bit some ways to get out of this dissonance, but what have… Maybe articulate this at the end, what can people do to start avoiding self-justification and actually learning from their bad judgment?
Elliot Aronson: I think it’s hard to talk in generalities here. I can just give you an example from my own life, when I was the chairman of a psychology department, we used to have these meetings and problem solving meetings with the faculty, and there was one guy on… Member of my faculty who I really thought was an idiot, and I didn’t like him very much for a number of reasons, and we’re trying to solve this problem, and he came up with an idea, and I saw some flaws in the idea, and I was about to shoot it down. And I remember this so vividly, I stopped myself, I opened my mouth and I said, “Oh, never mind.” And then I thought about it, I said to myself in effect, “Are you gonna shoot this idea down because you don’t like the guy, or because the idea is really lousy? What if… ” And I thought about another person in the room, “What if he came up with that idea, would you treat it more gently?” And I had to come to the conclusion that I was gonna shoot down a pretty good idea that had… That could be, it wasn’t perfect, but it could be used as a model, we could build on it.
I had to come to the conclusion that even this idiot could have come up with a good idea, and I’d better stop judging the idea as bad because I don’t like the guy who gave it. And I remember the feeling of huge exhilaration when I was able to separate these two things. And then later, when I was researching the book, I found a beautiful example of someone who did this. When Shimon Peres was Prime Minister of Israel, he and Ronald Reagan who was president of the United States at that time, had a very close personal relationship as well as very, very good connection of the two countries. And at one point Ronald Reagan accepted an invitation to go to The Bitburg cemetery in Germany, to lay wreaths on the graves of some of the soldiers who died in World War II, but buried in that cemetery were members of the Waffen-SS, which was an incredibly vicious anti-Semitic group of soldiers who committed really horrendous crimes against, innocent civilians. And Peres pleaded with Reagan not to go to that cemetery, but Reagan had already committed himself to go and so he went, and then reporters asked Peres, “Well, how do you feel about what Reagan just did?”
And Peres said, “When a friend makes a mistake, the friend remains a friend, and the mistake remains a mistake.” And I read that and I thought, “Oh my God, this guy has found the way to do it.” You keep those cognitions separate, the friend and the mistake, see the easy way to reduce dissonance is to either say, “Well, that son of a bitch is no friend of mine,” or to say, “Well, Ron is a really nice, guy, I really like him, and maybe it’s not such a bad thing to lay wreaths on the graves of these people.” No, Peres chose to live with the dissonance. A friend remains a friend, a mistake remains a mistake. And I think that is the way that… One way that each of us has to live with it, we have to allow ourselves to experience the dissonance that a really good friend can do an awful thing, and even I can do an awful thing. Here’s dissonance between two things, but of the most powerful dissonance is when I do something bad. So if I do something really terrible can I forgive myself?
Yes, but the statement I make in the book is, it should not come too easily, we can’t be glib about it, we can’t simply say, “Oh yeah, I cheated on an exam and so what? Everybody does it.” No. You have to say, “It was an awful thing I did, and I really don’t ever wanna do that again. I’m gonna try hard not to do it again, but I did it and I did it for a reason and… And here’s the key thing, just because I cheated that does not necessarily make me a cheater,” the thing that keeps us reducing dissonance is to come up with a false belief that if you lie once, you’re a liar. If you cheat once, you’re a cheater. No, a perfectly reasonable person, a perfectly honest person can once in 10 years, tell a serious lie, it doesn’t make him a liar.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so if you think that one mistake makes you a bad person, you don’t wanna bring that verdict upon yourself, so what you’re gonna try to do to reduce the dissonance is say, “Oh, it wasn’t a mistake, or I was justified in doing what I did,” but instead of doing that, what you can do instead is to say, “Yes, I made a mistake, doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, but I do need to own up to this mistake, I gotta try to correct it, I gotta try to do things to avoid it in the future.” That’s hard to do. It’s easier said than done, but it’s possible.
Elliot Aronson: It is possible, and if I were 20 years younger, I’d be leading workshops trying to help people find ways to do that, because I think that is a key to productive interpersonal relations, good marriages, good relationships with your kids, all of that. We have to learn to stop reducing dissonance at the drop of a hat.
Brett McKay: Well, Elliot, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about the book and your work?
Elliot Aronson: Well, our book is called Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me, it’s available on Amazon, and we have a new edition that just came out a couple of months ago. I also have another book out called The Jigsaw Classroom, which is about how people can learn through cooperating with each other, can have what I call a virtuous circle, where people learn to reduce their prejudice against each other across racial lines because they cooperate, like a really well-functioning basketball team, which really learns to trust one another, and that is just the opposite of the vicious circle that I described earlier, where hatred and aggression can lead to more hatred and aggression, this is doing favors for one another by cooperating in the learning process can really lead people to begin to look for the beauty in one another, and that’s an interesting book. If anyone is interested in classroom teaching, this is a technique for producing cooperation among young kids.
Brett McKay: Well, Elliot Aronson, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Elliot Aronson: I’ve really enjoyed it, Brett, thank you. You’re a very good interviewer.
Brett McKay: Well, thank you so much. My guest today was Elliot Aronson. He’s the co-author of the book, Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Be sure to check out our show notes at aom.is/mistakes where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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