“Mistakes were made (but not by me)” by Tavris and Aronson is a punchy 240 pages about a fundamental driver of our human identity: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the state of discomfort that occurs when we have two opposing ideas operating in our mind. For example, I think I am a good person, good people don’t yell at their neighbours, I yelled at my neighbours: so, either I am not a good person or there must be something about my neighbours that justifies a good person to yell at them. And thus also determines the way to war.
Cognitive dissonance seems to sit at the interface between our higher mind and our baser mind. The higher mind is a great space for virtuous idea and creativity. The base mind is all our instincts for survival. Both of these minds interact through our language centres and therein become our thought and our being. However, our baser mind provides hard wired outputs so that we can survive. Our higher mind requires educational sources, nurturing. So our baser mind can express in action almost quicker than we can think about what we are doing ie putting it into language eg be angry when feeling threatened. When an action from our baser mind expresses itself, we will most likely find ourselves at odds with our own higher mind. We experience a terrible discomfort, perhaps a deep guilt. This is cognitive dissonance. However, because we don’t like the feeling, we get rid of it by justifying our behaviour.
Self justification is behind good people doing even more terrible things. A man embezzles a million dollars from his company to pay his gambling debt. He starts by just a small amount which he pays back. But as he gambles, he takes more, and he can’t pay it back. Yet, he justifies, I will win big and all will be restored and I am a good person and I will give up gambling. But he never wins and eventually he is discovered. The small mistake, when justified, will lead to a greater and greater misdeed. Tavris and Aronson’s straightforward unfolding of the elements of Watergate, provide a strong lesson for all of us.
Tavris and Aronson identify several ways to deal with cognitive dissonance.
- Don’t be too ready to resolve it. Have sleepless nights. Turn your discomfort over and over. Where might you be self justifying, being right, making someone wrong. Where might you need to make a hard decision that is ethically the right one.
- If you have made a mistake, own up to it as soon as possible. If the mistake made a mess, you have to clean it up. You have to take the consequences. But the early mistake and consequences will be mild compared to an escalation of mistake and consequence through self justifying.
- Learn from the mistake. In fact live for the mistakes you make, the people who can alert you to them, and what you can learn. This will ensure that you become a great learner, a successful person, and avoid making very big mistakes with big consequences.
- I would add, encourage others for the effort they put into trying things, making mistakes, and particular, learning from them. Help others see mistakes, not to be right, but that they can try again, even if they fail again. This is accountability, this is empowerment. This is the place in which there is no failure, just (paraphrasing Edison) a million discoveries of what didn’t work so well, and, in looking at each one clearly, finding a great opening of possibility.
Remember, says Tavris and Aronson, you are a smart, capable person who made a mistake. You remain a smart, capable person. The mistake remains a mistake.