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Book Review of: Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts

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Review of Mistakes Were Made, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson  (Hardcover, 2007)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

This was a very interesting book, and I found it explains much of the irrational behavior that I encounter on a regular basis. It also helped explain some of my own less than stellar behavior.

"Mistakes Were Made" almost makes it to "great book" status. The flaw in this book is that the authors, like so many authors these days, assume it's obligatory to use the book as a vehicle for inflicting upon the reader their personal political views even though the book is not about politics. News flash to all authors: this is not a requirement. In fact, it detracts from your book and undermines your credibility. I don't care if you are leftist, rightist, statist, or libertarian--if it's not a political book, leave the political proselytizing out.

Reading books with this kind of flaw is like trying to enjoy a meal while the person sitting next to you is making rude noises and passing huge volumes of gas. It just spoils the meal, no matter what is on your plate.

While it's true that politicians make excellent examples for a book about mistakes, delusions, and spineless behavior in general (I think they are zoologically classified as invertebrates), it's not true that Democrats are overwhelmingly laudable. Nor is it true that there's not one example of good that could possibly include a Republican. The authors appear to be oblivious to either fact. If they edit a future edition, I hope they will include at least one example of where Bill Clinton lied (I don't understand why this was such a challenge) and maybe cut back on the "Bush lied" examples so it doesn't seem like one is on every fourth page.

Now that I have used three paragraphs to understate how annoying this political proselytizing is, I want to talk about what's good in this book and what the authors did right.

Before I read a nonfiction book, I usually turn to the back and skim endnotes, backnotes, bibliography, or whatever else is back there to see if what I'm going to encounter inside the book has some research behind it. The endnotes show that the research behind this book is extensive (perhaps it took a lot of digging to find so many anti-Republican examples?). The index is also impressive.

I've wondered why you simply can't argue with some people--they are "right" no matter what the facts are. When I was in high school, I was on the national debate team. We had to argue both sides of an issue. That discipline was very instructive for me, and it has helped me with objective analysis ever since. Looking at both sides of an issue, however, isn't normal.

When, as an engineer, I participated in design reviews, criticism of the design was welcome. "Thanks for pointing that out--you saved me embarrassment!" There was nothing wrong in admitting your design wasn't perfect. Today, admitting you did something that wasn't perfect is abnormal. Thus, the title of this book simply echoes a common sentiment. In fact, as the authors show, public figures have used those very words a startling number of times..

Another problem is that of confusing the message with the messenger, and the authors do a great job of discussing this. An example I would like to use follows. When Ronald Reagan was President, he and Speaker Tip O'Neil disagreed on many things. But they greeted each other warmly and each man spoke well of the other behind his back. Each listened to the other, each respected the other. Times have changed. Today, people seem unable to disagree agreeably. Today, being able to accept a view contrary to the one you hold is abnormal. Being civil to someone with an opposing viewpoint is increasingly rare behavior.

If you try to point out facts the other person may not have considered, the response is typically irrational. Instead of assimilating the new knowledge, the other person is far more likely to respond with an ad hominem attack on the person who brings the facts up. This response never made any sense to me, until I read this book.

Mistakes Were Made provides compelling evidence that the problem is people don't want to be seen as "wrong." If their information is wrong, then this somehow indicates they personally are stupid or in some other way deficient. It doesn't matter how nicely you approach the issues and it doesn't matter that in your mind you are not thinking ill of the other person. It doesn't matter that you in no way mean to offend or criticize. The (learned) response to anything that threatens another person's justifications is going to be more justification. Sometimes, that means that person will "need to" vilify you. "That fact can't be correct because you are stupid. Therefore, I am still right."

My response has typically been to do what I did on the debate team. That is, counter the arguments with facts and logic--with no mention or hint that the other person is stupid or defective for not having known these things. What this response does, however (according to this book) is cause the other person to dig in deeper and produce even more justification. Upon reflection, I could see I was wrong!

What people are after isn't the correct information. They want to know that you think they are OK. Since they tie unrelated things together, any disagreement simply results in more justification in an effort to get the "You are OK" response. But justification doesn't deliver such a response--it achieves the opposite. Which is why people are so polarized today.

When I feel frustrated by the justifications, I eventually just write off the other person as an idiot (or worse). This isn't the most desirable result. This book has provided insight to help me avoid that outcome. It also provides insight to help me avoid self-justifying my own mistakes and driving other people to write me off as an idiot (or worse).

I've run into several people who consider total agreement with their views (which are, by most people's standards, decidedly whacko) a condition of being in their circle of acceptance. I write those people off as idiots. Not because I disagree with them, but because they broach no disagreement. I've noticed something these folks have in common: despite their inflated views of themselves, they don't accomplish anything. They are noncontributors. And they are caught in a vicious cycle of self-defeating behavior and justification that results in more such behavior. This book can't reach those people.

I think for the typical reader (that is, not the nutcases I just mentioned), this book will be truly helpful. I think most of us are looking for ways to be a bit better and we're open to being challenged on our existing views. To me, this book is worth reading simply because it answers a profound issue of our time. Those of us who can rid ourselves of the need to be right (or demonize someone else) and instead seek to understand will be much happier--and so will those we interact with.

Mistakes Were Made contains eight chapters, plus an introduction and an afterword (it also has those end notes and the index I mentioned earlier).

Chapter One explains the concept of cognitive dissonance. This is what drives people to distort their perception of reality, so that the difference between their ideals and their behavior goes away. One problem with this is it reinforces the behavior that caused the dissonance in the first place, and it starts you sliding down a slippery slope.

Chapter Two talks about the blind spots we all have, and Chapter Three provides explanations and examples of how and why memories are so flawed.

Chapter Four is my favorite chapter in the book. One of the points it makes is that you need to look at the evidence that disproves your assumption or viewpoint, and not just the evidence that supports it. This is at the core of the scientific method, and it's also a core principle in high school debating. It should be a core principle in how we, as allegedly intelligent human beings, look at everything. If everybody practiced this, you'd see the evaporation of countless conspiracy theories, prejudices, fad diets, and other nonsense.

Chapter Five is chilling. I have long thought "government" and "incompetence" were synonyms, and each passing year this gets confirmed more soundly. Also each passing year, I see more exceptions. Hmm. Anyhow, this chapter looks at what passes for a justice system in the USA. The number of innocent people incarcerated while the actual criminals roam free is staggering. This chapter explains a key mechanism for how this happens. It doesn't hold out much hope for change.

If you've had marriage troubles, Chapter Six may be life-changing for you and your mate. Chapter Seven provides interesting thoughts on war. For example, when we analyze almost any conflict, each side has a different view of who started it and when. Chapter Eight can help you put it all together and apply the insights of this book to your daily life.

All in all, a good book. If the political proselytizing can be removed in a future edition, this would be a great book.



About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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