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Book Review: Mistakes were made but not by me

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Do words like self-justification and cognitive-dissonance give rise to an awkward yawn within minutes? Have you ever thought about why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts? If the statements mentioned above ring a bell in your head, then I would strongly recommend you to read this excellent piece of psychological truth- Mistakes were made... (but not by me!) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, inspired by the creator of the theory of cognitive dissonance- Leon Festinger.

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Book Review: Mistakes were made but not by me

  1. 1. BOOK REVIEW Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson Great Britain, Pinter & Martin Ltd, 2016, 378 pp, £9.99 (pbk) ISBN 9781780662657 An Introduction to our Fictitious SELF Do words like self-justification and cognitive-dissonance give rise to an awkward yawn within minutes? Have you ever thought about why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts? If the statements mentioned above ring a bell in your head, then I would strongly recommend you to read this excellent piece of psychological truth- Mistakes were made... (but not by me!) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, inspired by the creator of the theory of cognitive dissonance- Leon Festinger. Renowned social psychologists, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson first published this non-fiction book in 2007. They both come from core psychology background, Aronson is famously known for his invention of the ‘Jigsaw Classroom’ and his immensely popular social psychology textbook ‘The Social Animal’. Apart from this, he is the only researcher in the 120-year history of the American Psychological Association to have won all three awards: for writing, for teaching, and for research. He is also an awardee of the very prestigious William James Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2007 from the Association for Psychological Science, in which he was cited as the scientist who "fundamentally changed the way we look at everyday life”1 . At the same time, Tavris is known for her rich academic background with experience of over forty-five years of teaching and research on cognitive dissonance, gender, feminism, and women’s studies5 . Dwelling Deep into Hypocrisy The introduction of every chapter (the first two-three pages) makes the reader curious about the cases and the topic being discussed. The way the authors have written it is so interesting that the readers want to know the story behind the summary of the case which leads them to read further as the end of the cases points at only one thing, the people who are supposed to be ‘always right were wrong’ here- the system does not work the way it should and looks like that mistakes were made…and by them (secretively). In our module, we have discussed Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth concept. Are we really moving towards a world that is full of hypocrites (we see hypocrisy in others and not ourselves)? Are we just self-justifying beings without any emotional connect with our true self whatsoever? Are we storywriters of our lives, do we make up our own stories? And even if we make up our own stories, do we start believing and living in them? If these questions strike a chord in you, then this book is worth a read! Even though it looks bromidic and heavily psychological in the beginning, but nowhere would the readers feel that they can’t relate to the instances mentioned or the writing style of the authors. This book is relevant to everyone out there just for the basic reason that it questions our everyday thinking,
  2. 2. our surroundings- how we react to it, and how we judge people and situations. It aims at making a valid point that there’s always more to the story than what is seen. One of the biggest blind spots is that we believe that there are no blind spots, the authors have tried to break this fantasy very cleverly with real life examples that give us a chance to introspect. Revealing the Truth The authors take the readers on a psychedelic journey that starts with a very basic question- how do hypocrites live with themselves? Just how we experience the psyche music beat-by-beat, tune-by- tune, this book unfolds chapter-by-chapter. The main theme of the book- Cognitive Dissonance (The engine of self-justification) is discussed wildly in the first chapter that makes the reader feel that they can sit through the remaining 350 some pages. Then the authors talk about Pride and Prejudice (and other blind spots) followed by Memory (the self-justifying historian) which contains the most interesting section of the book- True Stories of False Memories. This section starts with the stories of Binjamin Wilkomirski (author of Fragments which later turned out to be fraudulent) and Will Andrews (alien abduction story). It proves only one point that if a child is told about a certain incident in their childhood, they then start living it and believing in it irrespective of whether it happened or not. This sub-chapter might remind the readers of the famous psycho-thriller book by Paula Hawkin, The girl on the train (2015) which was later adapted in a movie in 2016 directed by Tate Taylor and written by Erin Cressida Wilson3 . The authors then discuss about Good Intentions, Bad Science (the closed loop of clinical judgements) where they have written about the concept of The Benevolent Dolphin and Science, Skepticism and Self-justification. This is then followed by the chapter on Law and Disorder that talks about the investigators, the interrogators, the prosecutors, and jumping to convictions. With such heavy topics, the authors then discuss a more general and direct phase of life- Love’s Assassin (Self-justification in marriage). Lastly, the authors give the readers a taste of all the political misshaping in the next chapter- Wounds, Rifts, and Wars. After this rollercoaster ride, the readers are then served a sweet dessert along with a mouth-freshener in the last chapter- Letting Go and Owning Up that discusses how we can break the fictitious character of self and come out in broad daylight as our true self. The Good and The Bad Mistakes were made (but not by me) is a book filled with real-life examples in all situations, be it friendship, marriage, professional setting, political activities, criminal encounters that lead to innocent convictions, so on and so forth that make the content relatable to the reader. People in general, from the psychological background or not related to the stream in any way can easily make sense of the content and the textual references in the book. It is written for a wide audience from different disciplines. The book is filled with very interesting stories and ideas that keep the reader hooked to the plot. However in between, some readers might feel that it’s stretched way too much. This is clear in the chapter- Good Intentions, Bad Science (the closed loop of clinical judgement). It feels like there’s a lot happening in the chapter simultaneously, first it talks about the cases of Holly Ramona and Grace in conjunction to the therapists’ wrong notions about implanting false memories in their patients’ brains followed by a few paragraphs and experiences of MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder) where Sybil is introduced along with discussing false convictions with the story of Bernard ‘Bee’ Baran. This does not
  3. 3. end here, it continues to epidemics and celebrities’ hosting talk shows to reveal their tortured memories and after which it all comes back to MPD, and this is just the first part of the chapter. The second part talks about mental health professionals, psychotherapy, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. With this, three more characters are introduced, and a dialogue is highlighted between them. All this might confuse the anxious readers and take them away from the interesting plot that has been prevailing in the previous chapters. As a reader, when I first went through the index of the book, I was looking forward to this chapter in particular- Love’s Assassin (Self-justification in marriage). With much interest, I started reading the chapter but in just a few pages I thought that it’s not following the plot of the book. The chapter starts with an account of a couple’s attitude towards each other and their version of the story and then it just keeps hanging around the couple and their story. Later in the chapter the authors reveal more characters and mantras of a happily married life which might not seem too realistic to larger audience. Things aren’t Always as they Appear Some critical readers might feel that the book is very strongly opinionated about governments, the politicians and basically everyone in power. It talks about how they justified their criminal acts that have taken lives of several thousands of people. Just to state one example, in the chapter Letting Go and Owning Up, the authors talk about officers backing their leaders while invading Iraq under the guidance of George Bush. Later during the war, the officers got to know about the weapons of mass destruction (which were said to be non-existent). In this case, how should the officers react? Clearly, they refused it and gave daunting reasons like eradicating terrorism and imposing democracy for invasion. This raises one big question, as discussed in the module, are we really moving towards ‘Neoliberalism’2 where we only care about business agendas and are ready to forego public well- being? The authors believe and want the readers to believe that recovering memories is not an easy job, they say, “recovering a memory is not at all like retrieving a file or replaying a tape; it is like watching a few unconnected frames of a film and then figuring out what the rest of the scene must have been like” (p.94). And since we humans have a tendency of coping up with our fictitious public identity, we happen to fit the unconnected frames in our own convenient storyline, and for this, we tend to reconstruct our memories thereby saving ourselves from “the embarrassment of actions we took that are dissonant with our core images” (pp. 91-92). This book contains a few disturbing cases that can make the readers’ think about their lives and all the real-life cases in their surroundings’. It opens the readers’ eyes to unreliability of the eyewitnesses and how easily they are manipulated, because of which the innocent gets curbed. One incident that is surprisingly eye-catchy was that of ‘recovered memories’ where the authors stated an instance where the joyful parents were sent to prison for abusing their child where the children remembered certain memories under the influence of hypnosis, drugs, or manipulation of the therapists who later revealed and did not apologise for the same (Good Intentions, Bad Science: The Closed Loop of Clinical Judgement). Despite all this, every chapter in the book ends with a positive note, a positive case that ignites hope in the readers. It’s like saying that whatever is happening is wrong but there are examples where people have taken unlikely positive actions that gives us some sense of relief that there is still humanity left in the world.
  4. 4. The Truth In all, this book reveals the fact that our brain is wired for self-justification under all circumstances but we as humans (not machines) should control our brain and not the other way around. It offers an in- depth explanation for self-deception and cognitive dissonance; how does it influence us and our actions? What causes it? How does it harm us and how can we overcome it all? It aims to break the fictitious self that we have created of our identity that makes us feel smart, wanted, morally correct, justified and above others. It tells us that our true self is way beyond the fictitious character that we live in and at times it’s okay to be wrong! The book talks about the ultimate truth of the human nature- we all are biased creatures and we all make mistakes that we justify later. This is irrespective of our gender, caste, education, background or any other basis. Be it a school going child or a PhD researcher or a political leader, we all make mistakes and hence experience cognitive dissonance. We humans, as a part of the society and the country we are living in, should own up when we screw up. That’s the ultimate message of the book conveyed very convincingly by the authors.
  5. 5. References: (1) McNulty, J. (2006). UCSC Professor Emeritus Elliot Aronson receives lifetime achievement award from the Association for Psychological Science. Available: https://news.ucsc.edu/2006/11/973.html. Last accessed 15th Oct 2017. (2) Metcalf, S. (2017). Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/aug/18/neoliberalism-the-idea-that- changed-the-world. Last accessed 15th Oct 2017. (3) Paula Hawkins. (2016). The Girl on the Train. Available: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22557272-the-girl-on-the-train. Last accessed 15th Oct 2017. (4) Tavris, C and Aronson, E (2016). Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). 3rd ed. Great Britain: Pinter & Martin Ltd. p.378. (5) Tavris, C. (2017). Carol Tavris. Available: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/58990.Carol_Tavris. Last accessed 15th Oct 2017.

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