BkRev # 1769. Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. (2015). Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. New York: Mariner Books. 378 pp. $15.95. ISBN 978-0-544-57478-6
Caolfionn B. Yenney
University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Academic advisors regularly assist students in identifying and working through unwise choices. What makes these conversations difficult is that students often have a long list of reasons why the poor choice was not their fault and usually how it will never happen again. To advisors, this can feel like students are actively ignoring their mistake, making excuses, and refusing ownership. Tavris and Aronson’s book, Mistakes Were Made, illustrated that at the heart of situations like these is the powerful and complex concept of self-justification.
Self-justification is defined as “the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for actions that turn out to be harmful, immoral, or stupid” (Tavris & Aronson, 2015, p. 2). This phenomenon protects individuals from cognitive dissonance and maintains the positive self-image that most hold of themselves. The first half of the text discussed the complicated psychology of self-justification including its relationship to relieving cognitive dissonance, its connection to behavioral blind spots created by pride or bias, and the untrustworthiness and malleability of memory. These chapters provided a fascinating discussion of the nuanced ways people use self-justification as a subconscious protective mechanism. The authors also provided real-life examples of self-justification across a myriad of contexts including politics, medicine, war, law, and marriage to illustrate the ways in which self-justification functions on a daily basis.
In the final chapter of their text, Tavris and Aronson (2015) discussed ways in which individuals can identify and lessen self-justification in their own lives. Self-awareness is vital in this process. Individuals must work at being able to identifying biases and dissonant thoughts not only in others, but in themselves. This level of mindfulness requires a commitment to sustain “self-reflective struggle” (p. 304). Beyond mindfulness, individuals must also break the strong connections between mistakes and self-worth, particularly dominant in American culture. These strong connections make individuals feel as though admitting errors or wrong-doings makes them unintelligent or less-than. While individuals are often quick to respect when others acknowledge mistakes and realize that it does not impact the worth of their friends, relatives, or co-workers, individuals are much less likely to give themselves the same grace. Therefore, self-compassion is the final necessary trait for lessoning self-justification. Tavris and Aronson remind readers that, “something we did can be separated from who we are and who we want to be. Our past selves need not be a blueprint for our future selves” (p. 308).
Although redundant at various points, Mistakes Were Made is a valuable text for advisors for several reasons. The comprehensive overview of the psychological underpinnings of self-justification is helpful as a tool to better understand of the actions of students. This knowledge may assist advisors in framing the various difficult discussions they have with students about academic issues such as major selection, grades, and study skills. Additionally, the wide variety of examples provided in the text may help advisors realize the ways they are utilizing self-justification in harmful ways in their own lives. The call for mindfulness has the potential to make advisors better at their profession by bringing awareness to biases and dissonant thoughts. Finally, the need to separate mistakes from self-worth is vital. Understanding this distinction is important not only as advisors help students navigate the challenges of college and beyond, but also as advisors work treat themselves kindly in their personal and professional lives.