Book by: Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
Review by: James Creech
First Year of Studies
University of Notre Dame
Every academic advisor has worked with students who will not accept responsibility for their failures. Every academic advisor has seen students stubbornly pursue ill-chosen majors. Mistakes Were Made provides an engaging and accessible explanation of the psychological processes underlying these behaviors. While the authors do not explicitly address higher education, their insights can fruitfully inform advising practice.
Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson synthesize a large body of social psychological research on self-justification. This research shows that the need to reduce cognitive dissonance, “a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions . . . that are psychologically inconsistent” (p. 15), leads people to justify their behavior, however illogical or unethical. For example, the authors show that when someone hurts another person, he or she frequently blames the victim. This self-justification allows the perpetrator to reconcile the belief that he or she is a good person with the fact that he or she has hurt someone. The authors acknowledge that dissonance reduction has some positive outcomes, such as the maintenance of a coherent sense of self, but they focus on the damage that self-justification can cause individuals, relationships, and institutions.
The first three chapters present an overview of the authors’ theory and explain how self-justification is abetted by other psychological distortions, such as confirmation bias (the acceptance of information that confirms one’s opinion and the dismissal of information that does not), naïve realism (the belief that one perceives the world accurately), and the selective and reconstructive nature of memory. These enlightening chapters are excellent reading for students and advisors alike. The subsequent four chapters examine in depth how self-justification manifests itself in different realms, such as politics and marriage. These chapters strengthen the authors’ argument with further evidence, but they are a bit repetitive and, given their more narrow focus, would likely be less engaging for most readers, especially students. For advisors, the chapters on failures in the mental health profession and the criminal justice system offer cautionary examples of the dangers of overconfidence in professional expertise and experience.
Most readers will likely find Tavris and Aronson’s central claim compelling and will want to know how they can escape the trap of self-justification. The final chapter attempts to address this question. To counter destructive self-justification, the authors argue, people must cultivate self-awareness and learn to accept failure. People accept failure more readily if they separate behavior and identity. Those who can acknowledge and learn from their mistakes believe that they are not defined by what they have done. This advice, while persuasive and supported by research, is vague, and the authors do not provide any concrete guidance on how to implement it.
Mistakes Were Made will give advisors new understanding of the self-defeating behavior of their students. It will also attune them to their own self-serving thinking. Because this book is not about education, advisors will have to make their own connections between this knowledge and their advising practice. As the book is over 300 pages and somewhat redundant, it is probably not a worthwhile assignment for students in its entirety. A selection from the first three chapters, however, would be an illuminating read for students in an orientation or academic skills course.
Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. (2015). Book by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Review by James Creech. Boston, MA: Mariner Books. 378 pp. $15.95. ISBN 978-0-544-57478-6.