Mistakes were made (but not by me)

Here’s the link, you should go order the book. I’ve been thinking about what it had to say on and off for the last few days, and I’m reasonably certain this is now a book which is on my mental ‘you-must-read-this’ list (another book on that list is Rochefoucould). Some chapters are better than others, but I’d say chapter 7 alone should probably increase your likelihood of getting to live in a happy marriage/relationship by more than enough to justify the costs in expected value terms, if you internalize the stuff that’s in there (/and you can find someone in the first place!).

Some quotes and comments below:

“Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it.”

“You can see one immediate benefit of understanding how dissonance works: Don’t listen to Nick. [Nick’s a hypothetical guy who’s just bought a flashy car he couldn’t really afford] The more costly a decision, in terms of time, money, effort, or inconvenience, and the more irrevocable its consequences, the greater the dissonance and the greater is the need to reduce it by overemphasizing the good things about the choice made. Therefore, when you are about to make a big purchase or an important decision […] don’t ask someone who has just done it. That person will be highly motivated to convince you that it is the right thing to do.”

“one of the most entrenched convictions in our culture [is] that expressing anger or behaving aggressively gets rid of anger. […] decades of experimental research have found exactly the opposite: that when people vent their feelings aggressively they often feel worse, pump up their blood pressure, and make themselves even angrier.”

“Dissonance is bothersome under any circumstance, but it is most painful to people when an important element of their self-concept is threatened – typically when they do something that is inconsistent with their view of themselves. […] Because most people have a reasonably positive self-concept, believing themselves to be competent, moral, and smart, their efforts at reducing dissonance will be designed to preserve their positive self-images.[21]”

Much of the book is about how this happens in more detail; how people justify themselves and their actions, how it works. Most people do bad things now and then, and most people who do bad things think that they are deep down good people, which means that the bad behaviour causes dissonance. So people try to reduce it by justifying themselves and their bad behaviours in all kinds of ways; like denying they did what they did, downplaying the consequences, tell themselves that the other guy deserved it, ect.
A very important part of human behaviour is the path-dependence aspects to it, and the book spends quite a bit of time on this one. They introduce a kind of pyramid-model of decision-making; you start out at the top when you take some decision or another, there are a lot of places you can end up, and gradually you’ll move down the pyramid while you justify your choice and perhaps make new choices which have been impacted by the way you started out your descent. When people have made up their mind about some subject or another, it’s very hard to change it; and the longer time passes by, the more a person will invest in the idea and justify his or her stance (and perhaps …the more additional ‘ex ante questionable actions’ will have been undertaken along the way). The intensity and the commitment increase as we keep defending ourselves and strengthening our position. As the book put it: “How do you get an honest man to lose his ethical compass? You get him to take one step at a time, and self-justification will do the rest.” Of course stuff like confirmation bias ‘helps out’ along the way too. Interestingly, decisions taken relatively recently can even change the past – our memories are an important part of ourselves, and they are much more malleable than people perhaps tend to think. So people also tend to ‘rewrite the past’ to better deal with the present. Humans are not above selectively remembering and focusing on some things from the past which aid the narrative we’ve constructed about ourselves nor are we above forgetting other things. We will go through a lot of trouble to defend our narrative, our persona. From the book:

“When two people produce entirely different memories of the same event, observers usually assume that one of them is lying. […] But most of us, most of the time, are neither telling the whole truth nor intentionally deceiving. We aren’t lying; we are self-justifying. All of us, as we tell our stories, add details and omit inconvenient facts; we give the tale a small, self-enhancing spin; that spin goes over so well that the next time we add a slightly more dramatic embellishment; we justify that little white lie as making the story better and clearer – until what we remember may not have happened that way, or even may not have happened at all. […] History is written by the victors, and when we write our own histories, we do so just as the conquerors of nations do: to justify our actions and make us look and feel good about ourselves and what we did or what we failed to do. If mistakes were made, memory helps us remember that they were made by someone else. If we were there, we were just innocent bystanders. […] We remember the central events of our life stories. But when we do misremember, our mistakes aren’t random. The everyday, dissonance-reducing distortions of memory help us make sense of the world and our place in it, protecting our decisions and beliefs. The distortion is even more powerful when it is motivated by the need to keep our self-concept consistent; by the wish to be right; by the need to preserve self-esteem; by the need to excuse failures or bad decisions; or by the need to find an explanation, preferably one safely in the past […like parent-blaming, one they take up later on – US], of current problems. […] memory researchers love to quote Nietzsche: “‘I have done that,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done that,’ says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually – memory yields.”

I could write a lot more, but I’ll cut it short. As I said in the beginning, this is one of those books you should read.

January 28, 2012 - Posted by | Books, Psychology

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