Monday, March 31, 2014

Mistakes were made (but not by me): book overview

Tavris, C. & Aronson, E. (2007) Mistakes were made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts.

This is an interesting book for educators to read. Some of the ways we go about justifying our decisions, whether good or bad, have implications for how we could approach understanding learning. After all, learning is one way we overturn some of our core beliefs, adopt new ways to understand and perhaps better ourselves and learn how to empathise with others.

Good examples from studies in psychology are used, although many of the studies reported involve the ubiquitous research participant, the American college student.

Topics covered include cognitive dissonance and why we indulge in self-justification. The reasons why we become enmeshed in vicious and virtuous circles are introduced and discussed. The pyramid of choice is also introduced as when a moral stance is initiated, two people who originally take on similar views, move to be far apart once they start to self-justify their moral choice.

Prejudice and biases, how we form them (indeed bias is one of the first things we use to make decisions through ‘confirmation bias’ and ‘naïve realism’) and how to counter are discussed in chapter 2.
The way our memory is ‘selective is the topic for chapter 3. Our memory is not a video recorder but filters the information to make sense. Hence, biases and stereotypes creep in and we are prone to suggestions and selective about what we chose to remember.  The perils of ‘imagination inflation’ are revealed through examples of people who genuinely believe that they survived concentration camps as a child or were abducted by aliens.

Chapters 4 to 7 continue the main theme, using examples from science and clinical diagnosis in chapter 4, law and order (including difficulties in overturning judgements even when alleged perpetrator is found innocent) in chapter 5, marriage and love in chapter 6 and war and peace in chapter 7. Chapter 8 discusses why it is so difficult for us to own up to mistakes and to change our beliefs, switch allegiances, move to a different way of seeing the world or to use other or new points of view. However, being able to recognise and then say ‘I made a mistake’ plus correct what our preconceptions have wrought is truly the mark of being a good person.

The books is pitched at an American audience as most of the examples, especially the political ones are drawn from American politics. There are comprehensive endnotes and an index but no list of references.
Overall, the book is worth a read as it brings up topics many of us would rather not face up to. A thought provoking book which draws on neuro psychology and contemporary examples to illustrate it's message. We need to be aware of our weaknesses and challenge our biases through careful, critical thought. 

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