Thursday, July 16, 2009

My Current Read: Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

I just picked up a copy of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. The authors, Tavris and Aronson, are social psychologists. The book is an exploration of the mental processes by which we retroactively justify immoral or foolish decisions. It's something I've been thinking a lot about in the past year (hence the Hayek quotation in my blog's header). I'm only a few pages in, but this story is striking enough to share:

Half a century ago, a young social psychologist named Leon Festinger and two associates infiltrated a group of people who believed that they world would end on December 21. They wanted to know what would happen to the group when (they hoped!) the prophecy failed. The group's leader, whom the researchers called Marian Keech, promised that the faithful would be picked up by a flying saucer and elevated to safety at midnight on December 20. Many of her followers quit their jobs, gave away their homes, and dispersed their savings, waiting for the end. Who needs money in outer space? Others waited in fear or resignation in their homes. (Mrs. Keech's own husband, a nonbeliever, went to bed early and slept soundly through the night as his wife and her followers prayed in the living room.) Festinger made his own prediction: The believers who had not made a strong commitment to the prophecy -- who awaited the end of the world by themselves at home, hoping they weren't going to die at midnight -- would quietly lose their faith in Mrs. Keech. But those who had given away their possessions and were waiting with others for the spaceship would increase their belief in her mystical abilities. In fact, they would now do everything they could to get others to join them.

Festinger's prediction proved accurate. It is my impression that the bigger a mistake that we make, the more passionately will we seek to justify it.


larry said...

Wow . . . what a sad story on the one hand, and yet scary in some way in its depiction of willful self- delusion to avoid personal embarrassment or shame. I've got to reflect on this story a little more - thanks for sharing it.

bob said...

I think time plays an element in this equation as well. The longer you hold a belief or put off something you know you should do the harder it becomes to take that step.

Anonymous said...

There could be a sequel, Everybody has suffered enough: Why I shouldn't be punished.

There was a study that found when there's evidence for and against two sides, people on each side believe more intensely that they're right. And then there's the Great Disappointment, which you probably studied.

John said...

Yes, I've read about the Great Disappointment.

The wise cult leader is aware of this phenomenon and preserves his power by encouraging believers to sacrifice everything. They will then be less inclined to leave when the prophecy fails.

Ed said...

I had looked at this book a while ago and decided not to read it because it is written from a political view I disagree with and (according to what I could tell without reading the book) chooses examples that make it look like only conservatives are guilty of cognitive dissonance.

The last chapter apparently contains some 'social prescriptions' to reduce the ill effects of cognitive dissonance. I'll be curious to see what you think of these when you reach them.

Please keep us posted.