Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Making Mistakes

I've been reading a lot lately, and one of the interesting books I've worked my way through is Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson.

As the subtitle indicates, Tavris & Aronson examine "why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts" in the personal, political, legal and military realms.

In a nutshell, we do so because of the rather destructive combination of two psychological factors: cognitive dissonance and self-justification.  As Tavris & Aronson argue, "cognitive dissonance" is the "state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent" (11).

To resolve or reduce cognitive dissonance, individuals will engage in acts of self-justification--some small-scale, some large.  We've probably all heard a two-pack-a-day smoker tell us that of course smoking is bad, but a cigarette or two (or twenty) is relaxing (all scientific information about the effects of nicotine to the contrary).

Or, I can blissfully sit here eating a pack of Double-Stuff Oreos and assure you that I'm a staunch advocate of healthy eating because I'm washing them down with a cup of green tea.

Tavris & Aronson look at a wide variety of examples of individuals--doctors, lawyers and politicians, of course, but also plain old wives and husbands--who end up engaging in morally and ethically despicable acts that we simply cannot comprehend, all the while insisting that they are not, in fact, doing anything "really" wrong.

Because we see them at the end of the road, we can only wonder how they got there without realizing what they were doing.  It seems so obvious to us that they were headed in the wrong direction--so why didn't they turn back or stop?

As Tavris & Aronson point out, the slippery slope isn't all that slippery, if you don't take big steps.  While it's true that some people just dive right into a life of morally reprehensible activities, most of us don't.  We fudge a little here, crimp a little there... a white lie, ever so tiny, never really hurt anyone after all...

And we have blind spots.  I have met one person--only one--in my entire life who told me flat out, "I'm homophobic.  I wish I weren't, but I am.  I don't know how not to be, but I'd like to learn."  I told him that the fact that he acknowledged it and even considered it a problem was half the battle, really.

Because, in essence, it is.

Most people who say or do racist things will insist that they are NOT racist.  They are, of course, but they don't want to think of themselves as such.  This is cognitive dissonance: they realize that, if they're racist, it means they're also unjust, unkind and irrational.  They judge people on the basis of surface characteristics.  They cannot look past the surface and see the innate and unique value of a particular individual, irrespective of race or ethnicity.

Almost nobody will ever want to admit this about themselves, so people justify their ideas and actions, usually with the help of some hard-wired confirmation bias and a hearty dose of self-justification.  They tell themselves that of course they're not racist, it's just that, as anyone can see, all of "those people" are gun-toting gang members.

There are some long-term remedies for this tendency to self-justify.  One is self-awareness and a willingness to admit when one has--or even may have--made a mistake.

This is tough to do, even on a good day and even with small mistakes.  As Tavris & Aronson note, however, it has become increasingly difficult in a culture like that of the contemporary U.S., where admissions of error are seen as a sign of weakness.

As they point out, this is not the perception in other cultures, where mistakes are seen as an integral part of the learning process.

And it was not the perception in earlier phases of U.S. history, either.

We have a tendency to resort to the passive formulation-- "mistakes were made"--because, as Tavris & Aronson argue, this formulation implies that we ourselves are in no way to blame.  Here is George W. Bush in October of 2004, on the subject of the ongoing war in Iraq:
"It was the right decision...  Now, you asked what mistakes.  I made some mistakes in appointing people, but I'm not going to name them.  I don't want to hurt their feelings on national TV." (235)
Tavris & Aronson contrast this with a speech Eisenhower drafted in 1944, to be delivered in the event that the invasion of Normandy had failed:
"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and the troops have been withdrawn.  My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available.  The troops, the Air [Force] and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do.  If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone." (236)
Eisenhower made only one revision to this brief statement: he changed "the troops have been withdrawn" to "and I have withdrawn the troops" (236).

Luckily, he never had to deliver this speech at all.  But if he had, how much more it would have meant to see a frank acknowledgement of human error and ethical responsibility.

No one is right all of the time; the future is always uncertain.  And sometimes, we goof up.  Royally.

Ultimately, this is what Aronson & Tavris stress, that our current culture of deferred or denied responsibility satisfies no one and only ensures that more mistakes will be made and that we will all continue to make them.

We assume that, in a litigious environment, a frank admission of human error is bound to get us in further hot water.  And yes, that is sometimes true.  But at the same time, many--if not most--people are more inclined to forgive someone who openly admits, "I screwed up.  Really.  I'm sorry."

Provided they mean it, of course, and provided there is no contingent self-justification attached.  And provided they don't go out and do it again.

We all do dumb things.  It's hard to admit it, but when you think about it, why should it be? Obviously, we all make mistakes from time to time, and sometimes they're really big and really embarrassing.

I once taught the wrong material to my class.  I assumed I remembered what the assignment was, and I went to class and taught my little heart out.  I even did the wrong reading the night before, all 80 pages of it.

And it took me two hours to come up with all of the wrong questions for class discussion.

During the class, I wondered why no one was answering my questions.  At one point, one of the students said, "Well, I don't know about that specific passage, but I know that in the reading I did for today, it said...".

I thought it was odd she said this, but I just chalked it up to her being honest about not completing the entire assignment herself.

Imagine my chagrin when I got home and realized I had taught one section of Ben Franklin's Autobiography, after assigning a very different section.

I could have ignored it, but I told the class the next time we met that I had, quite frankly, screwed up. Big time.

Imagine how embarrassing it was when I did it again two weeks later.

The second time, I didn't teach the material, I simply commented at the end of class that we'd spend the next class on section Y of the reading, when in fact I had assigned section Z.  Luckily, I caught it in time, but it meant that I had to eat crow.  Again.  And in the same class.

Ultimately, I reassured the class of two things: that the final exam would cover the materials listed on the actual syllabus, and not the ones on the imaginary syllabus in my head, and that I had posted a copy of this actual syllabus on the bulletin board above my desk so I could check it regularly from that point on--definitely before I opened my professorial mouth.

It was quite embarrassing, obviously, and certainly didn't do much to shore up anyone's perception of my intellectual authority.  I dreaded the final course evaluations, expecting to read things like, "This woman doesn't even know what she's doing from one class to the next," and "I was horribly confused all semester long and my GPA suffered and it's all her stupid fault," and the like.

No one even mentioned it.

So I decided from that point on that it was actually quite healthy to own up to doing dumb things from time to time, and I'm glad to see that Tavris & Aronson would agree with me.   

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."