Mistakes where made

So I’m currently reading a book called Mistakes where made, but not by me, which discusses the various defense mechanisms we have against our own bullshit. The main subjects so far have been cognitive dissonance, that uncomfortable feeling you get when you believe two mutually exclusive things at the same time, and confirmation bias, which is our tendency to only remember what fits our conceptions.

Basically, so far, the book explains that cognitive dissonance is a very uncomfortable state for a brain to be in and we do everything we can to make that feeling go away. We’re not even truly aware that we’re doing this most of the time. We end up justifying our actions and choices that conflict with our perceptions of ourselves so that we can continue believing we are who we think we are. For example, you may consider yourself an honest person and yet you might “fiddle” your taxes a bit. Being dishonest on a tax form doesn’t coincide with being an honest person, so we find ways to justify it. “Everyone does it, it’s part of the game,” etc…

Confirmation bias is of course one of those things that we use to defend ourselves against cognitive dissonance. By selectively remembering those things that confirm our conceptions, and forgetting those things that do not, we are able to continue believing that our conceptions are true. For example, back to the honesty thing, if you believe you’re an honest person you are more likely to remember those times you where honest at your own expense rather than the times you where dishonest for your own advantage.

Of course, nobody likes to think they are guilty of any of these things. As such, any time you can be proven wrong about this conception of yourself you’ll be naturally inclined to unconsciously do these very things and completely hide the fact that you actually DO justify actions and choices that aren’t in line with your self image and that you actually DO have a very selective memory. In other words, you do these things and don’t know it because you don’t think you do these things.

More interestingly, these things can actually govern who you are more than your image of yourself does. When we make choices, especially the difficult ones, we spend the rest of our lives justifying those choices to ourselves such that we actually believe that these post-hoc justifications where what we believed all along. This means that a lot of your ideas about morality and ethics come not from true reflection but from the self-justifications of choices you’ve made in the past.

The author uses the example of two people taking a test, both of which are going to take a severe hit in score if they can’t answer a question which they’re struggling with. Both have a chance to cheat. Both are tempted to the same degree but one happens to chose at the last minute not to cheat and the other decides the opposite. After this event, the one that chose to cheat is likely to see cheating as a normal activity while the person who did not cheat, and suffered for it, is likely to become very against cheating.

The author also gives us a new way to look at Milgram’s experiment–the one where the subject was ordered to give increasingly greater shocks to someone ranging from the barely felt to the dangerous or deadly. Most people who talk about this experiment focus on its implications to our tendency to obey authority figures. This book explains how someone can be led, using increasing self-justification and small steps, from a seemingly benign choice to the choice to do something really quite awful without even feeling bad about it.

All one has to do is get you to make a small step in a certain direction, wait for you to justify that choice to yourself, and talk you into the next step, where you’ll do the same. If asked to hook someone up to 500 volts and flip the switch outright, hardly anyone would do it. If, on the other hand, I ask you to hook someone up to 10 volts, and give you a semi-reasonable sounding reason…you might do it and then I can get you to add another 10…and another 10…and further until 75% of the participants delivered what they thought where deadly levels of electric shock to an innocent person.

This, to me, is a rather frightening set of things to consider. Nearly everything we think we are could be nothing more than a continued, lifetime effort of self-justification. Right down to our beliefs of right or wrong could be nothing greater than pot meet kettle. One thing this author clearly hammers home, and he has some good arguments, is that the closer people are before the choice, the further they grow apart after. Like a pyramid (author’s own words) we start at a single point and then begin sloping away as we continue to justify our own choice of not going the same way the other did. The more anti you are of something, perhaps the more inclined you where to do it one day; maybe even the more inclined you are to still do it.

We of course see this in others and say, “Well obviously! I see hypocrites all the time! Just look at all the anti-gay fundamentalists that where caught with their pants down and someone’s penis in their mouth!” The thesis of this book though is that we also are hypocrites. If we where not there’d be no way we could sleep at night.


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