Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Walking Back Up the Pyramid

I have just finished reading Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, just in time to be able to link to Greta Christina's very nice summary and review of it (continued here), thus sparing me the trouble. Also, one of the book's authors, Carol Tavris, recently discussed the book on a Point of Inquiry podcast.

I agree with Greta C. that this is an excellent book, one well worth reading by anyone interested in how we humans decide, judge, and justify the things we think, say, and do, and I say that as someone who rarely makes it past the first seven or eight paragraphs of any book in the pop-psychology vein.

There is a good deal of heft and rigor behind the accessible prose and interesting anecdotes, but while the book's crowd-pleasing hook may be its direct relevance to a famously mulish White House occupant, its expositions of self-serving thought patterns gave me more than a few shocks of recognition.

I am a sucker for metaphors, and I really appreciate the authors' central metaphor, that of a pyramid: picture yourself and others facing a difficult choice as sitting on the apex of a pyramid, such that either side of the choice appears equally valid to all concerned. You all see good reasons to go one way, and good reasons to go the other. As you decide, it sends you down one side of the pyramid, and sends those choosing the other way down the opposite side of the pyramid. The further you travel the path down "your" side of the pyramid, the harder your mind works to develop and intensify rationalizations for having chosen that way, and thus you slide ever downward. Meanwhile, those who chose the other way have engaged in the same process of self-justification, and have also slid further down, so what began with everyone together, facing a difficult problem and seeing merits for alternate answers, ends with people far apart, separated by rationalizations, no longer able or willing to see the validity of the other choice. Now at the bottom of your side of the pyramid, to see the validity of the other side threatens the validity of your own side because of the sheer distance between them -- that distance measured in rationalizations and self-justifications, many or most of which will be bound to one's deepest and most cherished self-conceptions ('I am a good and smart person, I must have made the right choice.')

At bottom, the book is about dissonance, the incredible and expansive array of mind tricks by which we avoid it, and the harm this causes.

The challenge is how to walk back up that pyramid, and the authors offer no easy ways to do this because no easy ways are available: the evasions of dissonance are deeply entrenched in human psychology.

One starting point is to understand how these mental tricks work. That alone won't stop them, but it's a start.

Another good starting point is to work to reshape one's self-conceptions to allow for mistakes -- know that good, caring, well-meaning, and smart people simply make mistakes, that mistakes can be a great way to learn, and that mistakes don't have to define us. Of course, this is a lot easier said than done.

By distilling these little lessons, I have not done the book or the topic justice, so I leave it here with a strong recommendation to read the book. I can guarantee you'll learn something important about yourself -- without that guarantee I will be forced to believe I've wasted my time reading it and blogging about it, and I can't have that.

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