Mistakes Were Made – But Not By Me! – Book Review

Mistakes Were Made – But Not By Me! Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Publisher: Pinter Martin Ltd. Date: 2015 (Third Edition).

A psycho-social analytical analysis of processes by which human beings deceive themselves.

Why do people dodge responsibility when things fall apart? Why the parade of public figures unable to own up when they make mistakes? Why the endless marital quarrels over who is right? Why can we see hypocrisy in others but not in ourselves? Are we all liars? Or do we really believe the stories we tell? Renowned social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson take a compelling look into how the brain is wired for self-justification. When we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right – a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong. Backed by years of research and delivered in lively, energetic prose, “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)” offers a fascinating explanation of self-deception – how it works, the harm it can cause, and how we can overcome it.


“Thanks, in part, to the scientific evidence it provides and the charm of its down-to-earth, commonsensical tone, Mistakes Were Made is convincing. Reading it, we recognize the behavior of our leaders, our loved ones, and—if we’re honest—ourselves, and some of the more perplexing mysteries of human nature begin to seem a little clearer.” (Francine Prose, O, The Oprah Magazine)
“By turns entertaining, illuminating and—when you recognize yourself in the stories it tells—mortifying.” (The Wall Street Journal)
Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson have made a genuinely illuminating contribution to the study of human nature, one positively brimming with intelligence and insight. It is rare, in the twenty-first century, to be presented with a complete framework of explanation built around so simple an idea. To describe it as a book of a single idea would not be an exaggeration, but it would not be a criticism either: it is a pleasure, for once, to be invited to consider such a bold and confident offering, and a concept able to sustain such explanatory weight. (Daniele Procida, Metapsychology Online Reviews)


No-one is a monster in their own view, yet people do monstrous things. At a less extreme level, people do petty and mean things too. Why?

The thesis of this book is that we rewrite our memories to overcome cognitive dissonance. How can we have done a bad thing, if we are good people? So we re-remember what we did to cast it in a better light, often by blaming the victim of our bad deed. This makes the deed less bad, because the recipient was not an innocent victim, but fully deserving of their treatment. And this leads to a potential vicious cycle: the more we mistreat someone or some group, the worse they must be, and hence the more we are justified in mistreating them.

This rather simple, and rather horrifying, idea is backed up with many examples and case studies: initiation ceremonies (I put myself through that pain, so it must be worth it), venting anger (anger is bad, so I must be justified in venting it, so you must be bad), false memory syndrome therapists and miscarriages of justice (if I was wrong, I have destroyed these people’s lives, so I must be right), bitter divorces (this person must be deserving of the terrible way I am treating them), killing civilians in war (killing innocent civilians is terrible, so they can’t have been innocent), historical feuds (I’m hurting you, because you hurt me, because I hurt you earlier, because … back into the mists of time) and more.

There is a two step solution to the problem. The first is recognising it is happening, which is hard, because of the way our brains work to protect us from the pain of cognitive dissonance, but can be helped by studying all the many examples. The second it doing something to prevent the escalation, which is even harder, as it involves owning up to what we have done, facing up to the fact that we might not be the hero of the story, and figuring out a way to move forward. The book includes examples and case studies here, too, showing that it is indeed possible to overcome the potential damage.

Fascinating and uncomfortable reading: a must for anyone who wonders how good people can do bad things.

Amazon Reviewer


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