Saturday, October 03, 2009

Mistakes were made (but not when my dad had people tortured)

One of the books that I believe every skeptic should consider adding to their bookshelf is Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson.

I actually wrote a review of it about a year or so ago, but I left the review unsaved on my computer while I went out for a bit and when I had come back the computer had decided to download some updates and restart, thus eating my review. I never had the heart to rewrite it.

In the book, Tavris and Aronson (both psychologists) examine how the concept of cognitive dissonance can be used to explain the process of self-justification. As Tavris puts it on her website

At some point we all make a bad decision, do something that harms another person, or cling to an outdated belief. When we do, we strive to reduce the cognitive dissonance that results from feeling that we, who are smart, moral, and right, just did something that was dumb, immoral, or wrong.

Whether the consequences are trivial or tragic, it is difficult, and for some people impossible, to say, “I made a terrible mistake.” The higher the stakes—emotional, financial, moral—the greater that difficulty. Self-justification, the hardwired mechanism that blinds us to the possibility that we were wrong, has benefits: It lets us sleep at night and keeps us from torturing ourselves with regrets. But it can also block our ability to see our faults and errors. It legitimizes prejudice and corruption, distorts memory, and generates anger and rifts. It can keep prosecutors from admitting they put an innocent person in prison and from correcting that injustice, and it can keep politicians unable to change disastrous policies that cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives. In our private lives, it can be the death of love.
One of the metaphors that the authors employ in the book is the "pyramid of self-justification." I'll let Tavris explain that, too.

Could you could talk about the pyramid as a metaphor for cognitive dissonance and how you came to it?

I said to Elliot the other day, "Which of us came up with the metaphor of the pyramid?" Because, of course, in my self-justifying way, I thought I had. But he gently corrected my memory and told me that no, on the contrary, the pyramid is a metaphor he's been using for years, to show how self-justification can move people in a direction they might never have imagined going.

It works like this: Consider two students who have the same attitude about cheating. They don't think it's a terrible thing, but they know it's not a good or honorable thing either. Suppose that they now have to take a test—say, one that's going to determine whether they get into graduate school. They freeze on a crucial essay question, and suddenly the student in front of them, the one who has the most beautiful and legible handwriting on the planet, makes some answers visible.

Each of them makes an impulsive decision: One cheats to get a good grade; the other resists cheating to preserve his or her integrity. Now they will justify the choice they made. The student who cheated will minimize the seriousness of cheating and thereby become more vulnerable to cheating again. The one who resisted cheating will become even more adamant that cheating is unethical and wrong. Over time, through the process of self-justification, these two students will move further and further away from each other in their beliefs about cheating. It is as if they had started out at the top of a pyramid, close in their beliefs, but, having taking a step down in different directions, by the time they reach the bottom they are far apart. Moreover, they will come to believe that they always felt that way about cheating. Elliot developed the metaphor of the pyramid from an early experiment that Judson Mills did with children, which got precisely these results. The kids who cheated justified their behavior, and so did the ones who resisted.

That is what self-justification does: It sets us off on a course of action that moves us further and further from the original choice point and then begins to blind us to the possibility that we were wrong. The danger is not so much in the first step we take off the pyramid, but in how far we have come from our original beliefs or intentions by the time we are at the bottom.
Keeping all of the above in mind, via Disptaches from the Culture Wars, Andrew Sullivan has written a very insightful post about why Liz Cheney seems to love torture so much.

The psychological underpinnings of Liz Cheney's absurd proposition that, for example, "waterboarding isn't torture" - a phrase that trips off her tongue as if it were a consensus, rather than an extreme outlier - are pretty obvious. Her father is a war criminal, a man whose incompetence is only matched by his paranoia. Since it is understandably, forgivably hard for her to accept that a person she loves and reveres is actually a torturer, she has to double down on the proposition that it's obvious he isn't a torturer, axiomatic that every torture session gave us actionable intelligence in ways ethical interrogation never could, indisputable that every single threat is a ticking time bomb mandating the use of any means to extract intelligence from any handy victim. Even to have a debate on this is mind-blowing for someone who still thinks of herself as someone who supports human rights, and of her father as a moral man.

There is, moreover, virtue in all this. It is something to be proud of. Because it is only by embracing positive pride in torture that she can keep the nightmare of reality at bay.
Sullivan's post is itself a response to this post noting that torture has become a values issue, a matter of civic pride, not just for the Cheney family but for the Republican party, too.

How the party in general traveled down the pyramid, I suspect, has something to do with the psychology/sociology of authoritarianism.

For more about Mistakes Were Made:
- Eliot Aronson speaks with Talk of the Nation (link features an excerpt of the book.)
- Carol Tavris on Point of Inquiry
- Roger Miller's review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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