It can be startling and unsettling to confront how bad humans are at describing reality with any objective accuracy. Because of the way our brains work, how perceptions are distorted, the ambiguity of language, we seem forever destined to never really know this world we are living in. What are we to do?
One answer is to accept that there is no one objective truth so stop searching for it. Instead, we can put our efforts into understanding ourselves a little better, allowing for navigation between the many truths that exist for people, to achieve success.
In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson explore the role of self-justification in our creation of reality. We make assertions about the world as if they are facts while being completely blind to the subjectivity inherent in knowing anything. Essentially we create a narrative about the world that reflects our beliefs about the kind of person we are and assign to this narrative a ‘truth’ which does not, in fact, exist.
What is self-justification?
It is not the same thing as lying or making excuses. … [It] is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done. In fact, come to think of it, it was the right thing.
Self-justification is a portrayal of the brain that, despite its stated goals or desires, is not interested in truth, but rather self-preservation. Admitting you were wrong may save relationships and lives, it may prevent distress and war, but it will also force you to admit that the narrative you have constructed about yourself is wrong. And depending on how committed you are to that narrative, you may be unable to even see that you made a mistake, let alone confront it.
Self-justification has costs and benefits. By itself, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It lets us sleep at night. Without it, we would prolong the awful pangs of embarrassment. We would torture ourselves with regret over the road not taken or over how badly we navigated the road we did take. … Yet mindless self-justification, like quicksand, can draw us deeper into disaster. It blocks our ability to even see our errors, let alone correct them. It distorts reality, keeping us from getting all the information we need and assessing issues clearly. It prolongs and widens rifts between lovers, friends, and nations. It keeps us from letting go of unhealthy habits. It permits the guilty to avoid taking responsibility for their deeds. And it keeps many professionals from changing outdated attitudes and procedures that can harm the public.
The book contains many unsettling examples from politics and law enforcement. Research based stories of officials who refused to admit their mistakes even when confronted with irrefutable evidence they were wrong. The more invested you are in a situation, the more extensive your narrative, the more likely that narrative has become intertwined with your self-worth and self-esteem, and therefore the harder to rewrite it in light of your errors.
Perhaps the most startling examples of the descent into irreversible self-justification is the research conducted on what the authors call ‘the closed loop of clinical judgment’. They discuss the total lack of evidence to support the theory that traumatic events are suppressed by the brain and contrast this with the amount of clinical practitioners who will enter into therapeutic relationships with the pre-supposition that the client’s current troubles are being caused by traumatic events that they don’t remember.
It becomes a no-win situation for the person seeking therapy – either they spontaneously remember past trauma (which, actually, is the one thing they were not likely to forget in the first place) or they say that they have no memory of being traumatized (in which case the therapist assumes the memories are still being repressed). Either outcome reinforces the self-justified narrative that the therapist has created.
As evidence accumulated on the fallibility of memory and the many confabulations of recovered-memory cases the promoters of this notion did not admit error; they simply changed their view of the mechanism by which traumatic memories are allegedly lost. It’s not repression at work anymore, but dissociation; the mind somehow splits off the traumatic memory and banishes it to the suburbs. This shift allowed them to keep testifying, without batting an eye or ruffling a feather, as scientific experts in cases of recovered memories.
This speaks to investment in the narrative. This is not about admitting that yelling at your spouse about forgetting to buy ice cream was a mistaken over-reaction. In the case of these practitioners, this is their career. It is also the many lives they may have destroyed by unintentionally encouraging false memories of trauma. It would not be easy for any of us to admit mistakes when the consequences of those mistakes are so devastating.
How can we remember things that didn’t happen? Because self-justification has an effect on our memories.
Between the conscious lie to fool others and unconscious self-justification to fool ourselves, there’s a fascinating gray area patrolled by an unreliable, self-serving historian – memory. Memories are often pruned and shaped with an ego-enhancing bias that blurs the edges of past events, softens culpability, and distorts what really happened.
We remember our past in a way that confirms what we believe of ourselves in the present.
When we do misremember, our mistakes aren’t random. The everyday, dissonance-reducing distortions of memory help us make sense of the world and our place in it, protecting our decisions and beliefs. The distortion is even more powerful when it is motivated by the need to keep our self-concept consistent.
The authors present many fascinating examples of totally fabricated ‘memories’. Not ones that are intentional, but situations in which the memories were believed to be genuine and turned out to be false. In all cases the memories had been unconsciously altered or created to support a self-justifying narrative. For example, believing you are an independent free-spirit, you remember your actions as always having been so, or conversely you remember the past as more awful than it was in order to support your narrative of strength and change.
If a memory is a central part of your identity, a self-serving distortion is even more likely.” How many of us have come across our old journals or diaries, and felt like they were reading the life story of someone else? We will frequently look at the entries and say ‘wow, I don’t remember being like this at all’.
Okay, so our memories are unreliable. Hardly a surprise. For the millions of people who frantically search for their car keys every morning, it will not be shocking that your fourth year birthday cake wasn’t the bad-ass Batman you remember, but a cute puppy with giant eyes. So why worry about memory?
The self-justifying mechanisms of memory would be just another charming and often exasperating aspect of human nature were it not for the fact that we live our lives, make decisions about people, form guiding philosophies, and construct entire narratives on the basis of memories that are often dead wrong.
When we use our memories to strengthen our narratives, it causes huge dissonance when those memories are revealed to be false. It often requires a rewriting of the entire narrative. This is incredibly hard for humans, provoking what can be thought of as an existential crisis. If I am who I am because of my experiences, what happens when those experiences cease to exist? Do I, in a sense, cease to exist as well?
In order to be able to admit mistakes, to correct the spiraling self-justification that can have devastating consequences for ourselves and others, we need to accept that “something we did can be separated from who we are, and who we want to be. Our past selves need not be a blueprint for our future selves. The road to redemption starts with the understanding that who we are includes what we have done but also transcends it, and the vehicle for transcending it is self-compassion.”
This clears the path. It allows us to let go of the past and focus on building the future. More of this would result in an inevitable boon to society.
What is needed is a deep understanding not only of what went wrong then but also of what is going wrong right now, the better to prepare for what could go wrong with current decisions.
The authors argue that is a problem, particularly endemic to North America, that we associate mistakes with failure. We need to shift the thinking, to see mistakes as part of the learning process, necessary steps on the road to making things better.
The amazing thing is, most of us find it refreshing and positive when people admit mistakes. We long to hear our politicians or intellectual leaders or even our relatives say ‘yeah, I messed up. No excuses, I own it, and now I want to fix it’. Hearing this frees us and allows us to do the same.
So try it out. Right now. Think about a mistake you’ve made recently. We all have; with our kids, our partners, our colleagues. Pick one. Think about the narrative you told yourself in the aftermath. Now kick that narrative to the curb and leave it there. You don’t need it anymore. Then find a mirror. Admit to yourself you made a mistake.
Last step. Go find the person you hurt and own up to your mistake. I know this sounds scary, but the more we do this the more authentic and rewarding our relationships will be.