books notes social wellness

Mistakes Were Made, Tavris, Aronson, 3rd ed. (2020)

Study notes for a favorite read this year, a book on cognitive dissonance theory (the rest of the title: But Not By Me) – something all of us will recognize once explained; applications to past and recent history (mostly omitted below); and more rewarding strategies. We live in a world that often seems chaotic and unordered, particularly when it comes to living and dealing with others; an insight like this helps us see order in the chaos, makes it appear less random, and empowers us to contemplate change.

Cognitive Dissonance

There are two kinds of lies, one conscious, where the liar sees the lie for what it is, a deliberate distortion of truth; and the other, made noble through self-justification, so that the lie ceases to become one. The second kind is the result of cognitive dissonance: when someone holds two contradictory views – usually a self-concept, such as “I am a sensible, competent person”, vs a piece of new information, such as “I just spent a lot of time on something worthless and silly”. Because it hurts so much to change our view of ourselves, we resort to ego-preservation, and change the other view instead, and suddenly, the worthless and silly thing rises in our estimation – we justify it by distorting it in some way – actually, it was meaningful to me and I’m glad I did it. Dissonance theory predicts that we ask ourselves: is the new information consonant with my belief?


The more irrevocable / undoable / final a decision or action is, the more a person will be invested in it; think of sunk cost, and confirmation bias. This explains why aggression begets more aggression; a vicious cycle of self-justification. Self-esteem issues can also be explained thus by dissonance theory – people need to self-justify the esteem they hold themselves in, and distortion begets distortion.

Irrational or obstinate behavior isn’t caused overnight; years of self-justifications to reduce dissonance and ambivalence does.


Naive realism is a common form of dissonance – it says that because I am a reasonable and open-minded person, any opinion I hold must be reasonable; therefore, fair-minded people ought to agree with opinions, and people who disagree must be biased.

Our innate desire for gift-reciprocation explains the corrupting influence of even small gifts, all while we use self-justification to protect our own view of our professional integrity.

Personal blindspots, such as the privilege of your upbringing, allow us to see faults – such as hypocrisy – in everyone except ourselves.

Ethnocentrism, believing in the superiority of your culture / nation / religion – ie. tribe, is a basic survival trait, but also divides the world into us and them, in and out, and encourages stereotyping. Dissonance causes us to cling to and defend these prejudices.

We also rewrite our own personal history – memories – to self-justify and reduce dissonance, but do so unwittingly or unconsciously. Sadly, our own memories are themselves prone to our biases: eg. confabulation, assigning an event to the wrong person, believing something that could not have happened, etc.

In couples that are unhappy, each protects their idea of who they are; I’m right and you’re wrong – even if I’m wrong, too bad, because that’s just the way I am. Eventually, this becomes: I’m the right kind of person and you’re the wrong kind of person. They develop an implicit (unaware of holding) theory of the other person, categorizing them (eg. they are insecure, passive), and confirmation bias distorts their view of events.

Pain felt is always more intense than pain inflicted; my pain is greater than your pain, and this explains the actions and feelings of perpetrators and victims: perpetrators need to devalue their victims to reduce dissonance – in fact, the more helpless they are, the greater the dissonance and dehumanization, so that eventually, the victims “deserve” their treatment. In this way, self-justification escalates any exchange of pain.


Reducing dissonance helps protect our self esteem and confidence, an important survival mechanism, but it often comes at great cost. An alternative, more liberating approach, involves awareness of our biases and propensity to self-justify, taking the time for self-reflection, and accepting and apologizing for the wrongs we make. 

When wrongs have been perpetrated by someone we respect, the person still remains the person, and the mistake is still a mistake – we do not have to conflate the two.

Hold conclusions lightly, and be willing to change them when compelling information or data comes to light. Few things are set in stone, fixed and immutable, much less our identity and sense of who we are. Dissonance explains tribalism and cults, and the dangerous, blind and uncritical acceptance of dogma and demagogues, all of which happens not overnight, but step by step, self-justification by self-justification.

Lecturing someone is counter productive because it increases dissonance in the person, and they will naturally self-justify to reduce their dissonance. Instead, encourage, praise and support. Additionally, view your own personal mistakes as growth opportunities, instead of dissonance-causing personal failings.

For those who cannot or are unwilling to reduce their painful dissonance, understand that what we did can be separated from who we are, and who we want to be: our past need not be our future. Self-compassion is the self-reflective struggle to accept dissonance, applying the same compassion to ourselves we would extend to others.