!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: "Mistakes were made"

Thursday, October 25, 2007

"Mistakes were made"

Earlier this year social psychologist Carol Tavris and emeritus psychology professor Elliot Aronson (University of California – Santa Cruz) published a book examining the question of why the passive voice is so popular when people acknowledge mistakes.

In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, Tavris and Aronson argue that trying to avoid responsibility for mistakes is not simply a matter of avoiding punishment.
What's interesting to us in our book is something that we think is far more insidious and far more dangerous and that's lying to ourselves. That's not "I made a mistake and I don't want to admit it," it's "I don't even see that I did make a mistake. I don't see that I made a mistake because I'm gonna justify what I did and, as soon as I make a decision and it may turn out to be the wrong one, I blind myself to information that might suggest I did the wrong thing." (from www.onpointradio.org)
As Tavris and Aronson view the situation, cognitive dissonance — e.g., the notion that there has been a mistake, existing alongside the notion that "I'm not the sort of person who makes such mistakes" — creates tension that a person relieves by rejecting evidence that she was indeed the one responsible for the error.

We've all witnessed people engaged in misguided self-justification. We've probably all engaged in such behavior ourselves — actively assuring ourselves that a belief we're clinging to is correct despite the existence of what an objective observer would recognize as disconfirming evidence.

How to minimize this problem of self-deception? Aronson advocates "vigilance" in looking for disconfirming evidence. Tavris says:
Understanding how dissonance works is critical for us as teachers—and learners—for two reasons: First, it explains why, faced with scientific information that disconfirms their important beliefs, most people will tell you to get lost and take your data with you. ...

Second, understanding dissonance helps us discuss findings in better, more persuasive ways — without making the other person feel stupid for believing something now shown to be false: "How could you possibly believe that!" or "Look, isn't it interesting that your lifelong theory of child development is wrong?" We can try to present science not in a negative, debunking way but in a positive way — to show what is fun, exciting and creative even about disconfirming research. Scientists understand that there is nothing inherently dissonant about disconfirming results; they may not welcome such findings, but they see them (or should!) as important information that moves us a little further along the path of knowledge. (from www.americanscientist.org)
In summing up, Tavris asks, "How can we understand what we did wrong, and not just make a superficial apology, but learn in some deep way from the harm that we caused, so that we don't make the same mistake again? That's the goal. That's the reason we wrote this book."


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