Monthly Archives: August 2013

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), part 2

File:Mistakes were made cover image.jpgLast time I told you a little about the book Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, a fascinating and easy-to- read book about the clever ways we all justify “foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts.”

Here is a very useful illustration of what they’re talking about. On p. 32 they ask you to imagine two students who are tempted to cheat on a crucial test. Both have moderate attitudes toward cheating and are otherwise similar. One cheats and one doesn’t. One sacrifices a good grade; the other sacrifices integrity. “Their decisions are a hair’s breadth apart; it could easily have gone the other way for each of them.”

How will they feel about cheating a week later? The authors predict that the cheater will minimize its seriousness, while the one who resisted temptation will now hold a harsher, more punitive attitude toward cheating.

Here’s where it gets interesting: Continue reading

Mistakes were made (but not by me)

File:Mistakes were made cover image.jpgLast time I promised to write about Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (2007). I know people say this sort of thing a lot when they’re enthused about a book, but if I could make it required reading… you would all be very unhappy with me (but only until you read the book).

Though the book mostly isn’t about politics, the title come from a phrase we’ve all heard time and again from political leaders whenever they’re backed into a corner and have to admit that things have gone badly wrong. They trot out the passive voice: mistakes were made. Made by whom? They don’t say. They’ll do anything to evade responsibility and justify their own behavior.

But it isn’t just politicians. This book’s thesis, stated on p. 2, is that “Most people, when directly confronted with proof that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action but justify it even more tenaciously.” Continue reading

Why is it so hard to admit when we’re wrong?

“We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

–George Orwell (1946)

“A great nation is like a great man:

When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.

Having realized it, he admits it.

Having admitted it, he corrects it.

He considers those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers.”

–Lao Tzu Continue reading

How much are audiences influenced by reputation?

How much does an author’s or artist’s identity influence our perceptions of quality? By now you’ve probably heard that Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling quietly published a detective novel under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The book received good reviews but sold poorly until the author’s true identity was revealed. (Stephen King had a similar experience with his Richard Bachman pseudonym some years ago.)

In commenting on the above, the biologist Jerry Coyne raises an interesting question on his blog:

So here’s a conundrum for you, one that I’ve asked some of my artistic friends.  Imagine that Beethoven had never written his Fifth Symphony. But then, a few years ago, someone finds the score of that piece in a stack of old papers—written by someone other than Beethoven, say, one Gustav Biederstücker.  What would happen? Continue reading

“Time” – epic, minimalist storytelling through a time-lapse webcomic

Panel from “Time” by Randall Munroe

I just finished watching something strange and brilliant. Readers of Randall Munroe’s xkcd webcomic have been following this since March. If you’re more familiar with this than I am, tell me, has this sort of thing been done before? Or has Munroe invented a new genre of storytelling? But if this is as new to you as it is to me, here’s what I’m talking about:

When xkcd creator Randall Munroe first posted a new installment of his webcomic titled “Time” on March 25, it looked deceptively simple: a picture of two black and white stick figures, a man and a woman, sitting wordlessly on the ground. There was no story, no punchline, no words. 30 minutes later, the image changed; the figures shifted slightly. And they continued to change every half-hour for the next week–and every hour for months after that–slowly coalescing into a story as the two characters discovered disturbing changes in the landscape around them, and set out on an epic, time-lapsed journey to discover the truth about what was happening to their world. (From Wired)

The story is now complete and I just watched it as a 40-minute video… not intending to watch the whole thing, but merely checking it out after a friend emailed me (thanks, Brad!). It starts out quietly and simply, like an old-fashioned children’s book, back when stories were told at a slower pace. But there was something intriguing about it, and the story got bigger and bigger as it began to build toward its climax. Continue reading